Born in District Six, Cape Town, in 1936. Lives in Muizenberg, Cape Town.
A former political prisoner and long-time cultural activist, Lionel Davis’ name features prominently in the history of the Community Arts Project, Vakalisa Art Associates, Thupelo Workshop and Greatmore Artists Studios. Drawing, painting, and printing, and often combining these media, Davis works in visual modes that range from the realist to the abstract. His themes include everyday scenes as well as reflections on black and African identity.
- Political violence
- Robben Island
- District Six
- Rorke's Drift
- Everyday life
- Train journeys
- Figure Studies
- Poster Designs
Lionel Davis profile (published at www.africaexpert.org.uk)
Political activist and prisoner turned artist and educator, Lionel Davis cuts a distinct figure in the South African arts and culture landscape. A living archive, he has lived a significant part of his life in or on two of apartheids most notorious symbols, District Six and Robben Island. He has also been closely involved with two key arts organisations, the Community Arts Project (CAP) and the Thupelo Workshop.
It was at an early age growing up in District Six that Davis “became aware of the brutality of police, especially white police, in their attitude to and treatment of people of colour”. Davis says that “this became more of an issue for me, and I always used to stand up for people who were being pushed around. This got me into trouble, and into fights… I was caned once by the police for allegedly hitting a white woman in Woodstock, when I was trying to defend a colleague…”. Aware of the need to educate himself Davis attended night school (on the site where Harold Cressy School now stands), where then in his mid-twenties, he met members of the Non European Unity Movement (NEUM) and began attending political meetings. Davis joined APDUSA (African Peoples Democratic Union of South Africa), an off-shoot of the NEUM, but grew disenchanted with them, describing APDUSA as a “theory shop”. He was part of the core group led by Neville Alexander that broke away from APDUSA to form the Mao Tse Tung inspired National Liberation Front, whose goal was to use arms to overthrow the state. In 1964 he was among a group of eleven that was sentenced to gaol for ‘Conspiring to Commit Sabotage’.
During his seven year sentence Davis completed his schooling by correspondence. Released in 1971 and placed under house arrest he worked as a labourer and then a clerk on building sites, until one day in 1978 he chanced upon CAP, then in infant form. At CAP Davis would go on to play multiple roles for over two decades. From his initial role as cleaner/ handyman/ assistant administrator and student, Davis went on to be a long serving art educator/trainer/ facilitator, specialising in drawing, screen-printing and mural painting, teaching children, youth and adults. He also played a leadership role in CAP: he was elected chairperson in 1988, playing the role of co-ordinator (or acting director); and in the nineties he served two years as a Trustee.
Prior to CAP, Davis’ had no previous art tuition. His art experience was limited to his childhood, drawing cartoon heroes with found materials on the streets and walls of District Six. At CAP he proved to be a diligent student, quickly mastering drawing, the medium that has remained the back-bone to his artistic practice. He was introduced to lino-cut printing by resident artist Mpathi Gocini, who came to CAP via the Evangelical Arts & Crafts Centre in Natal, better known by its location at Rorkes Drift. In 1980 Davis went to Rorkes Drift where he spent two years, returning to Cape Town with a diploma in Fine Arts. It was at Rorkes Drift that Davis learned new graphic techniques and began to appreciate the potential of screen-printing as a medium. His stay there was also important for his artistic development because it brought him into contact with other black artists nationally, paving the way for his later involvement with the Thupelo Workshop.
In 1982 Davis assisted in organising the Cape Town contingent to attend the Culture & Resistance Symposium in Gaborone, organised by the African National Congress (ANC). This is widely regarded as a seminal event which was responsible for recognising the role of artists in cultural resistance, and for shifting the notion of ‘artist’ to that of ‘cultural worker’. A direct outcome of this event was the establishment of a Poster Workshop at CAP. It was here, and its later incarnation as the CAP Media Project that Davis was active for most of the 80s as a screenprint facilitator. Initially most of this work involved producing posters, t-shirts, and banners, much of it political in content. Much of this was done on behalf of political and community organisations, and was frequently banned or confiscated by authorities; whereas his later work for the Media Project entailed training members of community and political organisations to produce their own media.
