David Koloane in 2016. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.

David Koloane (1938–2019)

South African artist, curator, writer, and educator David Koloane, the creator of paintings, drawings, and mixed-media assemblages that probed the sociopolitical climate of Johannesburg and greater South Africa during and after apartheid, has died. Goodman Gallery confirmed that the eighty-one-year-old, who helped pave the way for black artists in the country, passed away at his home in Johannesburg on Sunday, June 30.

“I first began working with David as an independent curator about fifteen years ago,” Liza Essers, the owner and director of Goodman Gallery, said. “He was a soft-spoken, kind, and generous person who always put his students and fellow artists first. David’s life and work stand as a testament to the indomitable nature of the human spirit, and its ability to overcome all obstacles with humility and grace.”

Born in Alexandra, Johannesburg, in 1938, Koloane attended art classes at the Bill Ainslie Studios, which later became the Johannesburg Art Foundation, from 1974 until 1977—the same year that he cofounded the city’s first black art gallery. Koloane continued to work to help establish spaces to foster the education and careers of black artists. One successful initiative, which he spearheaded with Ainslie in 1985, was the Thupelo Experimental Workshop. The two-week event has since been hosted in several countries, including Botswana, Jamaica, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Wales.

“The sociopolitical conditions created by the apartheid system of government have to a large extent transfixed the human condition as the axis around which my work evolves,” the artist once said. “The human figure has become the icon of creative expression.” Scenes of township life—traffic jams, people going about their daily routines, jazz musicians, dogs, and refugees—frequently appeared in Koloane’s work, which, in the words of South African art critic and Artforum contributor Sean O’Toole, is distinguished by a “blend of sombre epiphanies and mesmerised celebrations of our collectivity as human beings.” 

For many years, the artist worked as a teacher at a township high school, where he mentored students and young artists. He also tutored at the Federated Union of Black Artists and would eventually become the head of its fine art section and gallery from 1985 to 1990. The following year, he cofounded the Fordsburg Artists Studios (The Bag Factory) with Robert Loder and Ricky Burnett.  

Among Koloane’s curatorial projects were the Culture and Resistance Arts Festival in Botswana in 1982, the Zabalaza Festival in London in 1990, and “Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa” at Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1995—the exhibition traveled to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York later that year. While he had exhibited internationally—at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, and La Maison Rouge in Paris, among other places—his work didn’t gain global recognition until later in his life.

In 2013, Koloane represented South Africa at the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale. A career survey of his work, “A Resilient Visionary: Poetic Expressions of David Koloane,” is currently on view at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, where it opened in June. Curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe, the show will be up for one year before it tours to Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Gallery and Wits Art Museum.