On 5 March 2018 Durant Sihlali (would have) turned 83. In the true belief that artists are referred to in present tense after their deaths, Sihlali is 83 this year. This is because his body of work continues to survive him with each exhibition, each sale, appearance at auctions. It continues to immortalize him as people talk about him in the present tense through his work: “I bought a Durant Sihlali during last week’s auction”…..a buyer of a Sihlali would say. The artist thus lives on through our continued interaction with his work, in a unique manner, our continued interaction with him.
Durant Basi Sihlali is a South African artist, born in Germiston on 5 March 1935. To say Sihlali was a prolific artist would be an under representation of the man. Durant Sihlali was and continues to be a phenomenal artist. There are many situations that confronted him growing up in South Africa, he recorded each of them through his art. If Sihlali had been a writer, he would have produced volume after volume of life under apartheid South Africa. Looking at Sihlali’s repertoire as a visual artist is like going through several timelines of many lifetimes. His records span the entire spectrum of life as seen by Durant Sihlali. He did not choose ‘nice’ subjects but rather rendered each of his subjects ‘nicely’. In his “rush against the machines” series, spurred by the forced removals of Pimville, Sihlali used the fast and efficient watercolour medium producing as he did beautiful images of a dire situation.
The ease with which Sihlali renders images in watercolour makes him, in my opinion, one of the leading watercolour artists of the 20th century in South Africa. He manipulates the medium effortlessly and this translates into amazingly clean and translucent layering of colours. In his Pimville series it is possible to see dust rising all around as bulldozers demolish house after house. It is clean dust! There is clean smoke. The masterful manner in which Sihlali renders imagery of gory scenes makes for a delightful viewing that makes one, for a brief moment, forget the subject of the artwork.
Preparing to Cook Sheep’s Head after the Ceremony transports the viewer to many such ceremonies in family rituals and traditional observance. In the many township scenes that the artist creates, the viewer knows that they are looking at dire living conditions but Sihlali cushions this fact by employing his skill to give a ‘nice’ picture in watercolour. His landscapes of rural and mining scenes show attention to detail and do not directly translate the tough conditions faced by people in rural and mining areas. We know these conditions because we know the history and the times of these recordings.
Sihlali began his art classes at the Chiawelo Art Centre under Alphius Kubeka from 1950 to 1953. He also learned from artists Carlo Sdoya and Sidney Goldblatt, and studied with Cecil Skotnes at the Polly Street Recreation Centre from 1953 to 1958. What set Sihlali apart from other students studying with Skotnes was his departure from the instructor’s approach of drawing on imaginative interpretations of traditional African sculptural forms. Sihlali worked from observations of the world around him. He resisted avant-garde art trends of the time and insisted on representing realities of urban (and rural) life for blacks in South Africa. Coming out of a tradition of training and instruction to become an artist himself, it was natural for Sihlali to become a trainer and instructor to aspiring artists. The Federated Union of Black Arts (FUBA) was established in 1978/79. Sihlali was appointed the Head of the Fine Art department of the academy from 1978 until he resigned in 1988. Even after resigning from FUBA to pursue a fulltime career as an artist, Durant the teacher, the mentor never ceased to have young and old artists around him. He shared openly with all who needed his assistance. The teacher in him never stopped giving.
In art, it is tempting to stay in a tried and tested comfort zone: drawing, painting, watercolour, sculpture. This was not the case with Durant Sihlali. In 1985 FUBA, FUNDA and the Johannesburg Art Foundation joined the growing trend of international artists’ workshops. Thupelo was the first of such networks of workshops in the continent. David Koloane and Durant Sihlali were part of the FUBA Academy that was instrumental in the establishment of the Thupelo Artists Workshop. The workshops allowed artists to experiment with mediums they had not been able to try before. Artists gel which helps to extend the otherwise highly priced art pigments, was one such experimentation. Handmade paper developed from recycling paper and adding pigments was another. Sihlali took to this medium so much that, in time, he established his own ‘plant’ where he collaborated with many artists to develop and create artworks from handmade paper. He continued interfacing with students teaching them how to make paper that they could use for watercolour painting, pen and ink drawing and a myriad of other products that were derived from the pulp.
Durant Basi Sihlali was so confident in his own skill as an accomplished artist that it was natural for him to mentor other artists, young and old, without fear of being copied or taken for granted. He believed strongly in the reciprocal nature of sharing. Many times he said that he was learning something new from those he was mentoring.
The art world locally and internationally is richer for having had an artist of Durant Sihlali’s caliber. He is counted among the very best South Africa has produced.
-Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa, 18 July 2018