Ngatane made a marked impression on the art of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, creating artworks that captured the essence of township living and conveyed emotion and depth.
Ephraim Ngatane: Soweto Symphony
Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, 10 February – 13 March 2010
Cecil Skotnes said that Ngatane “put his thumbprint on the history of South African art”. In the course of his short-lived but illustrious career, Ngatane made a marked impression on the art of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, creating artworks that captured the essence of township living and conveyed emotion and depth.
Ngatane studied under Skotnes at the Polly Street Art Centre from 1952-1954, during which time he developed his unique method and experimented with different media, from gouache and watercolour to oil paint. Although many artists of that time used the township as their subject matter, what set Ngatane apart was his approach – he used abstract, geometric shapes and a wide spectrum of colour to create compositions that are both aesthetically appealing and emotive.
Through his art Ngatane portrayed life in Soweto: emotions spanning from despair to hope, the soul of the township, its beggars, bicycles and barbershops, and the wind, snow and sun. While his work serves as a narrative of the hardship of living in Soweto, which was overcrowded and dirty, Ngatane was also concerned with depicting the music, sport and social life of the township. Fah Fee (1969) depicts the popular Chinese numbers game that was a common feature of everyday life in Soweto.
The music of the townships is a recurring theme in the work of Ngatane, who was also an accomplished pennywhistler and saxophonist. The pennywhistlers of the 1960s feature often, most likely due to the influence of Ngatane’s childhood friend, Rankusi Makua, who was a talented pennywhistler. The pennywhistle was an affordable instrument, as were soapbox guitars, both of which can be seen in Musicians (undated) and The Penny Whistlers (c.1968).
While other artists of his time tended to create generalised representations of township scenes, many of Ngatane’s paintings focus on specific areas or landmarks in the townships, such as Old Sophiatown (1963) and Pimville Township (1969). Even though many of these scenes show the unpleasant, congested and sometimes unsanitary conditions of the township (including, in some cases, the “bucket” system of sewerage), Ngatane treated these images with flamboyant colour, constantly parodying the callousness and degradation of the apartheid system.
The exhibition also features some of Ngatane’s more unusual works, such as Nude Woman (1969), the subject matter of which is a rare reminder that nudes are not just a “white” artistic tradition.
The style of Ngatane’s work ranges from documentary realism to abstract painting, but is always distinctively his own and focuses on the gritty reality of township life. Ngatane died of tuberculosis in 1971 at almost 33 years of age, but his work remains important to an understanding of South African art and township life under apartheid.
A hardcover book on Ngatane, entitled ‘A Setting Apart’, edited by Rory Bester, will be launched at the opening of the exhibition, which is curated by Natalie Knight.
Running concurrently in the downstairs gallery is ‘Harmony’, an exhibition of Natasha Christopher’s artworks focusing on Welkom, where she spent her formative years.
Date: Until Saturday, 13th March
Venue: Standard Bank Gallery, Corner Simmonds and Frederick Street, Johannesburg
Gallery hours: Mon-Fri, 08:00-16:30; Saturday, 09:00-13:00
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