Can politics, art and ideas of a complex figure such as the thinker, poet and painter Lefifi Tladi be explored through a series of portrait studies?

Khehla Chepape Makgato explores the subject 

THIS is the fundamental question that Kolodi Senong has worked on for the past four years for his PhD project on Lefifi Tladi.

Senong is working under the supervision of Dr Thembinkosi Goniwe at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Whether he found answers to his question, Darkness After Life – A Visual Portrait of Lefifi Tladi, is a case I will interrogate in this review. The exhibition’s run recently ended at The Point of Order gallery.

A common theme that weaves the entire body of portraiture by Senong is a title taken from one of Tladi’s poems, Gare Itshebeng, wherein he describes the necessity for black people to hear themselves speaking frankly and holding nothing back.

Ga Re Itshebeng, loosely translates, ‘Let’s Talk In Private’. Interrogating this poem further, Tladi implores us to engage our matters privately for he realised that lions or eagles (enemies), are forever on our watch).

The poem opens with this idiomatic expression: “Once again time in foreign land loses its logic and turns children of the land into orphans…”

My understanding is that cherishing the foreign cultures make us lose ourselves. Just like here, I am writing this review in English instead of my mother tongue Sepedi.

For me this project by Senong attempts that necessity and the collaboration, or rather involvement of one of the finest academics in the arts and cultural sector professor  Goniwe; attests to this clarion call for hearing ourselves speaking frankly about the contributions of people who came before us and are still walking among us. 

A study of this magnitude is timely and significant in the process of reclaiming our positions within the canons of black art history, achieving of our myriad contributions made against the dark days of apartheid and rampant white supremacy that continues in the arts.

It is also ensuring that the next generation of black arts practitioners take pride in the contributions their forebears made. Tladi is a figure not so popular unless to the ever-thirsty scholars of arts, politics, poetry and literature of South Africa.

Born in Lady Selborne in 1949, a dynamic young Lefifi in his twenties, used art to connect with and mobilise the Black Consciousness Movement.

In 1969, he co-founded the popular band Dashiki and worked very closely with Geoff Mphakati, his mentor, who at the time had a friend who was working for the US Embassy promoting works by black artists, sculptors, writers, poets and musicians.

Apartheid Reimagined 2, Mixed Media on Paper, from Darkness After Life – A Visual Portrait of Lefifi Tladi by Kolodi Senong

In 1970 he opened one of the first few black art establishments, the Museum for Contemporary Black Art in Ga-Rankuwa, west of Pretoria.

It was forced to close four years later due to an onslaught of the security police. His involvement in the Black Consciousness Movement resulted in his arrest in 1976 as an obvious target by the security branch.

Just like Tladi himself paid and continues to pay tribute to people alive and gone in his work, where he includes practitioners such as Gideon Mgide Nxumalo (pianist), Zim Ngqawana (flautist and saxophonist), Gibo Phetoe (bass player), Gordon Mfando (drummer) and more, – Senong continues with what Tladi believes to be very critical ‘to teach about ourselves and not only what apartheid did to us’.

The works in this exhibition which are a partial fulfillment of a PhD in Fine Art are largely acrylic paintings on canvas, paper and other surfaces of experimentation. Here Senong’s command of the medium is masterly executed with liberty, consciousness and poetic renderings.

Semi-abstract portraits of Tladi are rich in colouring, particular advantage being taken of the remarkable brilliance exhibited by cool colors applied with employment of found objects such as a string or toothbrush here and there.

A look into the painting titled Lefifi Tladi Reimagined, for an example, gives one a sense of whimsical reference to Tladi’s complex character. His resemblance in this piece provides an unusual insight into Senong’s working practice at this period especially in the light of using portraiture as a vehicle to deliver his narratives.

Tshipi Sepanere, Mixed Media on Paper

In this semi-unfinished canvas, charcoal lines have been used to explore the position of Tladi (during apartheid and post-apartheid), leaving traces and shadows where earlier marks have been erased: major changes can be seen on the thoroughly defined black beret.

Here one realises that history always honours and speaks good of the victors who actually wrote it, and not necessarily everyone who was involved in shaping it.

People like Tladi who used their artistic voices to fight apartheid, now find themselves being muted or erased by the governing party, as we hardly see them in the public spaces the way we do contemporary politicians.

In a piece entitled Apartheid Reimagined, Senong illustrates subtle dialogue with the collage medium, his willingness to combine observation and memory with the structural demands of the picture and to improvise as the painting proceeded.

Apartheid Reimagined, Mixed Media on Canvas, 2019

Ironically the paintings in this exhibition installment have no labels and I suppose Senong needed to echo what Pablo Picasso once said about works of art: “A picture is not thought out and settled beforehand. While it is being done it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it is finished, it still goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it.”

This rings just about right because when walking around the exhibition with Senong , I hastened to ask why there were no titles.

He aptly replied: “Because I don’t want to dictate to whomever looks at the work what they should see.”

This PhD project serves as an inspiration and intervention for the generation of black arts practitioners who wishe to pursue their art careers through academia.

Also we need to celebrate people who came before us so that African culture and tradition is not lost in the midst of Euro-centric obsession.

As Senong would say: “For me it’s to show a black child that this is possible.”

I think Senong succeeded in answering his research question through this extensive body of work in an attempt to interpret the life and work of Lefifi Tladi the multi-talented artist.

The author Khehla Chepape Makgato with Kolodi Senong the man behind the work on Lefifi Tladi

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