Dumisani Mabaso
Dumisani Mabaso

WHAG's resident artist, Dumisani Mabaso, died last Monday (23 September 2013) at the age of 58. As a tribute to him, as both distinguished printmaker and man, we reproduce probably his last interview, which was conducted hardly three months before his death. The interview is an excerpt from a book to be published in 2014 which describes the social impact in the Northern Cape of the substantial outreach programmes emanating from the gallery.

I had visited Dumisani Mabaso one morning in his studio flat. It had been built in the middle of the WHAG complex, and I knew that immediately beyond one of his bedroom walls classical sculptures of the human form were displayed under brilliant spotlights. Access to the flat was from a rear courtyard directly into the living room, this space now dominated by a press and work tables. When I arrived, a local artist working with Dumisani was sitting at one of the tables poring over a copper plate, so Dumisani and I sat in the kitchen to talk.

He was a small man, very thin, and with perceptive eyes. He had a gentle voice, calm and wise. Or perhaps his tones were more world-weary. Yet, although often unwell as he approached his sixties, his eyes shone with interest  and he remained an accomplished artist and printmaker.

'I was born in Dube in Soweto in 1955,' he said1  'I grew up in troubled times. In school, I only went as far as grade four. But my father was a printmaker and he would sometimes take me to the factory where he was employed and I would watch him work. I started art when I was twelve or thirteen. I took lessons at the YWCA where I came into contact with people like Janet Rustovski and later with Eric Mbatha. I also started sculpting with clay.

Then in 1975, when I was nineteen, I applied to go to Rorkes Drift2 and I got in. But after six months I was asked to leave.' Dumisani smiled slightly as he related this. 'I had been stepping on toes rather than toeing the line. But I was given a second chance. In 1977 the principal wrote asking me to come back. I went, and I stayed for two years. I learned a lot about print making, and also about spinning and weaving.

Back in Johannesburg I worked as a junior lecturer at an art centre in Soweto. At the same time I got a job with the South African Council of Churches, teaching women to spin and weave and do macramé using natural dyes. But I wanted to study further. I tried to enrol at the all-white Wits Technikon. I was turned down. Even when I showed them my Rorke's Drift certificate, they weren't interested. I knew some of the lecturers in the art department. People like Philippa Hobbs, who smuggled me in, even though from time to time I had to hide from the authorities. I used to stand on the fire escape until they had left the studio again.'

Behind him, as we chatted in the kitchen, stood the stove and a collection of pots and pans. I heard voices from the studio. Someone had come for a lesson. Later I heard some trumpet jazz played softly through Dumisani's music centre. He continued to relate the details of his life. I continued to listen. His life constituted a seesaw of initiatives and ingenuities on one hand and setbacks on the other.

He said: 'An architect I knew gave a loan and I bought a small press. I set up in a studio in Market Street in downtown Johannesburg. I had collaborations with people I had met at Rorke' s Drift and the Technikon, a wonderful cross-section of races and talents. But our white neighbours complained. This put an end to the studio, and I moved out of Johannesburg to Hammanskraal where I had been asked to set up a spinning and weaving workshop.'

The years passed in this seesawing way. In the middle 1980s, with the country beginning to seethe in open political turmoil, Dumisani established Squzu Press. A picture-framing firm gave him space, again in central Johannesburg, where, besides his serious printmaking work, he made small colour etchings of flowers, which his landlord would frame and sell, thus providing a reasonable basis for his tenure. But the Group Areas Act, soon to be abolished as the National Party clung to power, again intervened. Squzu Press moved back to Soweto, and then to Auckland Park into a house owned by German artist Albert Rack whose wife was keen on spinning and weaving. So Dumisani was able to exchange his expertise for space to set up his press in the middle of the commune the Rack house had become. But very soon this space was also lost.

'At about this time', Dumisani continued, 'I heard of an art competition run by Thopelo, an organisation dedicated to breaking the barriers between black and white art in South Africa. I entered and won. The prize was a month in New York. I must tell you that I was also very interested in music. I played all sorts of drums. Anyway, I came back from New York with a miniature recording studio in my luggage, which I set up at my parents house. I ran the studio with a friend, Zolile Bacela, who was a highly talented guitarist. While we were doing that, I did lecturing jobs at the Funda Centre in Soweto and for the Johannesburg Art Foundation. I also went to Mozambique and Namibia and Botswana, giving workshops in print making and weaving.

By 1994, my interest had focussed once more on my own printmaking. I gave the recording studio to Zolile, and now I bought a semi-detached property in Bertrams and turned one side into the Squzu Press studio, and rented out the other. That was a big mistake. The place turned into an overcrowded slum, and I was forced to move again. And that was when I first started coming to Kimberley.'

He sat back in his chair, as if to say, 'and the rest you know' . But I pressed him to continue. We sat at the kitchen table, listening for a moment to the jazz and conversation coming from the studio. Now that he had sat back, I had a full view of the pots on the stove. In a moment he leaned forward again.

'Well', he said, 'my friend in Kimberley was Rochester Mafafo, a very fine artist who at one stage served as a member of the Council at WHAG. I did quite a lot of stuff in Kimberley: working with the San people when they were moved from the tents at Schmidtsdrift to Platfontein. Then I met Ann Pretorius and some of her staff. They gave me an exhibition at the gallery in 2006. Then I suggested that we set up Squzu Press at the gallery. Ann agreed. She did all the preparatory work. She was so open-minded and decisive. I've never met a person as warm and open as Ann. She' s an angel with ten toes but no wings.'

We smiled together.

I asked what 'squzu'meant, and Dumisani replied in this way: 'I had a friend at Rorke's Drift by the name of Vincent Kubeka. He would always use the word as a substitute for friend. 'Hullo, Squzu,' he would say. Then he died. He was very young. So I named my print-making activities in memory of him.'  

1 The infamous forced removals of the entire Sophiatown black population to Soweto occurred in 1955, as the often ruthless enforcement of apartheid began in earnest.

2 The world-famous ELC Art and Craft Centre was established by Swedish missionaries at Rorkes Drift in KwaZulu-Natal in 1963. The fine art section of the centre closed in 1983, but by then an entire generation of black artists had been influenced either directly or indirectly by the Rorkes Drift  movement .


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