A South African Painter Captures the Frenetic Energy of Johannesburg

David Koloane isn’t just one of South Africa’s most prominent painters; he’s a key figure in the nation’s cultural history. In 1977, under apartheid, he co-founded the Federated Union of Black Artists, the first gallery in Johannesburg to provide a space for black artists.

“Apartheid was a politics of space more than anything,” Koloane (b. 1938) has said, “and much of the apartheid legislation was denying people the right to move. It’s all about space, restricting space….Claiming art is also reclaiming space.”

As a gallerist and curator, Koloane supplied that space. As an artist, he has spent years engaging with the zeitgeist, capturing the realities of urban life in bold, expressionist paintings that serve as social criticism and political commentary. “In the City,” now on view at Goodman Gallery in Cape Town, offers a look at his latest powerful works.

In the Zulu language, the term mgodoyi is an insult intended for a man who behaves like a dog. Feral dogs—here, symbols of greed and political brutality—are recurring beasts in Koloane’s oeuvre, including in his “Mgodoyi Series” (1993), which reacted to the negotiations that led to South Africa’s first democratic elections. Also recurring in his practice is a human cast of characters ranging from streetwise hustlers to commuters navigating the bustling city streets.

The crowd, the confusion, and these signature characters appear in his newest works as well, notably in Mongrel in the City (2016). Some of his latest pieces, like the energetic Rhythm (2016) or Red Beret (2016), are rendered in warm, vibrant colors; others, like Strictly Business (2016) or Saxophone no. 1 (2016), are moody and melancholy, with a black, white, and gray palette reminiscent of newsprint.

Decades have passed since Koloane began portraying Johannesburg’s frenetic energy. Yet, as his latest works suggest, the city hasn’t changed much. Specific politicians and social issues may have changed, but human struggles remain. So, too, do the joys: the colorful parade of people, the poignant strain of a saxophone, the sense of boundless opportunity. Koloane’s painted Johannesburg, like the actual city, is both welcoming and wild. Amid the sea of faces are countless adventures and agonies, captured here by one of South Africa’s creative pioneers.


—Bridget Gleeson


David Koloane: In the City” is on view at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, Jul. 28–Sep. 7, 2016.

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