David Koloane (1938–2019)

Johan Thom, The Reader: For DK , 2014, blackboard paint, white chalk, and colored pencils on paper, 3' 4“ x 4' 10”.

I LOVED DAVID KOLOANE. He was kind and decent and an excellent, multifaceted artist.

On a number of occasions David plainly said to me that contemporary artists should actively participate in the broader world of art by writing, curating, and advocating for art. This he did perhaps most concretely by cofounding the Bag Factory Artist Studios in 1991, in Johannesburg. The Bag Factory was the first space in South Africa where black and white artists could work together on equal footing. It was also there that I first met David after I joined the organization as a studio artist roundabout mid-2006.

David was a quiet man with a gentle laugh who only ever really became animated when you spoke to him about art. You could find him at almost any time in his studio reading, working on a new artwork, or napping contentedly. Somehow finding him there napping always made me feel that things would be fine no matter what.

David was angry and disappointed sometimes. Mostly, he bemoaned the fact that contemporary art is still vastly underfunded and underappreciated by our postapartheid government and our buying public. The slow transformation of the art world irked him as well, with most commercial art galleries in South Africa still being largely white-owned, for example. That said, David was an artist’s artist, and that never bodes well for sales.

David never gave into public demand for picturesque images of black African suffering or witless celebration. Throughout his long life as an artist he produced near-abstract works of art that make you feel as if things remain forever uncertain. In his paintings, roughly drawn scratches and brushstrokes are often coupled with an opaque palette of blues, purples, oranges, and muddy browns. Figures and forms melt into one another as if all things were simultaneously appearing and disappearing. Unlike early colonial depictions of the African landscape and its market-driven black equivalent—so-called township art—this South Africa is no blissful utopia. Instead, the urban landscape becomes a foreboding, uncertain space that obscures sight and insight alike. David’s work makes us witnesses to the unfolding realities of a beastly nation that lies sleeping as its citizens struggle to find meaning and purpose in their day-to-day lives. Here the picture plane itself may be considered the belly of the beast—a breathing, heaving mass upon which David incised and spilt his many images. Despite such darkness in his artistic work, he could easily draw you into his world through the sheer force of his quiet charisma and deep love for people.

In 2013, I invited David over to the Nirox Foundation just outside Johannesburg. David was instrumental in my going abroad to study for a Ph.D. in fine art at the Slade in London. When I returned, I wanted to collaborate with him. I asked David if he would like to participate in a project named “The Animal Series,” 2013-14, a suite of artistic collaborations loosely based upon a contemporary reconsideration of Henry Moore’s “Elephant Skull Album,” 1969–70. David kindly agreed and arrived, suitcase in hand. Throughout his stay we discussed the project in detail, but mostly we made drawings of a gigantic elephant skull placed in the center of the studio. In the evenings it was freezing. Around about nine o’ clock on the first night I made a fire and said goodnight, leaving him alone to work.

Early the next morning I woke and sauntered off to the studio with coffee. David was not up yet. I will never forget how I found his empty chair surrounded by books that morning. From a distance the sight reminded me of many leafy tree branches growing outwards from a seemingly absent center. Of course, at the time he was alive, and it would be another six years before this vision would return to haunt me.

Now David is gone.

I made a drawing called The Reader: For DK, 2014, after David went home. It still hangs above my bed.  

Johan Thom is an artist and senior lecturer in fine art at the University of Pretoria.

“A Resilient Visionary: Poetic Expressions of David Koloane” is showing at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town, June 1, 2019–June 1, 2020.