Afronova | Johannesburg
On a cold winter’s night towards the end of the month in which South Africa commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the Soweto Uprising in June 1976, a musty crowd of artists pulled on their trench coats to venture down to the Market Theatre precinct. The air smelled of mothballs as the old comrade artists embraced. There was none of the triumphalism of the nation building tributes that flashed across our TV screens. Yet this was a commemoration too: a belated celebration of a piece of history that happened in the wings. Or as Afronova gallery and the French Institute of South Africa called it: “A Celebration of Life.” In the case of Bill Ainslie, it was a life lived through art.It was in 1976, the year in which Soweto erupted, that Ainslie set up the Johannesburg Art Foundation in its premises in Saxonwold. Looking back, the moment has its chiaroscuro qualities: an act of creative generosity in a year of great violence. He must have been about 42 at the time, young enough to give a damn and old enough to do something about it. Ainslie studied agriculture, then later fine art at the University of Pietermaritzburg. In 1960, he married Fieke and left the country to work at the Cyrene mission in Zimbabwe for two years. In the coolness of the post-colonial laboratory, missionaries get a bad rap, but there’s something to be said for the kind of energy they poured in. Ainslie had more than a bit of that. Perhaps his zeal was born of some faint cellular knowledge that his life was going to be a short one. The family lived in St Ives and Holland before returning to Johannesburg where he started teaching art privately, and from there the vision grew…In the shadow of the concrete angel, grand old leafy Saxonwold became the destination for many a hungry young artist craving a challenge. The Foundation offered courses in painting and sculpture regardless of race at a time when apartheid was at its most oppressive. Artists like Dumile Feni, William Kentridge, Sam Nhlengethwa, Pat Mautloa and David Koloane all cruised into Ainslie’s force field.”Anyone fortunate enough to find themselves connected with this school, especially during the 1970s and 80s, knew consciously or subliminally that they were at a ‘gathering place’ of a unique nature – and at a unique period in time,” writes David Trappler. “Something was happening there, that transcended (merely) the formal issues concerned with making art … Bill knew intuitively that making art was serious business, not only in an effort to please the eye, but as a vehicle for change: ‘It’s the artists’ job to remind people of that transcendent side which underlies or overlays human activity. The artists’ job is to provide the meanings by which man orders his life.'” Ainslie has been described as “a vigorous artist and a charismatic cultural activist”. Judging by everything that has made it’s way down the immortal grapevine over the years, he was also something of a mystic – something one got a sense of at Afronova in June. Michael Gardiner made a stirring speech, in which he praised “the kind of influence he brought to bear as a teacher – not an ‘instructor'”. He then asked the crucial question: “Are we showing museum pieces? Is the reverential tribute the context of the show? Are the works able to speak back to us now?” For Gardiner, the paintings and drawings on show “radiated a vivid contemporary beauty, while speaking of the time in which they were made”. I was moved by the vigour of Ainslie’s drawings, the energy of the cross hatching in his charcoal portraits, but the paintings seemed to be too much of an abstract blur, lacking the vital mystery of a Jackson Pollock. I reminded myself that at a time of intense political pressure abstraction offered artists a space into which to work freely and instinctually, without limits. So perhaps the key to Ainslie’s engine of a heart lies in the mushy painterly muddle of those abstracts – although I prefer the drawings, and the tangible infectious energy of the real. Ainslie never stayed in St Ives or Holland. He came back and chose to channel his mystic energies into the brutality of this place. Perhaps he was one of those souls, who just couldn’t leave the real behind. There are many South African artists and arts practitioners who’re still immensely thankful for that.