Archive: Issue No. 82, June 2004

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Obituary: Durant Sihlali (1935-2004)
by Colin Richards

It came as a shock to hear of the untimely death of Durant Sihlali. I knew this exceptional man and artist well, and enjoyed many hours together with him looking at work and talking art.

Durant was born on March 5, 1935 at the Haftels in Elsburg, Germiston, where his umbilical chord is buried. He was the first-born son and grandson to survive what he called "early tragedies" visited upon his parents, father John Sonwabo Sihlali of the Sabalele district, and mother Tjentjie Agnes Moletsane of the Taung clan, who had their origins at Witsieshoek.

They were married in 1928 in Tarkastad, to where they returned for Durant's baptism. He was christened Durant by a French Presbyterian priest, while his grandmother gave him the second name of Basi. She believed this boy was going to be master of his destiny. And so it proved, for Durant was a deeply committed artist and fiercely independent in every way.

Durant Sihlali worked across many media, and was one of the few contemporary artists who lived through the early years of the building of contemporary South African art. He experienced first hand many of the key institutions and events widely held to be formative of the experience of black artists in the decades of Apartheid and just before. Included here are the Polly Street Art Centre (circa 1953), the Thupelo Project (circa 1982), FUBA (The Federated Union of Black Artists (circa 1982)), and the FUNDA centre in Soweto.

His work in the 1970s was branded pejoratively as "township art" while in truth it documented historical realities which had little to do with the romantic patina and racist paternalism of the term. He spent time abroad in the 1980s and produced a remarkable - and remarkably different - body of works that anticipated artistic interests which were to become widespread in the 1990s, the decade which no-one anticipated.

He exhibited innovative installations at the first and second Johannesburg Biennales and his work continues to be sought out for important local and international shows. Durant continued to exhibit right until his death, and was hard at work at his single-handedly self-made (in every sense) Umlanga Papers studio when he passed away.

Durant Sihlali remains one of the few visual artists still active until his death now whose artistic career coincides with the entrenchment of formal Apartheid (1948) and predates the Republic (1961). While he is a very significant figure in the founding generation of South African modernist art history, he has also been an important artistic force in post-Apartheid contemporary South African art (1990 to the present).

In this he is unique.

In some ways, he has also been uniquely neglected. While others of his own and earlier generations have rightly benefited from "revisionary" histories of art, these histories have been almost exclusively of artists who went into exile (Azaria Mbatha, Gerard Sekoto, Ernest Mancoba) before or during Apartheid.

Exile in that sense was not part of Durant's experience, although when speaking to him it was clear that Apartheid itself forced a painful internal exile and sense of homelessness on him and his compatriots. In his work Sihlali captures the early moments of a still poorly understood perspective on modernist South African art.

His work also captures not only early debates about authentic "Africanity" in art, but also specific interventions from Europe and America which prefigure current debates about cultural globalisation, art and nationalism and identity formation.

Durant Sihlali will be sorely missed by those who knew him, and by the South African artworld at large. His death will leave a gap in our lives. We must work tirelessly - following his lead - so that the rich legacy Durant has bestowed upon us, both artistically and as a human being, does not get squandered. He was truly one of the foundation stones of contemporary South African art.