Taxi-006: David Koloane
by Sean O'Toole
It is difficult assessing an artist's monograph. One is never quite sure if one is simply to assess the artist's work presented, or comment on the writers and publishers involved, or indeed scribble freely about the whole heady cocktail of artist, interpreter and publisher. It is probably best that I appraise each of these elements separately, and then only evaluate the success of the mix afterwards.
David Koloane is an intriguing artist. Were he younger, or were things different when he was younger, he would doubtlessly have been a superstar artist. Instead, through fate or state-sanctioned misfortune, he has had to lead an ordinary (read noble) life as a career artist.
Tower(1999), a mixed media piece on canvas, is a consummate example of his work, an impressionistic portrait of the Hillbrow Tower that perfectly blends his unrestrained appreciation for colour with a more subtle sense of gloom. The work is naive in an unconscious way, not obvious as in the works of Jean Michel Basquiat. In terms of its subject matter, Tower is also a work that best articulates Koloane's constant fascination with the beacon that is the city, particularly Johannesburg city.
As Nadine Gordimer so eloquently states in her introduction to this book, "When we receive his painting and drawings we are not merely looking, we are drawn into discoveries about the process and spaces of living. And its endless mystery." These rapturous words are not simply the invention of a writer penning words for a fee. Gordimer and Koloane have had a long professional, and personal association, this the result of Gordimer's late husband Reinhold Cassirer, in whose small gallery black artists such as Koloane were first shown.
It is probably this long-standing association that allows Gordimer to gift readers with her poignant insights into Koloane's work. "Koloane's interpretation of urban life has struggled and triumphed in finding different visions and modes, techniques, materials to express the huge oppressions, upheavals, and hard-won freedoms that have been epitomised in our cities' sprawl." In one eloquent sentence Gordimer successfully summarises both the artist, and the importance of his varied output.
Comparing a Nobel Laureate, one who has based her whole existence on words, with a painter slash writer is probably unfair. I am not going to indulge in comparisons. Veronique Tadjo hails from the Ivory Coast. Aside from being a painter, she has written award-winning texts for both children and adults. Unfortunately it would appear that her approach in Koloane's book follows a path that seems to cater to an audience midway between the two.
In her defence Tadjo's sentences are crisp, her language pithy and accessible. Her staccato poetics and jazz rhythms are also useful in suggesting something of the man. ("Jazz," we are told, " was a message of hope".) But somehow Tadjo's text, which alternates between one-liner paragraphs and something moderately longer, tends to leave one feeling unfulfilled. Quite possibly it is because she attempts to mimic in words the highly impressionistic style of Koloane's painted works.
Tadjo also tends to lapse into moments of maudlin sentimentality. "Sophiatown was a symbol, the ideal of a more open and egalitarian society. Like District Six in Cape Town, it was vibrant with life and music and it offered the promise of opportunities." It instructive to note that Koloane was born in Alexandra, the dark city on the periphery of Johannesburg, a place with its own set of circumstances and mythologies. True, Tadjo does acknowledge this in a 'chapter' entitled "A Dusty Ramshackle Area," but the biographical details of this section must contend with her lapses into a poetic language seemingly aimed at an adolescent readership.
Maybe this need not be a criticism. Publisher David Krut's Taxi series, generously funded by a host of European arts agencies and our own NAC, bears testimony to a noble endeavour, one aimed at plugging the gaps by highlighting South Africa's 'other' artists. It has also successfully made artist's monographs an accessible local commodity. As is also evidenced in Andre Croucamp's educational supplement, even weary hacks can learn a great deal by reading the educational pamphlet, which honestly and carefully engages Koloane's work.
It is just a pity that this didactic strategy, aimed at edifying younger readers, seems to have somehow spilt over into Koloane's monograph proper. After all, it is here that one would have hoped to find a more critical engagement of his work - without the necessity of big words this sometimes entails.