Davis also played a political role at CAP, especially in countering what he perceived as the hegemonic tendencies of political organisations.Following the launch in 1983 of the United Democratic Front (the internally based resistance movement that was politically aligned to the ANC), there was pressure on CAP to affiliate to the UDF. Similar pressures resurfaced in the late eighties. Davis says of CAP that “[although it] wished to play a political role in the struggle it did not see itself as being party political and made its facilities available to all progressive political tendencies.” He is proud of the role he played in communicating CAP’s non-aligned position to a range of political organisations, especially trade unions and community groupings who may have been alienated, or possibly denied access, by a politically aligned CAP.
In 1987 Davis attended the International Triangle Workshop in New York, an initiative that had given rise to the Thupelo Project a few years earlier. Davis was a Thupelo stalwart, serving as a Trustee for eleven years, and attending no less than nine national workshops between 1986 and 2001. He also attended triangle affiliated workshops in Botswana and Zimbabwe. Thupelo was initially best known for encouraging exploration of materials, and initially this resulted in a mass of abstract paintings. That many black artists abandoned (at least temporarily) more realist modes of working in favour of a painting style and approach that some radical critiques saw as an expression of American cultural imerialism, meant that Thupelo received a mixed reception on the left, whilst being welcomed by establishment voices such as the SA National Gallery’s Marilyn Martin. For many of the artists who were invited to these workshops, Thupelo was undeniably a liberating experience. For Davis, Thupelo was an important part of his exploration of painting, a media to which he had previously had limited access, and he derided his critics claiming that he had never had the opportunities to ‘play’ with art materials, something that was taken for granted as part of (mostly white) privileged children’s development. He also benefitted from Thupelo’s emphasis on scale, and some of his works from Thupelo, such as African Sunset, are among his best known.
Davis also worked as an art educator for the SA National Gallery (SANG), where he was responsible for teaching primary school teachers from the townships to teach art to children. This built on his experience teaching children (in the early eighties) and as media trainer at CAP, as well as the training he undertook (in the nineties) for a diploma from the Curriculum Development Project in teaching teachers to teach art in schools. He also served as a Trustee of the SANG as part of its first ‘democratically constituted’ Board. While the national galleries of Zimbabwe (who have used Davis three times an international ajudicator) and Botswana have bought works from Davis for their collection, the SANG has yet to acquire one of his works.
Davis’ current employer, the Robben Island Museum, has provided him with the unique opportunity to live on the site where he was once imprisoned. Initially employed as a tour guide along with other former political prisoners, Davis is now employed by the Museum as Heritage Educator and does much of his work with secondary school pupils. He plans to retire in three years, when at the ripe age of seventy we can expect his art to bloom like never before. Indeed Davis’ road to becoming an artist has been a much longer one than most other artists. He was 42 when he started classes at CAP and 58 when he graduated as a Fine Artist at UCT. His work has been exhibited in numerous group shows at home and abroad (USA, England, Germany, Greece), but he has never had a solo show. A Lionel Davis retrospective is clearly overdue.
Awakenings - Mario Pissarra
Awakenings: impulses and threads in the art of Lionel Davis
Lionel Davis is a significant figure in South African art circles. Core elements of his personal biography are well known, and his contribution as an artist is integral to accounts of seminal art organisations such as the Community Arts Project, Vakalisa, and the Thupelo Workshop. His early history as a District Six resident and political prisoner has made him an invaluable resource for post apartheid heritage projects, such as the District Six and Robben Island Museums. An articulate, charismatic and sociable personality, Davis is popular and respected, with an active public life and media presence.
Despite his prominent profile, Davis’s art has still to receive adequate attention from art historians, critics, and curators. For while many of his works have been published and exhibited since the 1980s, you will be hard pressed to find anything that can be described as a considered reflection on his art. The absence of a critical analysis of Davis’ art is partly due to his tendency to situate his practice as part of broader networks, as well as because of his decision to pursue employment from ngos, mostly as an educator, rather than to work full-time as an artist. Aged seventy-eight, and active since his late introduction to art making in 1977, Davis has held only one solo exhibition, and used it to feature recent work. The task of surveying his art as a body of images produced over forty years remains to be done, along with a proper assessment of his contribution and value as an artist. This short essay, along with the online galleries published by ASAI, aims to begin this process, one that will hopefully find fuller fruition with a retrospective exhibition that is in the early stages of being planned.
