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An Introduction to Township Art

In its original and purest form, dating back to the 1920's, South African Township Art was effectively art of defiance. Formerly known as ‘Struggle or Resistance Art', Township Art was a vivid depiction of the terrible transgressions of colonialism and apartheid.

One of the lynchpins of the apartheid regime was separate development for the different racial groups. Non-whites were forced to live in townships which had few, if any, amenities. In a measured reaction to European influences, black artists chose to illustrate their own realities in bold and colourful brush strokes.

The founding fathers of Township Art

Two emerging black artists, who effectively alerted the world to the wonder of Township Art, were Gerard Sekoto and George Pemba.

Prolific in the 1930's, Sekoto created a colourful history of urban African life in Sophiatown and District Six. Today, Sekoto is one of the most sought-after South African artists, with his work regularly fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars!

George Pemba's naive expressionism, born in the Motherwell Township close to Port Elizabeth, continues to delight art connoisseurs. His work commands prices ranging from R200 000 to almost R1 million.

Poverty led to exploration and expression with new media

Extreme poverty was a major catalyst for the emergence of a number of new, flamboyant Township Art genres. Oil paints were simply not affordable to most township inhabitants and instead they had to innovate with new media.

Dumile Feni, ‘the Goya of the Townships' will long be remembered for his outstanding contributions to African art, all tooled with the sole assistance of a ballpoint pen!

John Muafangejo and Azaria Mbatha will go down in the annals of South African art history as the innovators of the linocut whereas Ephraim Ngatane & Durant Sihlali join the ranks of outstanding watercolourists.

A nation's loss

Sadly, many original artworks were intentionally destroyed by the fascist South African security forces, denying future generations a unique glimpse into the past.

Foreign diplomats and other international visitors took it upon themselves to salvage as much of the Struggle Art as possible by buying up pieces in the townships and smuggling them out of the country. In the decade post-apartheid, a concerted effort was made to repatriate these national treasures.

The ‘Rainbow Nation' in full blush

Since freedom, Township Art, together with the rest of South African society, has evolved. Instead of the desperation and hopelessness of the past, black artists are now creating art synonymous with the new South Africa - bright, colourful and diverse.

Recycled plastic bags, old bicycle spokes and even discarded soft drink cans are modelled to create unique works of art which admirably depict the rainbow nation in full blush.

Today, Township Art is not the exclusive domain of black township dwellers. Its distinctive style has been embraced by the likes of Frank Ross, Benjamin Mitchley, Katherine Ambrose and Mauro Chiarla, to name but a few.

South Africa's unprecedented cultural diversity ensures a rich and ever changing tapestry of arts and crafts. Fine Art Portfolio provides a sample of their township art for sale on their online art gallery.