The passing of giants

The deaths of Dan Rakgoathe on April 18 and Durant Sihlali on May 3 represent a sad and devastating loss for the South African art community.

Both men were pivotal artists of their generation with exceptional creative abilities, who acted as inspiration and catalyst to a younger generation of artists emerging from the township communities of Johannesburg.

Sihlali and Rakgoathe lived their lives along a similar trajectory, both men having been born into difficult circumstances, their parents struggling to make a living. Sihlali was born in Dukathole, Germiston, on March 5 1935, and Rakgoathe in Randfontein, Johannesburg, on February 25 1937. From an early age both were fascinated with drawing, which led to a consuming passion to pursue art as a career in adult life. The obstacles standing in front of aspiring black African artists from this generation were huge, with very few avenues open for tuition and training under apartheid law. Sihlali studied under Cecil Skotnes at the Polly Street Art Centre in Johannesburg from 1953 to 1958, while Rakgoathe trained to be a schoolteacher before concentrating on his art studies, attending classes at the Rorke’s Drift Art Centre in Natal from 1967 to 1969.

Not long after leaving Rorke’s Drift, in September 1972, Rakgoathe was involved in a serious car accident in which his best friend, Cyprian Shilakoe, was killed, aged 26. The death of his friend, and the premature deaths of most of his family members by 1967, had a profound impact on the direction his art would take. Rakgoathe was a master exponent of the linocut medium, working almost exclusively in black and white, only starting to introduce colour into his work from the mid 1970s. Viewing his linocuts is a deeply moving experience, most of his work dealing with human mortality and the fragility of life. In the late 1980s Rakgoathe experienced serious eye problems which eventually led to total blindness, after which he concentrated solely on his writing and poetry.

Whereas Rakgoathe’s work is richly symbolic and concerned with philosophical and mystical aspects of the human condition, Sihlali was always more concerned with using his skills as an exceptionally gifted watercolourist, to record the harsh realities of township life, especially in and around Soweto.

In a book titled Twelve Shades of Black by Joy Kuhn, published in 1974, there is an excellent chapter on Sihlali and his work titled The Gentle Artist in the Tidy Home, where Sihlali reflects on his creative process, saying: “I don’t think I paint artistically. What I’ve been interested in doing is recording what is around. What really influenced my childhood was the fact that we used to live a nomadic life, moving from one area to another, and the memory of past places used to haunt me. The only time I used to find satisfaction was when I had recorded the area in a drawing. Up to this day I am concerned mainly on that, not now recording for myself, but for the whole African population.”

Sihlali was an exceptional human being. He was dignified and humble with unshakeable integrity. He had the rare ability to create something from nothing and was fiercely independent, determined and extremely disciplined. He was committed to humanity and to the good of all men.

I remember clearly a story he told me in 1995 which I think about often and always remains an inspiration to me. He recounted an incident which took place when he used to hand-paint curios for the tourist market in the 1950s and 1960s to make ends meet. Days before the birth of his first child, he was approached by his boss to work longer hours at no extra pay. Sihlali remembered feeling exploited, while sensing the importance of keeping his job at this difficult time. With no idea of how he would feed his family he told his employer that “my jacket is not too heavy and the door not too small”, and resigned with immediate effect. Although things were dire for the Sihlali family for a short time after, everything eventually worked out for the best. This anecdote taught me a great deal about the values and principles of ubuntu, meaning that you must respect others if you are able to respect yourself.

Both Sihlali and Rakgoathe were small in stature but will remain giants in the consciousness and memory of those lucky enough to have known them. Both men left an invaluable cultural record, not just of who they were as individuals, but of the times they witnessed and the communities of which they formed part. Hambani kahle Durant and Dan.Warren Siebrits is a Johannesburg-based gallerist