Healing a trou­bled na­tion through art

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS -

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.” zenzile.khoisan@inl.co.za


Col­lage (Pi­casso Poster).

De­tail from The Hunt (I), 1992, mono­print.

Un­ti­tled, 2009, mono­print, mixed me­dia.

Tro­phy Hunter, 1994, mixed me­dia.

Masks #10, mixed me­dia.

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