The Legacy of Louis Maqhubela

A new exhibition aims to assess and state Louis Maqhubela’s vital contribution to the history of modern South African art

Louis Maqhubela, Composition, 1972, oil on paper, 51.7 x 58.7 cm. Collection: Johannesburg Art Gallery
CAPE TOWN — In 1961, 22-year-old Louis Maqhubela participated in a group exhibition with Walter Battiss, Irma
Stern and Gerard Sekoto. “Louis Maqhubela is an entirely new discovery,”
reported SA Art News (June 22, 1961).
“He is an African. The directors are so impressed with his watercolours which
reveal a natural uninhibited talent it has been decided to give him a special
small section of the exhibition.” Five years later Maqhubela
capitalised on this promose and won the ‘Artist of Fame and Promise’ Award, becoming the first black artist to win an art competition in open contest with white artists.
Maqhubela’s importance rests on far more than this singular distinction. In the catalogue to the exhibition A Vigil of Departure — Louis Khehla Maqhubela, which opened at Iziko South African National Gallery last night, curator Marilyn Martin describes Maqhubela as a “great artist”. This greatness, which Martin carefully explicates in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue, stems from his immersion in painterly abstraction. According to critic Ivor Powell, Maqhubela’s abstraction, informed by his engagements with the expatriate South African painter Douglas Portway, helped point many black artists away from “prescriptive expressionism” (otherwise known as “township art”) to more expansive and personal forms of expression.
A slightly edited version of the exhibition held at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg earlier this year, this survey of a half-century’s work aims to correctly state Maqhubela’s place in and contribution
to the history of modern South African art. Martin in unequivocal in this regard: “In spite of trials and challenges he faced during his life, Maqhubela’s
art is characterized by a profound humanism, inner joy and affirmation of life;
[his works] spring from a deep spiritual and metaphysical well.”

A Vigil of Departure — Louis Khehla Maqhubela is on at the Iziko South African National
Gallery until February 13, 2011.
Louis Maqhubela, A Seated Child, 1967, gouache on paper, 50 x 65 cm. Collection: Iziko SA National Gallery