Black artists who do art for art’s sake are free. In the truest sense of the word. They have untied themselves from the expectation of doing art that is political commentary or art that comes from a place of trauma and pain. It can be uncertain, that freedom, but when one is ready for it, the result is breathtaking. The irony though is that on some level, the work becomes inversely political. It becomes about successfully resisting the small box within which they are expected to reside. It becomes revolutionary and South African master, Louis Khehla Maqhubela, is one of the fathers of this revolution.

Maqhubela is a painter. He was born in Durban in 1939 and moved to Johannesburg in 1952 where he lived with his parents in Soweto while attending Orlando High. Much like many  black artists in Johannesburg who showed interest and promise, in the years 1957 – 1959, he studied at the Polly Street Art Centre in Johannesburg central. The centre offered informal training for black artists, while white artists were able to study at formal institutions such as Wits University. Under the direction of Cecil Skotnes, they were taught technique using still art and because it was so under resourced, they used mostly watercolour on paper, working from home. Maqhubela would have lessons at the at centre on Wednesday afternoons, and the rest of the time hung around there with fellow creatives whom he befriended.  

Many sources of information capture his development as an artist in broad strokes. He used to capture township settings and township folk as it was the style of the day. Looking back, I understand the depth of this style of painting for many artists. The curiosity of liberals about the township experience was enough to increase demand for this kind of art. This demand was met with keen supply as many black artists had to be commercially viable from a younger age, with minimal training. 

Deep down, though, I believe there was the need to document the township experience and reflect it back to black people, as their truth of the day. And I think this was for many reasons. Firstly, it was probably to archive that reality in a way that was nonthreatening to the law of the day, draconian as it was. This straddling of the line allowed them to preserve these diary entires, and this style became something of an aesthetic that was uniquely theirs, later called Township Art. This archiving of daily experiences was important because life was not promised. People in townships lived without much conviction of what their tomorrow would look like – the apartheid government did not give warning on changes to blacks people’s living conditions. Therefore, capturing moments and scenery from everyday allowed the development of a living journal of township life, for a potential near future whose scenery and setting could have easily been different.

Maqhubela won the Adler Fidling Prize in 1966, out of 900 entries,  which saw him travel to Europe where he experienced a broad spectrum of artworks and also met Douglas Portway, whose abstract work notably impressed him. A number of articles capture Portway as one of the influences that got Maqhubela to step into doing abstract work in the late 1960’s. What I find interesting though is Maqhubela’s insistence on the presence of abstract art in black culture. He speaks of abstraction as Africa’s primary form of expression and questions why this ancestral form is seen as foreign to black artists in the modern age. Not enough attention is given to that truth. There’s a sense of claiming back an art form that is denied black artists, and with him, it seems to come from a keen understanding of his own identity. That boldness truly becomes the launch pad into his expression of freedom.

In his abstract work, he gets indulgent in the only artists who do art for art’s sake get, and his brilliance shines through. Maqhubela leans on humanity, joy and a great deal of the mystic and other worldly, and it’s a freedom that is seldom seen espoused by black African contemporary artists. That freedom pushes the boundaries of what South African, and indeed African art is known to look and feel like. When he took this turn, I don’t know if he was thinking of advancing the black African aesthetic, but over time, he seemed to have realised this to be happening. And even when he had become a successful artist, he didn’t stop learning. In mid to late 1980’s, he studied art at Goldsmith College and Slade School of Art, both institutions in London where he had already been living since the late 1970’s.

Discussing Township Art, he said that black artists are free to draw inspiration from anywhere in the universe, unless they want to confine themselves to diamond shapes and the chevron motifs for the next thousand years. The freedom to fly and explore worlds is truly innate in his work. There seems to be some lament that there are not any notable young artists who seem to be following in his footsteps because his work is so personal and enigmatic. This may be true, but one can’t ignore that the way the art world is set up, even if there are any such young people, it would be hard for them to crack it anyway, even today. But no matter, Maqhubela’s work lives on in Africa, Europe and the Americas and will continue to challenge the establishment’s definition of a black artist.

Today, Maqhubela lives in London with his family, where he continues to exhibit. According to his website, Maqhubela.com, some of his work can be experienced in the following public collections:

Strauss & Co did an exhibition at the 2019 RMB Art Fair in Johannesburg entitled ‘A Meeting of Minds’ that featured Maqhubela’s and Portway’s works. The catalogue from the exhibition has an engaging write-up on the two artists, and can be downloaded here>>> 

Image of Louis Maqhubela from Revisions.co.za