Writing Art History Since 2002

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Warren Siebrits | Johannesburg

Durant Sihlali, The backyard Kliptown, 2004, charcoal on paper, 56.2 x 78.5cmCourtesy of Warren Siebrits on behalf of the Durant Sihlali Museum CollectionWhile a large retrospective on the late Durant Sihlali is overdue and has yet to be initiated, this comprehensive exhibition, which presents artworks produced over the first two decades of Sihlali’s career offers valuable insight into his development as an artist. For those more familiar with his abstract and installation art that garnered attention in the latter half of his career, the watercolours, pastels and sketches on display will deepen respect of his talent if not reignite interest. Despite his lack of formal training, Sihlali was a master watercolorist. He was in command of this medium and even though watercolour has more or less fallen out of favour one can’t help but be seduced by Sihlali’s figurative paintings. However, if one looks beyond the charming veneer of Sihlali’s paintings, it becomes obvious that a barrier exists between subject and audience. Presented as blurred figures that effortlessly intermingle with their contexts, Sihlali makes it impossible for his viewers to forge a relationship with his subjects. Clearly, Sihlali is more interested in conjuring mood and establishing a sense of place. This observation concurs with assertions by Steven Sack and Warren Siebrits that Sihlali’s art during this era was motivated by a desire to record the shifting urban and rural destinations that were familiar to him and his community.Besides, watercolour does not lend itself to capturing the minutiae of reality. As a result, one is left with the impression that while Sihlali was documenting life; he wasn’t necessarily interested in the nitty-gritty. Rather his art is about conjuring the atmosphere that permeated existence and commonplace activities. Take his 1971 work The Backyard Kliptown. A man is killing time sitting in a barren concrete courtyard. A child is seated nearby and a woman is bending down to tend to another child. A blue shirt hangs from a bent washing line. A large basin leans against the wall. Although the paint on the wall is dirty and chipped in places, Sihlali creates an impression of a dilapidated abode without actually describing it. Similarly the features of the man and the children are indistinct. They are not only anonymous but one cannot read their state of mind, leaving one unable to connect with them. In other words Sihlali’s subjects are presented as dispassionately as the objects and edifices that surround them. That Sihlali painted on location and remained estranged from his subjects is a puzzling aspect to his work. Did Sihlali wish to grant his subjects the dignity not normally afforded to them by European artists? Or was he keen to portray people as passive bystanders? That Sihlali led a nomadic existence and viewed himself as a social documenter must have contributed to his position as an aloof outsider. It is more likely, however, that Sihlali was not interested in who his subjects were and their personal struggles but rather the way in which they have become so integrated with their environment. Certainly Sihlali’s artworks weren’t engineered to elicit a particular response; rather the visual charm of his imagery entices his audience to be drawn into the places he describes. The Backyard Kliptown is in stark contrast to the highly charged township scenes that Dumile Feni created less than a decade before this painting. Where Feni showed the conditions of suppression to be weighing heavily on its residents, contorting and distorting their physical features, Sihlali doesn’t reveal the impact of apartheid. That is not to say that Sihlali’s art does not have a political undertone. Rather, his renderings of township life are matter-of-fact; Sihlali’s anonymous subjects are simply going through the motions of life, sitting in their backyard, cooking, shopping in a market, carrying a dustbin or working in the mines. Unlike Feni’s subjects who are almost paralysed by frustration and anger, Sihlali’s subjects exude acceptance; one senses that they have had no choice but to capitulate to the powerful external forces that shape their daily lives. In this way Sihlali shows how suffering had become a normal way of life. Although his subjects’ anguish might not be perceivable to the naked eye, it is through their actions and settings that Sihlali articulates the indignities of poverty and inequality. Burning Refuse (1964) shows young children on the edge of an urban settlement burning rubbish. Other images show women collecting timber and men involved in mindless manual labour, lifting dustbins, or working on the mines. Sihlali doesn’t show work to be a self-fulfilling pursuit; it is presented as a banal activity that is no different to any other chore that his subjects undertake. Sihlali isn’t just detached from his subjects; they seem to be equally disconnected from each other. They are seldom seen conversing or even making eye contact even when in close proximity to each other, as depicted in Two Women (1967) and Untitled (Children Reading) (1967). So while Sihlali’s paintings initially appear ‘picturesque’ and ‘light’ they possess a dark undertone that presents township inhabitants as individuals without agency who are alienated from each other and themselves.Durant Sihlali: The Pioneering Years is an illuminating and emotive exhibit. It has been well curated by Siebrits who has produced a highly informative and well-researched catalogue to accompany the exhibit. Instead of presenting the paintings in a linear form, Siebrits has drawn attention to Sihlali’s thematic concerns. This allows visitors to concentrate on Sihlali’s subject matter rather than his technical development.

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