Writing Art History Since 2002

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In May 1960, the members of Polly Street Art Centre were seen as independent artists at an exhibition of Urban African Art organised by the Johannesburg Committee of the Union Festival.

Skotnes commented favourably on the work of John Hlatywayo and Sydney Kumalo in a review of the exhibition for Fontein. He specifically referred to Praying woman by Kumalo, which had been purchased for the Government Pavilion at the Rand Show in Milner Park.

There are two versions of Praying woman: a small bronze which is a cast of the plaster maquette and a larger bronze which was cast after the dimensions and proportions were adapted for the larger State Pavilion piece. Edoardo Villa remembers the frantic phone call he received from Kumalo and Skotnes after the enlarged figure had collapsed. Villa asked whether they used the necessary posts for the armature. They had forgotten these and had to start from scratch.

When the original piece was translated into a larger format, it lost the sensitivity of its detail and proportions. The head became a knob, the refined flower-like hands and feet translated into insensitive incisions. Permission was obtained to cast another bronze of this larger and coarser government-commissioned piece for the John Schlesinger Collection. This cast is now held by the University Galleries, University of the Witwatersrand.

In Fontein, Skotnes wrote about Praying woman: “To my mind this is one of the finest bronzes produced by any Transvaal artist in recent years. Kumalo has a remarkable sense of form — no matter how big the work, it has a sculpturally monumental feeling. He is a most intelligent and well-trained artist — the only African sculptor of professional standard in Johannesburg — and it is obvious that he has been influenced both by European and Central African artists. But he has not been inhibited by his influences — he has taken what he wants from them and discarded the rest. He has developed a highly personal style of work — and like many European artists, is attempting to find an individual expression of essentially African forms.”Skotnes’ view of the other sculptors, including Tosby Keipedele, was less favourable: “The work of the half dozen sculptors selected, apart from Kumalo, was curiously sterile: it showed an enfeebled ‘pottery’ tradition and an individuality which seemed strongly suppressed and in some cases even destroyed. In particular, the work of Tosby Keipedele showed very high technical accomplishment but was spoiled by a lingering, probably tribal, influence of pottery.”

Up to now, only one work, Head of an undertaker, by Keipedele has been located and Skotnes’ view thus remains questionable. Egon Guenther and Durant Sihlali remember Keipedele for his deftness and talent. Keipedele was Kumalo’s best friend and, for Sihlali, he was the better sculptor and influenced Kumalo. He also remembers him as an excellent painter. Keipedele’s temperament might be responsible for the scarcity of his work. Sihlali remembers that, unlike the other students who were protective of their finished pieces, Keipedele destroyed almost everything on completion. For him, the artwork was not as important as his ability to create it. Tosby Keipedele was a passionate doer, hence his nickname Machiga (Machine gun). In the 1980s, he moved to Botswana where he died. In November 1960, the Polly Street Art Centre held an Exhibition of non-European Paintings and Sculptures at Queens Hall Gallery, corner of Claim and Plein Streets. Although the members of the centre had shown previously on several occasions, this exhibition celebrated their accomplishments and launched them as independent artists.

In the introduction to the catalogue, Skotnes explains: “The Artists of the Centre are divided into two groups — the smaller section consists of serious painters and sculptors, and the larger section is made up of leisure-time artists. The leader of the first group is the rising young sculptor, Sydney Kumalo. This circle of leading young professional artists can be considered the foundation of what may one day be a major contributory factor to the development of art in South Africa. The members of this group have received their training at the centre, and where necessary, members have been sent into the studios of leading South African artists to further their training.” These artists were called the New Polly Street Group and included Ben Arnold, Sydney Buys, John Hlatywayo, Tosby Keipedele, Sydney Kumalo and George Makgajane.

If Head of an undertaker by Tosby Keipedele is an archetype of the heads that were shown on the exhibition, these artists were all continuing the efforts of Hezekiel Ntuli, who modelled and sold clay heads in KwaZulu-Natal during the early 1930s. There were, of course, differences between the New Polly Street Group’s sophisticated terracottas and Ntuli’s mimetic heads of sun-dried clay. Nevertheless, Keipedele’s head continues a tradition.Apart from the association with Ntuli’s work, Keipedele’s head shows affinity with still earlier African pieces of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Keipedele’s sensitive modelling and the care he shows for underlying relationships between eyes, nose, mouth, ears and forehead, gives the head a noble appearance. Its gauntness, high cheekbones and broad mouth are reminiscent of the commemorative masks by the Bron of Ghana who reputedly influenced the Ashanti. On the other hand, the modernity of the head raises conjecture about exposure to the portraits by Alberto Giacometti.

When Head of an undertaker was exhibited in 1958 at the Craftsmen’s Market, it was singled out for its “humorous nature” and a photograph of it appeared in the June 11 edition of The Star newspaper.

Elza Miles is an art historian, writer and artist who has published numerous articles and books, including a book on Ernest MancobaABOUTPolly Street: The Story of an African Art Centre, by Elza Miles, is privately published in an edition of 1500 copies by The Ampersand Foundation (TAF). A non-profit, equal-opportunity Trust promoting contemporary fine arts in South Africa, TAF recognise and reward excellence and encourage potential in the arts by granting fellowships, which include a residency in the USA, to artists in the furtherance of their broader education. The fellowships also create new career opportunities for the recipients. The first TAF fellowship was granted to Paul Emmanuel in 1997; since then to the end of 2004, TAF have granted a further 46 fellowships.

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