Healing a troubled nation through art
LIONEL DAVIS’S baritone booming from inside his Muizenberg home indicates we’ve come to the right place. He’s just turned 80, this one-ofa-kind character. “Every day I wake up and know that something beautiful is going to happen, because I have been blessed by my ancestors and protected by the elders, over this truly incredible journey that has been my life,” he says.
And that life includes being a prolific artist, social commentator, historian and social activist.
Davis’s art is set for a special showing later this year, with a retrospective of his life’s work just approved, according to Bonita Bennett, executive director of the District Six Museum.
The details have still to be confirmed, but the retrospective will be exhibited under the auspices of Iziko Museums, and in collaboration with the District Six Museum which hosted Davis’s 80th birthday.
His works, many of which are posted on the Artists South Africa Initiative website (www.asai.co.za), have been published and exhibited worldwide, and he is is credited with mentoring many artists who went on to achieve acclaim.
Davis, a former political prisoner on Robben Island, has for more than six decades been at the artistic coal-face, creating a vast portfolio of craft and artworks reflecting the aspirations, joys, disappointments, and social and psychological conditions of the world around him.
He is, to borrow from Ngugi wa Thiongo, one of the beautiful ones gifted to humanity, to make a difference, to bring clarity in the confusion, and to light up the darkness and speak hope into our collective winter of despair.
Davis features prominently in the history of art organisations such as the Community Arts Project, Vakalisa Art Associates, Thupelo Workshop and Greatmore Artists Studios. His versatility is evident in the breadth of his mediums – drawing, painting, printing and often mixed media – and visual modes which range from the realist to the abstract, reflecting everyday scenes and issues of identity.
As the world prepares once more for the 67 Minutes for Mandela campaign, Davis reveals he believes it’s problematic that events and movements are located within the lives and legends of a handful of individuals.
“It was a collective effort and there are many thousands who sacrificed for this freedom, some of whom we know and herald, and many others who are unsung.
“Mandela came to prison in June and found us there, because we were sentenced in April. He came there as a military man and was located in the section where we were, but we all had to learn to live together, despite our differences, and to depend on others. We shared our food, on an equal and just basis, sport was a united effort and when we went on hunger strike over issues in jail it was a united effort,” he recalled.
“Neville Alexander and Mac Maharaj had to learn to cool down, because we were fostering relations with other political persuasions, and it is through this that mentorship came from everybody. This spirit had an immense impact on Mandela, whose world view changed because of his experience. He left prison a different man.”
Davis views himself as a product of “a landscape of conflict that is the canvas that is our collective inheritance from the past”.
He was born in District Six in 1936, three years before the start of World War II. It is from the vibrant cultural, political and social combustion in the old district that Davis says he gained his sense of social consciousness, animosity to injustice, and desire “to bring about a complete social transformation”.
This brought Davis into contact with the likes of Dulcie September, Dr Neville Alexander, Marcus Solomon and Fikile Bam in the Yu Chi Chan Club, a guerrilla structure inspired by Mao Tse Tung formed by activists in the Unity Movement to pursue direct action, including sabotage against apartheid authorities.
In early 1964 Davis and others were charged with conspiracy to commit sabotage. In April that year he was sentenced to seven years and sent to Robben Island.After his release Davis became deeply involved in the Community Arts Project, and throughout the struggle years CAP and several other structures created for artists to express dissent against injustice were his mainstay, a way to challenge apartheid authoritarianism and brutality.
“Working at CAP and other structures, where we made art, posters, screen prints, we always did it on a non-sectarian basis. That has been my strength, because after leaving prison no organisation was my flag. It was always the Struggle that was my flag.”
Davis completed his BA Fine Art degree at UCT in 1994, after which he went to live on Robben Island where he worked for the museum until 2006 as a tour guide and later as an education officer.
He has strong views on the current situation in South Africa. “If I had to paint our condition now, it would be dark, sombre, because many of these guys should know better. They have known the harsh conditions of life. We must get back to the real things, like changing the situation for so many who need houses, food, hospitals, jobs and schools.
“It’s not just about enriching yourself or your family,” he says.
“We must find a way forward where the martyrs can be accorded heroic status through the healing of this troubled nation.” firstname.lastname@example.org
Collage (Picasso Poster).
Detail from The Hunt (I), 1992, monoprint.
Untitled, 2009, monoprint, mixed media.
Trophy Hunter, 1994, mixed media.
Masks #10, mixed media.