Lucky Sibiya Thanda Bantu 1997.
Lucky Sibiya Thanda Bantu 1997.
Image: Supplied

The Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (Javett-UP) recently opened its much-anticipated Yakhal' Inkomo exhibition. Named for the “bellowing bull” antiapartheid protest metaphor made famous by jazz icon Winston Mankunku Ngozi, the exhibition of mid- to late-20th century black SA art is the first curatorial iteration from the collection put together by well-known artist and curator Bongi Dhlomo.

This inaugural exhibition is guest curated by New York-based SA curator Tumelo Mosaka, assisted by Sipho Mndanda and Phumzile Nombuso Twala.

The exhibitions drawing on the collection will run until January 15 2023 and will be at the heart of Javett-UP’s 2022 education mediation and public engagement programming.

The Bongi Dhlomo Collection features works of some of the most important black artists working from 1960 to 1990. Dhlomo assembled the collection from 2017 to 2019, on behalf of the Javett Foundation.

The collection takes its place alongside the 2019 Black Aesthetic show from Standard Bank curator Same Mdluli that derived mainly from the collection of the University of Fort Hare. Both exhibitions act as a much-needed corrective to the institutional neglect suffered by the country’s most talented black artists under apartheid.

The diverse artworks, including canonical pieces by the likes of Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, George Pemba, Dumile Feni and Sydney Kumalo, provide aesthetic glimpses into the personal and collective experiences of black South Africans during this febrile and violent period of SA’s recent history, one which many younger contemporary viewers and art lovers may not fully appreciate.

Dhlomo is well-known as a passionate activist for black art and artists in the country, and Mosaka sought to understand what this specific period meant for Dhlomo and black artists in general, not only visual but across all genres. The exhibition concept and title arose out of these conversations.

Dumile Feni The Prisoner 1986.
Dumile Feni The Prisoner 1986.
Image: Supplied
Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi Mo mahaeng ke mathatha 1992.
Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi Mo mahaeng ke mathatha 1992.
Image: Supplied

Jazz masterpiece

“I started asking, what was at risk and who was the art for? What were the conversations happening among them as creative beings? There are shifts and changes depending on the decade, and when one looks at the work, even though there are familiar tropes, such as “township art”, there are nuances that open doors and questions that exist and have not been dealt with,” says Mosaka.

The title, Yakhal' Inkomo, which translates as “bellowing bull”, is borrowed from saxophonist and composer Ngozi's 1968 jazz masterpiece Yakhal' Inkomo from the same period. In this song, the “bellowing bull” metaphor crying to be rescued before slaughter stood for black people's victimhood under apartheid. The bellowing bull cannot be silenced. Mosaka drew on the metaphor to characterise this time and thematic content, steeped in symbolism in Africa; the bull embodies strength, hope, material wealth, resilience and spiritual connection.

Sydney Kumalo Man on Bull.
Sydney Kumalo Man on Bull.
Image: Supplied

Drawing on this conceptual armature, Mosaka seeks out conceptual linkages that address how physical and imagined realities offered opportunities for artists to explore their subject positions under apartheid.

The works in the current iteration of the collection are therefore arranged around concepts of alienation, nostalgia, mobility, and spirituality, taking a thematic approach rather than a chronological approach. However, notable historical moments such as the 1960s Sharpeville Massacre and the 1976 Soweto Uprising are highlighted to demonstrate the creative and sensory experiences that responded to these traumatic events.

The exhibition will be accompanied by an extensive educational and public engagement programme taking place at the Javett-UP, online and in locations around Gauteng. It will feature film screenings, conversations, workshops and performances.

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