Where I was standing in the legendary David Koloane’s studio at The Bag Factory, the sounds of the streets of Joburg and the scratching of charcoal on paper was the soundtrack to his day. He says he loves the energy of the city and at the ripe old age of 77, he still comes to the studio at least four days a week. There is no rest for an artist he says, no matter how well-known he might be.
His work space is nothing glamorous, with charcoal dust colouring the floor, splashes of paint which at some stage flew through the air and hap hazardously landed where it did and rolls off brown board standing in various corners of the room. He sketches at home and then comes to the studio to finish the work, so there are many incomplete thoughts and ideas scattered all over tables built with old pieces of cardboard stashed on top of each other or upside-down dustbins with a piece of hardwood on top. He pins his canvases on dry walling and this is where the magic happens.
David Koloane is one of South Africa’s most influential artists; a man who played a pivotal role in transforming the landscape of the arts in a country torn apart by its history of racial, ideological and geographical segregation. His work blatantly opposed and violently criticised the oppressive apartheid system, with a preoccupation with space being a recurring theme. The street mongrels with glaring eyes are still an ominous presence in many of his pieces and though he feels that he is able to do ‘lighter’ work at this time in his life, the legacy of apartheid and more importantly its impact on the use of and ownership of space in our country is still something that he feels passionate about.
He is moved by squalor, poverty and suffering and says that he still gets sad when he goes to the townships. He believes that art is the voice of a community and should be part of where they live, not removed from their daily lives, hidden in inaccessible cities, galleries and museums.
Community has always been a big part of his life. He told us how as a child his weekends in the township felt like Carnival, with people being all dressed up and dancing to the music in the streets. As the eldest of four kids, he was no stranger to sharing with and taking care of others and just as he was mentored and admittedly found his calling at Polly Street after being introduced to art by Louis Maqhubela, he made a point of always mentoring others.
His accomplishments as writer, curator, educator and artist are admirable, but we believe his real value lies in his legacy and the foundation he laid for future artists, most importantly in South Africa through the establishing of numerous projects like The Bag Factory, but also in various projects all over the world. He recently became a permanent part of the Saatchi collection amongst many great achievements.
He seemed like a quiet, gentle man in the studio on the day, though his work speaks of a determined, stubborn character with a passionate voice standing in the gap for the many people who had or might still have no voice.
His unceasing love for music has always been present both in his life and in his work and like sound breaking through a barrier, causing noise and disruption, his images changed lives and played its part in writing history.