Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae’s exhibition of sculptures in Johannesburg invites viewer into their sacred spiritual realm

The exhibition together with a big volume book on the artists on sale, is currently on till July 28, 2023, Strauss &Co. 89 Central Street, Johannesburg.

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

If you went to Strauss &Co.’s Johannesburg Head Office, 89 Central Street Houghton, right now and got into their massive gallery where the leading fine art auction house regularly exhibits art works ready to go under the hammer, you would experience, rather encounter an exhibition like no other before. Instead of the walls, the area to focus your eyes on is the sprawling floor. There are finely done sculptures everywhere. As you walk about, feasting on these beautiful pieces of art displaying exceptional craftsmanship by the two artists, your emotional mood would change as well.

This is thanks to the power of these sculptures to suck you into their sacred existence, which happens immediately after you set foot in the gallery and focus your eyes on the floor. The mood you just had outside before you entered the exhibition will inexplicably suddenly disappear, to be replaced by a new one that will carry you into a spiritual realm, where you will experience the power of sculpture to capture not only your heart and your mind, but touch a soft part of your soul too.

It is perhaps the Amadlozi, the spiritual reference to the art practice of a group of artists in South Africa, whose movement founded, mentored and led by art patron and collector Egon Guenther in the 1960s, of which Ezrom Legae and Sydney Kumalo were a part of. It also perhaps the presence of Legae and Kumalo’s spirits lingering in the exhibition hall that alters your mood in there. It is also possible that it is your own soul, your own Amadlozi who are taking you into a future that connects you to another existential realm, prompted by the power of these sculptures.

These sculptures in this exhibition, after all, are almost a total representation of the two artists’ works in their entire professional practice, traced to different owners, including private individuals who were lucky enough to have the deep pockets to afford a bronze sculpture of such exceptional quality as these bronzes from these two exceptionally talented and prolific sculptors.

The curators have traced some of these works to different owners, such as institutions from around the world. This is clearly a painstaking undertaking to would have only been undertaken by passionate people, driven by their own individual passion and fondness of the works of these artists, and their yearning to share this amazing artistic experience with the public. This exhibition is a narrative of South African art making bound to stir your intellectual curiosity to want to know more about these two artists, and perhaps drive you to hunt for Kumalo and Sydney sculpture at future art auctions, when and if they ever appear. But of course it would be a good idea to first have a conversation with your bank manager. You will need their support.

As Gavin Watkins and Charles Skinner took CITYLIFE/ARTS on this exclusive tour of the exhibition, I could not help but imagine the kind of effort that they applied to bring the works of these late South African sculpture masters alive through their curation of this exhibition and the authorship of this definitive book about the two artists.

These works tell a story, and that story is how a German, a Swiss and an Italian managed to do what apartheid did not want anyone doing during those years – creating a collaboration for the greater good of art, between three white men and two black men, resulting in an extensive body of works, which retrospectively looked at, leads one to conclude that in fact, what happened at the famous Polly Street Art Centre during those years, was a subversion of the grand apartheid scheme in a small, but impactful way.

What happened there is a clear example of how art can be used to transform social and political perspectives. Maybe at the time, what happened in those studios in Johannesburg CBD, may not have been clear to many at the time, but with hindsight, we are now in a position to say with certainty and confidence brought by the passage of time, it was a sort of art revolution. Egnos Guenther, Cecil Skotnes and Eduardo Villa and their willing students, Ezrom Legae and Sydney Kumalo, clearly the visionaries that carried out with both technical and artistic precision that revolution in the middle of a bustling metropolis.

I can imagine  what Johannesburg CBD must have been like during that time – people as usual driving up and down in its busy streets and walking up and down on its even busier pavements, unaware of an artistic revolution taking place within the city, under their noses. If you want to understand the extent of that revolution, you need not look beyond The Sculptures of Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae, that I had a privilege on Tuesday, June 27, 2023, to encounter. For this exhibition actually is not for viewing but encountering.

