Image: Illustration by Manelisi Dabata

Painter, poet, and onetime drummer in the Malombo Jazz Messengers, Lefifi Tladi is a sagacious creative dynamo bent on clawing his way back into popular notice. And a new generation of art lovers is fast gravitating towards a rediscovery of his vast oeuvre. Like lighting disrupting darkness (think ignorance), as his name suggests — in Setswana, lefifi is darkness and tladi lightning — the 74-year-old genius is seeing rising interest in his work and legacy, against interesting odds.

Though, as the saying goes, when the students are ready, the teacher comes along. It may well be that South Africa is finally ready for the perennial message of his art.

Tladi’s vast body of work stretches across painting in the abstract-expressionist tradition into expressionist figurative drawings with forays into calligraphic modernism. The latter comprises calligraphic forms that he calls “Alphabets of Fire”. Guadeloupe-born and Sweden-based scientist and writer Claude Philogène has waxed lyrical about these drawings in a celebratory text titled Lefifi Tladi’s Third-Brain Calligraphy.

Tladi first showed these drawings in an exhibition titled “Xedzedze” (whirlwind) in 1995 at Unisa Art Gallery. The works made a symbolically salient appearance as cover art for Ingoma, a 1999 jazz record by late South African saxophonist and composer Zim Ngqawana. Many more exhibitions have followed.

Tladi first created his “Alphabets of Fire” to make a symbolic intervention just as South Africa was negotiating itself into a new age. The country was transitioning from apartheid colonialism into a new democratic order. It was a time of great contest concerning not only the kind of society the new South Africa was going to become but also the meaning of art and the role of artists in that new society. Importantly, the work sought to speak to a new nation needing to imagine new symbols and a new, liberated language to articulate itself.

“Alphabets of Fire” were about pointing the people towards a consideration of that implied potential and the importance of new requirements for collective creative work for this society.

Academic and writer Michael Titlestad captures it well in his book Making the Changes: Jazz in South African Literature and Reportage when he writes that “Alphabets of Fire… stand for a new language” to express what Tladi considered a truly decolonised African personhood and society. It’s not unlike the calls made by contemporary activists in the post-FeesMustFall era. Tladi spelled out some of his thinking in the catalogue of his joint retrospective exhibition in 1998 with the late Motlhabane Mashiangwako, “Oto La Dimo”.

My art is not in search of the past but in illuminating the future, in plotting new ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking

According to him, “under apartheid rule, the political, social, economic and, above all, the mental oppression of African people had culminated in a situation where the demand for change was non-negotiable… the ultimate aim was not political liberation only, but [also] the decolonisation of the complete African being”. As an artist he burns with a sharp clarity about the role of his art in that process. “My art is not in search of the past but in illuminating the future, in plotting new ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking. I am trying to open up new scopes of perception or rather to restore our senses because apartheid had destroyed our peoples’ senses,” he writes.

It would be remiss not to remember that Tladi was a notable member of the Black Consciousness movement. His work as a politically engaged artist also found expression in his work with Malombo Jazz Messengers, which was later renamed Dashiki. Malombo jazz is a pan-Africanist jazz idiom rooted in indigenous spiritual performance rituals. It’s perhaps this multi-decade reach of his work that allows Tladi’s “Alphabets of Fire” to forego the usual tropes of protest art. He eschews easy slogans, propagandist posters and depictions of the horrors of apartheid, reaching for a different visual register to articulate a liberation politics rooted in consciousness.

The calligraphic drawings Tladi produces begin as a meditation on blades of flame in a living fire. Taking on the motif of fire, he aims to point us to the dynamism of a flame as flitting movement; an improvising fugitive energy that resists reification. He renders the flame with anthropomorphic stylisation, and it takes on the look of dancing human figures becoming alphabetic forms. This keeps our minds on the centrality of human beings in his practice.

Along with our unceasing pursuance of meaning. Tladi is now in the winter of his years. He left the country of his birth in 1979 for exile in Botswana before settling in Sweden.

Following the 1994 unbanning of anti-apartheid political parties and persons, he has kept homes in Sweden and South Africa, a dual living arrangement recently disrupted by his need of regular dialysis. To be sure, this has not meant a decline in creative output. In fact, far from it. Tladi seems to have found a second wind as a painter and practising contemporary artist.

His recent forays into social-media platforms such as Instagram are evidence of this. In fact, Tladi’s social-media activities and his reignited creative output seem set to push back against the art-historical blind spots that continue to dog the South African art market and its thin memory. May the glare of his lightning’s light persist and provide a positive perception of a new path for us all.

• From the September edition of Wanted, 2023.

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