In Memoriam: David Nthubu Koloane (1938-2019)

David Koloane in his studio at Bag Factory on January 21, 2011
Photo: Fiona Siegenthaler

We are deeply saddened by the passing of Dr. David Koloane at his home on 30 June 2019. His rich, inspiring and deep commitment to life, art, and collaborative work has left an enormous imprint on what South African art is today. The development of a black art community during apartheid in South Africa, and the visibility of black South African art internationally in the years of transition cannot be imagined without his enormous contribution. While consistently developing his own artwork over more than five decades, Koloane created space for collaborative art practice, facilitated various formats of art education, mentored the young artist generations while grooming their historical foundations, mediated between diverse constituencies, and curated for local and international audiences.

My first encounter with Koloane took place in 2006 when I visited him in his studio at the Bag Factory where I hoped to learn a bit more about his personal narratives of Johannesburg – in addition to the complex and ambiguous relationship to this town so powerfully reflected in his paintings and drawings. I was overwhelmed by the open arms and spirit of David, the patience with which he described – not for the first time – the living conditions and the disparity between city center, Alexandra and Soweto at the time of his childhood, youth and adult age. It is this enormous generosity with time and attentive patience that made him the person he was – focused and tolerant, engaged and human, and an excellent observer and mediator.

Born in Alexandra in 1938, Koloane experienced Johannesburg as a city of racial and racist division and his own family was not spared from forced removal and economic distress caused by apartheid politics. On the other hand – or just for this reason – he never gave up in his endeavor to create space for black creation and art practice, and for the encounter and exchange of artists and intellectuals. His introduction to the Polly Street Art Center by his classmate Louis Maqhubela and later his involvement in the Johannesburg Art Foundation run by Bill Ainslie therefore were not just the beginning of his career as an artist, but also a spark for creating a spirit of collaborative artistic exchange that challenged racial limitations dictated by apartheid. Koloane later became the director of the first gallery dedicated to black artists and in 1978 acted as the first curator at the Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA), an outstanding collective initiative of artists, writers and musicians at a time of entrenched apartheid politics. In 1985, he co-founded with Bill Ainslie and Kagiso Pat Mautloa the Thupelo workshops which offered two-week retreats outside the city and which proved crucial as a space to test experimental art practices. Together with Robert Loder, he founded the Fordsburg Artists’ Studios in 1991, popularly known as the Bag Factory, a cooperative space that continues to be a crucial institution on the South African art map. It has been welcoming artists from diverse racial, national and educational backgrounds since its beginnings at the dawn of democracy. Koloane could be found there during weekdays, along with his long-time studio mates Pat Mautloa and Sam Nhlengethwa and the many other artists who worked and continue to work there for shorter and longer periods of time.

Koloane’s sensibility for the power relations inherent in spatial organization was fundamental for all his cultural initiatives which were path-breaking in creating space and public attention for art by black artists. The David Koloane Award and the David Koloane Mentorship Programme offered by the Bag Factory are reflective of this engagement and Koloane’s passion in mentoring and teaching younger generations. As a curator, he cooperated with international colleagues in seminal exhibitions like Art from South Africa at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford (1990) or Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa at the Whitechapel Gallery in London (1995). As an author of numerous articles about black South African art history and art practice in key publications, Koloane confidently conscientized his audiences for the structural violence put on black creative work. He thereby always emphasized dialogue and conversation as a means of creating connections between people. The appreciation for his scholarly and educational efforts are reflected in the honorary doctorates he was awarded from Wits University in 2012 and from Rhodes University in 2015.

It is comforting to know that only weeks before his passing, David Koloane attended the opening of his retrospective exhibition, A Resilient Visionary: Poetic Expressions of David Koloane curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town. It is an acknowledgement of his enormous contribution as an artist, curator, teacher, mentor and activist to South African art and its appreciation locally and internationally.

Our sincere condolences go to his wife Monica, his family and friends. May David Koloane rest in peace after a rich, fulfilled and meaningful life, bequeathing an invaluable legacy of artistic mastery and cultural commitment to South Africa’s art world and beyond.

– Fiona Siegenthaler