You would not be doing yourself a favour if for whatever reason, you failed to note this exhibition as part of your to do list between now and July 28, 2023, when it eventually ends, and the amazing art works go back to their owners. Just like a friend who contacted me this week, almost pleading that I needed to go and encounter this exhibition, unaware that in fact I had long noted it down as one of the things to do, this exhibition deserves a good second round of encounter. It is not a kind of exhibition that you see once, and feel well, I am done. Satisfied. That is not the way. Its allure is just too much to go there once. Twice, even thrice, I would suggest. It must be the spirits of Amadlozi calling, or the souls of Legae and Kumalo that are lingering in that exhibition hall, that keep on calling.

The truth though is that, Legae and Kumalo are some of the finest artists to have been produced by this country, particularly in the genre of sculpture. And like Watkins and Skinner told me, it would be amiss to look at the two sculptors as exceptional black artists.

One need to look at them and their art practice, within a global framework of sculpture making, comparing them to the best of the best in the world. For they in fact were that. Their works were so much appreciated to the extent that even though for example, Kumalo’s practice had not so hidden political undertones, the government at the time was brave and one would say, honest enough as it tacitly approved his exceptional craftsmanship by acquiring two of his works, one in 1960 and another one in 1962.  

These works were showcased at a government pavilion at the rand Easter Show in 1962. “By the way it was during that exhibition where the first attempt to assassinate Verwoerd was made,” pointed out, Watkins, laughing and then added, “It was not by Kumalo by the way.”

An exhibition organised by Guenther, which took place in Johannesburg CBD in 1962, attracted a multi-racial audience, and because of the prevailing political environment at the time, that was a huge feat, Watkins and Skinner told me.

“You need to understand the context of the time. The ANC had been banned, and the political environment was tense, and here is Sydney Kumalo’s solo exhibition, taking place at night in the middle of the city. Blacks and whites attended the exhibition as if nothing was unusual. Opened by Khabi Mngoma and attended by high profile people such as Max Sisulu, Thabo Mbeki and Joe Slovo, it was as If nothing was amiss. We know this because we scrutinised the records of who attended on that day. It is there in the register. Joe Slovo actually bought a sculpture on that day,” said Watkins

The crucial role of Guenther and the development in the careers of Kumalo and Legae is demonstrated well by the fact that without their mentor, especially in their later practice, the intricate designs of their sculpture and the superior technical precision embedded in their earlier works are glaringly lacking.

It was Guenther, who drilled it in the creative crevices of the two artists that they needed to learn of course sculpture making from a Western liberal canon, but then subvert that in practice to meld Afro-centric perspectives. In effect finding their own African voices. That became their formula for success that that they enjoyed, especially in their early works. There are several such works to draw from in this exhibition, such as the Madala series and Woman Praying series by Kumalo, for example.

It is however, important to point out that in this exhibition, you will also notice unfortunately the obvious steady decline in the quality of the work the two sculptors produced in later years. Instead of continuing to create works that were Afro-centric, their traditional signature sculptures that represented their original artistic voice, they appeared to have veered off course. Somehow Legae and Kumalo, seemed have created works in the Western canon, imitating the style of such renowned artists as Andrew More among others, Watkins and Skinner told CITYLIFE/ARTS.  The artists during this period were signed to internationally reputed Goodman Gallery, owned by the Linda Givon.

However irrespective of whatever happened to the two sculptors’ art practice in later years, does not diminish the role they played in raising the bar when it comes to sculpture making in the country among their generation of artists. The two artists were a force to reckon with, and their contribution to sculpture making will definitely remain etched in the imagination of many young artists yearning to follow their pioneering lead in the tradition of Afro-centric sculpture making in South Africa.

.The Sculptures of Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae is on (June 19-July 28) 89 Central Street, Houghton, Johannesburg. Booking to view the exhibition and the public events associated with the exhibitiuo0n and the book is essential. The book is available for purchase at Strauss &Co. retailing at R4025, including VAT (see separate story on CITYLIFE/ARTS the interview with the authors Gavin Watkins and Charles Skinner).

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