In beginning to make sense of Davis’ career there are some obvious entry points. A quick glance suggests that his oeuvre reflects chapters in his life. There are narrative stories of District Six, images depicting imprisonment and the history of Robben Island, ‘political’ graphics and posters and social comment from his long association with CAP, and abstract works from Thupelo. With his unique biography providing a thread to interpret his art, illustrating his personal narrative presents one obvious way to curate his work. Alternately one could begin by sorting his output by media: graphics (silkscreens, mostly but not exclusively for posters, linocuts, woodcuts, and mono-prints, along with a fair number of etchings and a few lithographs), paintings (mostly acrylics, on paper, board and canvas, and some watercolours), drawings (pencil, charcoal, pastels, crayons), collages and mixed media works.
While biography and media present two frames to organize and present Davis’ art, it is more rewarding to go deeper, to search for the underlying concerns that motivate Davis as an artist, and to explore ways in which these interests intersect with each other, sustain themselves, or are more present at particular moments.
For instance, the very idea of distinguishing between themes and materials deserves comment. A common feature in Davis’ work is his healthy disregard for the sanctity of individual media. He has no qualms drawing or painting on a print, drawing on newspaper or the pages of a printed book, tearing and collaging drawings and prints, and incorporating words, from short phrases through to whole paragraphs. What is privileged here is the creative act as an exploratory process, one in which intuition and play are constantly present. This approach, as many will know, is central to the original principles informing one of Davis’s artistic ‘homes’, the Thupelo workshop- lest we forget Thupelo is a Sotho word meaning ‘learning by doing’, incidentally also the original guiding principle for CAP.
The idea of learning that operates here is only partially concerned with ‘technical’ questions, it is less about traditional ideas of skill than it is about growth. Titles such as The Awakening and New Dawn suggest a link between the creative act and a quest for consciousness. As ideas they resonate simultaneously at the personal and social levels. These works, along with most of Davis’ abstract works are strongly evocative of organic forms, of movement, of generation..
The growth that Davis’ abstract forms evoke project into the future, affirming life as dynamic but they also provide evidence of their nurturing and sustained investment. Many artists who choose to work in related fields, such as education, inevitably suffer a decline in productivity. In Davis’ case drawing regularly has been important in maintaining a creative momentum. Informing the aesthetic qualities of his abstract works is a command of drawing; between the discipline of looking and the freedom offered by an emphasis on process there is fertile ground for Davis’s command of line, form and colour to assume its own momentum and assert its distinctive character. What these works reveal is that the binaries between observational drawing and expressive, intuitive abstraction can dissolve, in the sense that these two tendencies feed off each other
Drawing also informs Davis’ mono-chromatic linocuts, where the narrative impulse is strongly evident. In the case of those recalling District Six, there is an almost illustrative realism, presented as depictions of concurrent or sequential settings, and augmented by generous use of written texts. However, the dramatic juxtaposition of multiple settings and viewpoints introduces a fragmentary ‘whole’ that is as much a reminder of the incompleteness of memory as it is a visual simulation of rupture and displacement.
The District Six works resonate as implicitly ‘political’ works through their reconstruction of a community displaced by apartheid, and more explicit political content features in works chronicling violent conflict between apartheid’s enforcers and its militant opposition, as well as in much of Davis’ output of posters. But mostly Davis’ politics are manifest through his empathy for people dealing with the challenges of being alive, being hungry, being depressed, or just coping, passing time, waiting… This concern is most evident through his long-term interest in imaging train commuters. A life-long commuter himself, Davis has produced numerous works on this theme. Arguably the most powerful are not the composed and ‘finished’ paintings or prints but rather the sketches produced on-site where his discreet observation of individuals and groups is ably translated through modest means, typically pencil or pen on small formats. These are intimate, ostensibly unremarkable moments that affirm human presence and express a profound respect for the lives of ‘small’ people. They also chronicle an existential, liminal space between destinations, spaces fraught with uncertainties, sites of hope and fear, community and alienation. That these works date back to the mid-1980s, a time of serial states of Emergency, informs their often desolate tone, and underlines the displacement that the train journey rehearses with its shuffling between the city, off-limits to the majority, and the desolate locations to which many were forcibly relocated. It is a mark of Davis’ skill that deceptively simple drawings can summons up the trauma of daily struggle that permeate everyday life for ‘ordinary’ people.
