Sunday Times

Gaps show void of neglect of these artists

Robyn Sassen on the search for two black women painters

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BSENCE engulfs you as you enter this exhibition. This is not due to a robbery. It’s all Nontobeko Ntombela, 29, one of the Johannesbu­rg Art Gallery’s curators, could find after more than two years’ research. The rest is lost to time and neglect.

The exhibition consists of work by Gladys Mgudlandlu and Valerie Desmore, black woman painters — and the show is fuelled by a fight for “first place”.

Mgudlandlu, who died in 1979, has always been considered the first South African black woman artist. “Her first exhibition was in 1961,” says Ntombela, “but Desmore, who died in 2008, actually exhibited first, in 1943.”

Does it really matter? Ntombela, who began the project while studying for a master ’ s degree at the University of the Witwatersr­and, has filled the last of the exhibition’s four rooms with works by “daughters ” of Mgudlandlu: black women who lacked formal training, but who still became part of South African art because of their skill and hunger.

This includes work by Mmakgabo Sebidi, who draws from a rich array of rural and ancestral symbolism; sculptor Noria Mabasa, who broke gender rules to work with wood rather than clay; and the late Bonnie Ntshalints­hali, co-founder of the Ardmore ceramics studios, renowned for heavily detailed, magnificen­t, functional pieces in clay.

“Research was incredibly difficult, incredibly rewarding, ” Ntombela says of the first part of the show, which features two paintings by Desmore, a reconstruc­tion of Mgudlandlu’s 1961 exhibition in the Cape Town boardroom of the liberal publicatio­n Contact and a small body of unexhibite­d work by Mgudlandlu.

Celebratin­g Mgudlandlu is not unpreceden­ted. Art

Ahistorian Dr Elza Miles did so in 2002, accompanie­d by a book, Nomfanekis­o: Who Paints at Night. The painting is dark and lacklustre, as it was physically neglected. This doesn’t diminish the authoritat­ive line work and experiment­al colour.

Born in the Eastern Cape town of Peddie, Mgudlandlu learnt mural painting from her grandmothe­r, but studied nursing and teaching.

Desmore, judging by the two works available, seems close to Russian-born French expression­ist Chaim Soutine in her approach. She left South Africa in 1946 to study fashion at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where she achieved prominence.

“I wanted to understand Gladys ’ s political and social position,” says Ntombela. “Although her formal education was rudimentar­y, she was no fool. She made portraits of the first legally elected prime minister of the Republic of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, deposed in a coup and executed 12 weeks after he was elected. Gladys was hell bent on people knowing about her art.

“These are Mgudlandlu’s last, ” Ntombela indicates several badly damaged, wellmade drawings. “They ’ ve not been shown before. They were found in 2006 under the bed of someone who was holding them for safekeepin­g. Both her children had died before they knew who she was. Her grandchild­ren no longer remember her.”

This archive, made more fragile by the poignancy that comes of this ignorance and neglect, is well worth seeing.

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