David Koloane | June 5, 1938 – June 30, 2019

The lauded artist Dr David Koloane died this week at the age of 81. As art collector, businessman and photographer, Mr Saki Zamxaka writes, the old master was the very embodiment of humanity. 

One of the highest honours you can can bestow on another person in isiXhosa, is saying ebengumntu. In other words, that he or she was human. Dr David Koloane – or Bra Dey as some called him – ebengumntu. He had a calm sense about him, a depth of wisdom, and an incredible talent for telling stories about what was happening around him, with the most vivid artistic talent we’ve ever had in this country.

Dr Koloane was born in Alexandra Township in 1938, and having started drawing in High School, he went on to create, study at home and abroad, teach, curate and share his endless and incisive wisdom with innumerable artists and enthusiasts. 

I remember two examples of how he fused art and social commentary, very skilfully into his work. Like Mr Dumile Feni, Mr Vincent Van Gogh, Ms. Helen Sebidi, or any other great artist, his works were very distinct. One of the works I came across while in his studio, taking the accompanying pictures, was one of two dogs fighting, one on top of the other, in a pose of dominance. This, as he explained, was a series he did during the CODESA negotiations, in South Africa’s transition to democracy. He called it a fight about who was the top dog. Leaders fighting to win the hearts and minds of people, who had the moral authority; represented South Africans best; and had the hopes and aspirations of all South Africans? He was documenting and commenting on this era as it was happening.

The other series featured landscapes with taxis, lights, people going to work in the early hours of the morning or coming back from work – a glimpse into his deep care for the people’s everyday plight. He told a story more than three decades ago of the difficulties of making a living as an artist, and the lack of acceptance of art as a source of income by family and society.

“He had a calm sense about him, depth of wisdom, and an incredible talent to tell stories of what was happening around him, with the most vivid artistic talent we’ve ever had in this country.”

Entrepreneurs or artists, even in contemporary society, still battle with people thinking you ‘need to get a job’. Part of his experience was being told that ‘he was busy drawing while other men went to work.’ Telling this story was not only testament to an unwavering will to stick to what he liked, but to his calm way of giving strength to others and being a mentor. He opened himself up to show us, at times, that things are tough, we all go through it, but we live.

If there was any justice in this world, Bra Dey would have received a lot of more praise and appreciation while he lived, but it is fitting that in the last month or so, public galleries were showing his works, and they all respected him. It is true, isitya esihle asidleli (loosely, the best vessel breaks first). This is a man we didn’t tap into enough while he lived, but was heart warming to see artists of his generation and generations of artists after him honouring him at his memorial service at the Goodman Gallery this week: Mam’Hellen Sebidi, Mr Sam Nhlengethwa, Mr Blessing Ngobeni, Mr Samson Mnisi, Mr Johannes Phokela, Mr Asanda Kupa, Mr Senzo Shabangu, and many others.

U-Dr David Koloane, ebengumntu.

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All images by Mr Saki Zamxaka

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