It is instructive to consider Davis’ approach to his train subjects with what was likely to have been one of his original sources of inspiration, the painting Third Class Carriage by Honore Daumier, 19th century French realist and satirist. Daumier conceived of this work as having a companion piece, The First Class Carriage, in order to didactically highlight the gap between the elite and poor. Davis shows little interest in visualizing a world of privilege that he is not part of , using his art to situate himself socially and politically, he not looking in on an alien experience, he is visualizing a world that is familiar with.
The use of his art to situate himself socially and politically also informs a number of works that reveal Davis’ recurrent interest in his identity. Classified ‘coloured’, Davis has addressed the denial of African heritage that marks many communities that have embraced the notion of coloured identity. At times Davis’ dissidence takes the form of claiming an African identity for his work, typically expressed through titles, a trend most visible in many of his abstract works. Elsewhere, he directly addresses the prejudice towards looking too black, as with his Flat-nosed people series. And when Davis incorporates rock painting motifs into his work, he troubles fixed notions of coloured and African identity, highlighting the absurd exclusion of the descendants of the first people from legal and common classifications of African identity. Similarly, his poster commemorating the history of Robben Island reminds us that it was three prominent ‘hunter-gatherers’ who were the first political prisoners banished there.
Davis’ unsettling of coloured and African identities as separate recurs in his Masks series. In these works Davis entangled the painted, minstrel face conventions of the Cape Town minstrel (klopse) carnival with those of west African masqueraders, at once drawing attention to questions of what constitutes masking traditions in Africa as well as marking the presence of West Africans ion the cosmopolitan mix of District Six, which conservative interests have ethnically cleansed as a ‘coloured’ site. Once again, identity, culture, history and politics know no boundaries.
Viewing Davis’ work, one cannot but be struck by the convergence of skill, pleasure and introspection. Over the last forty years, he has produced a rich archive free of any pressures to be anything other than meaningful for his own journey of self-discovery and socialisation. Through this committed approach to his practice, Davis affirms the potential of art as a means of making sense of the world and one’s place in it.
Maskerade, Exhibition review - Bridget Thompson
Lionel Davis Exhibition Maskerade at Association of Visual Arts Gallery Church Street until 4th September
Lionel Davis is for the first time at 70 plus working as a full- time artist.
His life has traversed childhood and youth in District 6, political activism and imprisonment on Robben Island, two years of art training at Rorke’s Drift, many contributions to the social practice of art like running the Community Arts Project silkscreen workshop for 8 years, participating in the annual Thupelo workshops for more than 20 years, formal study at UCT where he gained a BAFA in 1995, back to Robben Island as a tour guide for 10 years and now finally full time artist.
His work reminds us of the experiences whích shape the identities of individuals and the culture of a collective in the complex mix of people that have found themselves in Cape Town over the past 3 and half centuries. A suppressed aspect of that collective’s voice is rising up in Lionel’s work in this ground breaking exhibition. It is the first to overtly connect Cape Culture with Africa and the African diaspora through the medium of the mask. It reflects a lifetime’s journey away from the pain and shame of being “too” dark skinned in District 6 into a celebration of all that this dark skinned heritage connotes and more.
Recently in the Caribbean I showed a documentary on Cape music, which naturally featured a lot of carnival footage. The response was an astonished “so they have ‘mas’ there too?” I was in turn struck at how easily the term mas’ or mask was linked to carnival by Caribbeans. It s not quite the same here where there has been a tortured naming and renaming from coons to minstrels, not forgetting the term favoured by participants, klopse. Yet the essence of carnival, the term mask, has not been part of this naming game.
Davis’ portraits of individuals are constructed from collages of tiny pieces of paper layered next to each other creating dimensions, shadows, curves and facial features with momentary expressions captured in a mask of facial rigor mortis. Here masking reveals more than it hides.
A group of works on Cape Carnival using variously collage, ink and paint and netting covering one image called transformation seems to speak to the pain of despised heritages which are masked in the Cape Carnival.
