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.
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
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
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.
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.'
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.'
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.
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.
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.'
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.'