The silkscreens created in the artist’s studio over the past two decades in a spontaneous process of using up excess ink from screens are intriguing. Images apparently disconnected are layered over others but the artist almost magically arrived at unified pictures in which it seems he references all the traditions of masking relevant to his life.
Drawing from his subconscious in this way he, in one instance portrays the Klopse, familiar from his narrative linocuts of earlier years, in their uniforms and marching formations as a foundation image to a looser freer movement of people, some masked in traditional African masks yet seemingly with the same gestures, energy and intensity of the klopse voorloper.
Davis seems to be saying that his own distinct Cape heritage is at one and the same time a distinctly West African heritage. The narrative stories of a particular community in his earlier work transmute into a deeper universal imagery.
The artist’s subconscious preceded his conscious intent by two decades for in his statement he speaks about a deliberate process, just a year old, of researching his heritage and uncovering the story of his Sierra Leonian Great Grandfather.
Davis’ own self portrait, has a map of District 6 on one side of his face and images of African people he found during his second sojourn on Robben Island layered over an aerial view of Robben Island on the other.
His first experience on Robben Island as a political prisoner was the first time he shared an everyday life and deep common bond with people brought up within African culture. An experience he describes as ‘beautiful’.
Lionel’s close friend the artist and writer Peter Clarke opened the exhibition. In his talk it seemed that Lionel’s unmasking provoked the release of memories long contained by Peter Clarke. He spoke about his own experiences of being arrested and beaten for not having a pass when he went to buy meat at the local butcher for his mother. Together they invited us to look more closely at our society and reminded us of where we have come from and the continent we live on.
It is timeous and appropriate that the elders in our community should play the lead in bringing this well known, but not yet public, discourse about identity into the open.
The exhibition draws our attention to the multiple meanings of mask: the psychological masking of an individual, the social role of mask in carnival at the Cape and the deep African heritage of mask as ritual, communication and celebration, an individual and a social process of masking and unmasking thereby bringing ‘mas’ to public centre stage here at the Cape.
Bridget Thompson, August 2009
Picking up the strands of our heritage - Garth King
Picking Up the Strands of Our Heritage
Muizenberg artist Lionel Davis, 77, had a special connection with Nelson Mandela — as a fellow political prisoner in the B-Section of Robben Island’s Maximum Security Prison in the 1960s.
Initially, B-Section held about 30 prisoners — including some common-law prisoners — but was later reserved for those in the struggle leadership or those seen as potentially influential among the political prisoners. All were held in single cells but were exercised in the prison yard daily for an hour and often worked together in the yard, breaking stones or in the lime quarry on the island.
Mr Davis was born in 101 Canterbury Street, District Six, in 1936, and as a young man he was working at a fruit juice bottling factory in 1961 when he joined a cell of the National Liberation Front. In 1963, he was on holiday, at home, when the security branch arrived at his house and arrested him. He was interrogated under the 90-days detention clause. In 1964, he was sentenced to 7 years for “conspiracy to commit acts of sabotage”. Ten other NLF members were arrested too and charged similarly, including the late Neville Alexander.
“Like all black male political prisoners, I was sent to Robben Island. I arrived there on April 14, 1964”, said Mr Davis, interviewed at his Muizenberg Village home this week, X days before Mandela’s death.
Seven of his male NLF comrades were dispatched to the island, and the NLF women arrested were sent to Kroonstad Prison.
In June 1964, after the Rivonia Trial, Mandela arrived back on the island (after a short period there before the trial) and eventually Mandela and Mr Davis both found themselves among the 30 men in B-Section.
B-Section was to be Mr Davis’s “home” for the next seven years. “It was very cold in winter in those concrete-floor small cells. We each had three thin grey blankets and a coir mat to sleep on at first. Each cell had a bucket with a cover, a plastic bottle of water, a tin mug and a tin plate. Eventually we got felt mats in addition to the coir mast, which was somewhat better”.
Despite the relative isolation — not living in communal cells — the B-Section prisoners were treated with respect. “It was less horrendous than the communal cells and warders treated us with caution”, he said.
“At the weekends, we were allowed to walk around the exercise yard for an hour each day, and at first, the warders tried to stop us talking to each other — but they soon gave up and simply let us get on with it. There were many opportunities to chat, when we chopping stones in the yard, or out cutting firewood on the island, for example”.
Mr Davis said he did not talk often with Mandela. “He had his own organization. They were always engaged in conversation. When we did chat, Mandela asked about my family, my background, that sort of thing. We didn’t talk about intellectual matters”.
Soon, Mr Davis developed great respect for Mr Mandela as well as other leaders from different political organizations. “I noted that Mandela was not arrogant. He had respect for people, no matter their political views. He was down-to-earth, he had a quiet dignity. He was patient with people. He didn’t get angry”.
But Mandela could get angry at times — notably when he was delegated by the prisoners to present their grievances to the prison authorities. “When he had a mandate from the prisoners he would not relent with the warders when pursuing rights to study, or for better food, clothing and medical attention”, said Mr Davis.
Mandela, he said, loved playing draughts and chess in prison. “When he played draughts he would laugh heartily and make jokes. He was very good at those games”.
Towards the end of his sentence in B-Section, Mr Davis said his long goodbyes to his B-Section comrades and took the ferry back to the mainland — but not to any proper freedom. He had to submit to five years of house arrest in Manenberg.
Looking back on our democracy, Mr Davis said that “It was a pity that Mandela did not serve a second term as president of South Africa. I think his vision for a new South Africa would have been realized, his destiny would have been more fulfilled. There would have been more reconciliation”.
“Unfortunately, we are still very far from achieving our dreams and we need to work at breaking down prejudices. All South Africans were victims of colonialism and apartheid rule. Each person needs to bring more energy to reconciliation and we must all engage in the healing process, starting with ourselves. We need more sharing and caring, a better regard for others. That, I believe, is the message of Mandela, the message of the Island”.
Garth King, The Echo
Kunst for alle. by Toril Kojan, 2005.
Life can be different – Learning Cape Festival, 2004.
First Mobil Zimbabwe Heritage Biennale, 1998.
Zimbabwe Heritage, 1997.
Zimbabwe Heritage, 1996.
Akal – The Congress of South African Writers – August 88 Vol 1, 1988.
Ascent arts student’s publication, February 1984.
Songs of a New Dawn – Hymn book
Ten Years at Greatmore Studios Cape Town
25 Years of Caversham Press – Artists, Prints , Community. 2011.
Reflections from Thupelo International Workshop, 2007.
Botaki 3 – Exhibition Catalogue, 2007.
Botaki 2 – Exhibition Catalogue, 2005.
Upfront and Personal – Three Decades of Political Graphics, 2003.
Cross Currents – Contemporary art practice in South Africa, an exhibition in two parts, 2000.
Thirty minutes – Installation by nine artists, 1997.
Thapong international artist’s workshop Kenya, 1989.
The Neglected Tradition – Towards a New History of South African art, 1988.
Thupelo art workshop, 1986.
Art From South Africa, 1990.
Making Art in Africa 1960-2010, ed. by Polly Savage. Published by Lund Humphries, December 2014.
Uncontained – Opening the Community Arts Project archive, ed. by Heidi Grunebaum & Emile Maurice. Published by the Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape, 2012.
Triangle: Variety of Experience around Artists’ Workshops and Residencies. Published by Triangle Arts Trust, 2007.
Visual culture and public memory in a democratic South Africa, Annie Coombes. Published by Duke University Press Books, 2003.
Shuld…immer nur die anderen. Published by Flensburger Hefte, 2004.
Turning to one another – Simple conversations to restore hope to the future, Margaret Wheatley. Published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002.
Printmaking in a transforming South Africa, Philipa Hobbs & Elizabeth Rankin. Published by David Krut Bookstores, 1997.
Islamic Art and Culture in Sub Saharan Africa, Karin Adahl & Berit Sahlstrom.Published by Uppsala University, 1995.
Art From South African Townships, Gavin Younge. Published by Thames and Hudson, 1988.
Echoes of African Art, compiled by Matsemela Manaka. Published by Skotaville Publishers, 1987.
Jabula Journal – Rorkes Drift student journal. Published by Rorkes Drift Fine Art School, 1981.
Until freedom Dawns – Poetry anthology, Frank Meintjies
(School Project) – The Significance of CAP in the lives of Sydney Holo and Lionel Davis, Hannah Schultz
Workshops & residencies
Selected Solo Exhibitions
Selected Group Exhibitions
Public collections in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe.