Photo of Madi Phala

Madi Phala

b. Kwa-Thema, Springs, 1955. d. Langa, Cape Town, 2 March 2007

From his early Black Consciousness oriented drawings to his imaginative mixed media treatment of the herd-boy theme, Phala’s works invariably represented a preoccupation with African culture as dynamic and emancipatory.

Madi Phala: what place in ‘our’ art history?

[This was written for the opening of Madi Phala: A Tribute Exhibition, at the AVA, 10-28 September, 2007]

© Mario Pissarra, 7/11/2007

I am honoured and pleased to have this opportunity to share with you some of my thoughts on Madi Phala, particularly on his contribution as an artist to our art history.

I say ‘our’ art history, conscious that most who have included Madi in their books have placed him within the frames of very particular art histories. Madi first features in an emerging inclusive South African art history (Ricky Burnett’s Tributaries in 1985). This is followed by his location within African art (Matsemela Manaka’s Echoes of African Art, 1987). He appears as a township artist (Gavin Younge’s Art of the SA Townships, 1988). He is included as a black South African (E.J. de Jagers Images of Man: Contemporary black South African art & artists, 1992). Ultimately where Madi has not been overlooked, including ironically The Neglected Tradition (Steven Sack, 1988) he has been situated within a myriad of qualified arts. A recent, possible departure from this may be found in his international debut in John Peffer’s soon to be published manuscript. Judging from an exerpt which appears as a tribute to Madi on the ASAI website, Peffer appears to be primarily situating Madi between discourses of Negritude and black consciousness, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the influence of western Modernism.

It is indeed a mark of colonialism’s legacy that we only drop the qualifications and talk about art and artists when ‘our’ artists are validated by prominent curators and exhibitions in the West. Success in Venice, Kassel or New York acts to elevate ‘local’ artists to ‘international’ standards. Yet the question of how we, as individuals and members of various ‘communities’ decide who are ‘our’ most significant artists is an important one, since it highlights the values that we uphold.

In recent years I have attempted to unpack this question of how do we recognize a successful artist? My current understanding is that there are several, what I call complementary systems of validation, and that the question of who is recognized as successful is largely determined by the value one ascribes to each of these systems. In other words if we were to attempt to evaluate Madi’s success as an artist we would base our opinions on systems of validation that we ourselves attach importance to. So for example if we were to look for evidence of participation in seminal international exhibitions; or for high profile solo exhibitions; for prominent visibility in countless public and corporate collections; for mongraphs, bulky catalogues, or detailed studies; for multiple, high profile public commissions; or for Swiss bank accounts; then we would conclude that Madi Phala was a minor artist.

On the other hand, if we were to consider his influence on younger artists, and the deep respect with which he is viewed by many mature artists, then I think we would have a hint of his importance.

Even more so, if were to look for a coherent body of work that compels engagement, where an artist understands the difference between size and scale, and who can command our attention because of his attention to detail, and not simply because s/he has created something so large or loud that we can’t miss it, then we are getting closer to valuing Madi’s contribution as an artist.

And again, if one shuts out the slick PR of our leading commercial galleries, and all who take their cue from them, and instead ask: what are the important narratives within world history and how do artists engage with these narratives, then I think we will be getting even closer to recognizing Madi’s contribution to art history.

Certainly we would do so if we were to recognize decolonization as one of the central themes in recent world history. By referring to decolonization I do not limit myself to the struggles for freedom from settler rule and the rituals surrounding these. I refer to the challenges faced by the historically colonized to overcome the overwhelming baggage of colonialism and to redefine the self in a contemporary, globalized reality.

Indeed if decolonization is a central narrative, and if Africa has born the brunt of colonialism, then the artists grappling with these themes are not peripheral to world history, but are in fact integral to the discourses on modernity and contemporaneity. So what does this have to do with Madi?

Madi’s work can easily be situated within a critical trajectory in art produced in Africa, i.e. the synthesis of ‘indigenous’ and ‘imported’ sources and materials. It is a theme that is often associated with the period preceding and following political independence, but in fact it represents an ongoing struggle to be of one’s time.

Many of Madi’s works allude, almost mystically to a bygone era. There is frequent allusion to, or evidence of, fossil-like remains, ‘buried’ or uncovered in the earth and in the sky, both domains commonly associated with the ancestral spirits. There are also references to a specifically African past, most strongly evident in his frequent references to cattle, rich in association with a pastoral age ruptured violently by western notions of land ownership and wealth. Yet in the uniqueness of his iconography, in its generously fantastic presence, his art projects as much into an unknown future as it recalls a distant past. Consequently many of Madi’s paintings appear to occupy a transitory, temporal state, as tangible and tactile as they are evocative and elusive. These qualities introduce a sense of the epic into his works, regardless of their physical size.

While cattle represent an important recurring theme in art produced in parts of Africa, particularly Eastern and Southern Africa, what sets Madi apart from every other artist I can think of who paints cattle, is that his focus is less on the meaning of the cattle themselves than it is on the persona of the herdboy. Cattle may exist in Madi’s works as a referent to notions of African culture and tradition, but he is seemingly more interested in the herdboy, somewhere between a child and a man, who acts as the guardian of this wealth, and who may be prone to wander, even neglect his responsibilities, while he busies himself with acts of imagination far away from other members of his family or community. The Herdboy theme, Madi tells us, represents a journey of self discovery. The self clearly has a sense of community, but it is not a rigid or fixed community. Like the herdboy Madi roams the hills and valleys, absorbing lessons from a range of encounters that he alone must mediate. He emerges from these journeys with an identity that transcends those imposed on him. He arrives as Madi Phala, artist.

Exhibition Review: Madi Phala’s “Herdbooyz” at AVA

© Mario Pissarra, 1/10/2005

For many years Madi Phala put most of his creative energies into mentoring others. Last year’s move south to Cape Town has coincided with him stepping out as an artist in his own right. Recent shows in Cape Town and Johannesburg have been well received by the buying public. His emerging profile is matched by a successful transition from small and modestly sized works to a much bolder scale, and in the increased physicality of his new works.

Herdboys, a favourite theme of Phala’s, appears to be the result of a longstanding interrogation on his part of ‘African culture’. Many of his works emerge from a reflective and critical contemplation of the past (‘tradition’) and the present (‘modernity’). Indeed, it is tempting to view Phala as a latter- day herd-boy, ostensibly charged with guarding the wealth of his elders, but prone to distracting himself with his own enquiries. One can also read his choice of cattle as a metaphor for a duality that is evident in his art. If historically cattle represent wealth then the tactile qualities of his paintings reinforce this emphasis on the physical and material. On the other hand if cattle also serve as a link to the ancestors, both as a symbol of ‘tradition’ and as an offering on important occasions, then the mysterious and enigmatic qualities of his imagery represent the otherworldly, spiritual realm occupied by those who came before us. The mystical qualities of these paintings are enhanced by wide expanses of deep space, anchored by busy surfaces that compete for attention. The synthesis of these apparently contrasting elements results in compelling articulations of intangible presence. These are ‘serious’ works that are mediated by elements of whimsy, sometimes expressed through his titles, particularly those such as “Herdbooyz” that use idiosyncratic spelling.

“Spirits Descending” challenges traditional compositional devices, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to think the invite had been printed upside down. Phala defies ‘logic’ by creating an image of the sky below. Beings that are both menacing and funky respond with purpose to the pull of gravity. In other works the use of brown suggests earth, a physical counterpoint to the celestial sky, but no less spiritual given its associations with fecundity and burial. “Herbooyz” reveals an artist who is reflective, inventive and not least, enjoying what he’s doing. Phala is showing no signs of standing still, catch him if you can.

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in Art South Africa , 2005

Madi Phala, original herd-boy (1955-2007)

© Mario Pissarra, 03 March 2007

Madi Phala, artist, designer, educator and original herd-boy, was robbed and fatally stabbed outside his home in Langa, Cape Town on the evening of Friday 2nd March 2007.

Born in Kwa-Thema, Springs in 1955, Phala was a member of the Bayajula Arts Society from the mid to late 1970s, a community initiative that sought to uplift the position of art and culture in the townships. Phala also worked for the SABC for several years as a sound effects maker, and sporadically ventured into producing textiles and clothes. For the better part of the 90s he taught art to children in his garage, and only began practicing as a full time artist in 1998. Despite making a shift towards his own art practice, Phala never seemed to quite leave his role as an educator behind, evident in his recent appointment (on short term contract) by Iziko Museums’ Education division.A largely self-taught artist, Phala featured in the seminal Tributaries exhibition, curated by Ricky Burnett in 1985, and appeared in various ‘early’ texts on black South African art such as Matsemela Manaka’s Echoes of African Art (1987), Gavin Younge’s Art of the South African Townships (1988) and E de Jager’s Images of Man (1992. Associated with the Thupelo Workshop from its inception in 1985, Phala became resident at Greatmore Studios when he moved to Cape Town in 2004. He exhibited regularly in recent years, with most of these exhibitions being well received by the buying public. This year also marked his debut as an exhibitor at the Design Indaba in Cape Town. Phala was commissioned last year by The Sunday Times to commemorate the tragic sinking of the S.S. Mendi in 1917, when black South African soldiers who served in France went down in the English Channel.Perhaps Phala’s most endearing artistic contribution in recent years was his development and treatment of the theme of ‘herd-boys’. In these works Phala appears to have adapted the notion of herd-boys as traditional guardians of cattle (symbols of wealth, and the ‘African way’). He reinvented herd-boys as muses and playful guides for an ongoing series of reflections on cultural beliefs and traditional practices. Much of this work is extremely rich: it is as dreamlike, evocative, contemplative and spiritual as it is physical, tangible and tactile. His was a poetic and sensory art that explored cultural practices in a very personal way, with humour interceding in gentle ways, adding a warm glow to his creative interrogations of culture and identity.

Madi Phala has gone to join the ancestors. I think he would not have been offended if I were to ask: are they ready for him?

Comments

Rest In Peace

Rest In Peace
M Maluka, 04 March 2007

This is very sad news

This is very sad news
KekeTop, 04 March 2007

Madi Phala

I didn’t have the privilege of meeting Mr. Phala or knowing him, I am however saddened by his death. It highlights again the level of needless and senseless violence that accompanies petty crimes in SA. It’s not that there’s not the same level of crime in other countries (in some perhaps more), its just the manner in which human life seems to be so easily expendable. It scares the hell out of me. What has become of our humanity? There is hunger and poverty all over the world but that does not give any human being the excuse to exterminate another human being like a common roach. It really makes me so mad!!

May Madi Phala’s soul rest in perfect peace, and may the Lord grant his family, friends and colleagues the fortitude to bear the loss.
Ijeoma Uche-Okeke, 04 March 2007

M Phala

What an absolute needless tragedy! The best are going – have gone. ENOUGH!
Wilma Cruise, 04 March 2007

To Madi

Dear Madi,

I am deeply saddened at your untimely death. Your spirit was an inspiration to me, your laughter like the reflection of light on water.

May your art continue to speak for you, and so remain within our midst.

All my love,
Sonya
Sonya Rademeyer, 04 March 2007

Re: Madi

I was so shocked and saddened to hear of the tragic passing of Madi. We met during the Sessions Ekapa and kept in touch periodically since then. Tears well up and feelings of anger collide with a sense of shock and sadness. When a society starts gnawing at its imaginary structure we are in deep trouble. Go well, Madi my friend. You will be missed.

Premesh
Premesh Lalu, 04 March 2007

Madi Phala

Mario, thank you for the posting. News of Madi Phala’s death brings great sorrow here, across the Atlantic as well. To his family, friends and nearby colleagues I send my hearfelt sympathies. His spirit and love of life lives on in those he touched and the works that are his legacy.
J. McGee, 04 March 2007

an infectious laugh

Such an infectious laugh and smile – Madi was a hugely positive guy – especially about his neighbourhood and people around him – all the more cruel then, that this, should happen to him. Best wishes from the UK.
Andy Harper, 04 March 2007

Madi

I too met Madi at the sessions Ekapa and came to know and admire him and his work in all the forms it took. This is such a shock and senseless loss. Madi, your creativity, humanity and sensitivity will be deeply missed and the sadness that the news of your passing brings will no doubt hang over Cape Town much like your energy invigorated those of us who came into contact with you in this city.
Noeleen Murray, 04 March 2007

Madi

I met Madi during the Thupelo Workshop in Durban. We were planning an exhibition of his work here in Durban in early 2008!! I am shocked and so sad. I was so looking forward to getting to know him better. How many more need to die senselessly before something is done?
Karen Bradtke, 05 March 2007

His soul is in his paintings

Madi was a man of change and full of ideas, I learned a lot from him in a short time.
Sitting with a wise man is worth than reading numbers of books, so he was one of a kind. With his kind and cheerful face. My deepest sympathy to his family, friends and colleagues.I will never forget him.
Teferi Gizachew, 05 March 2007

Madi Phala

I’m thankful I had the privilege of knowing you -
Yvette Dunn
, 05 March 2007

RIP Madi

I met and came to know Madi during a recent residency at Greatmore studios in late 2006. During that time he came to be a friend who “looked out” for me and took me under his wing. I will not forget a character whose warmth of spirit, infectious laugh and positive energy could change the atmosphere of any room he walked into.
His passing is a great loss for South Africa. He will be sorely missed. On that note, I wish to give my deepest condolences and sympathies to the friends, family and all those who knew this unique personality. It is a great tragedy.

Newell Harry, Sydney Australia
Newell Harry, 05 March 2007

Sleeping Herdboy

I intentionally went to Madi Phala’s site on Wednesday the 28th of Feb to check on his new work. I had met him once in CTown at Thupelo workshop in 2005. For some reason I thought of him and wanted to know what he has been up to this year. I am greatly saddened at the loss of such a creative soul. Rest in peace my brother.
Maggie Otieno, 05 March 2007

Madi

It is very sad indeed. Madi was a very good friend from the first moment at Thupelo Workshop in 2004. Great pity that I never had the opportunity of inviting you to Nigeria. Rest in Peace.
Smooth
, 05 March 2007

Madi

I met Madi on 26 January 2007 (this year) at Guga S’thebe Arts and Culture Centre in Langa where he also worked. Its funny how you meet someone for the first time and manage to make a connection that makes you feel like you’ve known them forever. Because after my guests had long gone (I was hosting an event at the centre that weekend) I stayed and chatted to Madi for hours. What a loss! This guy was so wise, had so much intergrity and he was such a visionary. I was so excited and proud when I saw him exhibiting at the Design Indaba. We spoke about the fact that he wanted to explore his work on ‘mother’s looking for their children’ more and I was telling him how much I relate to the work. Eish, what a waste! Madi was one of those people that made me really proud. U robale hantle, Madi. What an ancestor you are going to make…
Ukhona Mlandu-Letsika
, 05 March 2007

Madi a shining light

Dear Madi,
From the moment I met you I adored you. Who could resist such a commanding presence ? A beautiful man with confident maturity, an extraordinarily happy artist, thrilled with your recent successs and new role as educator , it was a privilege to know you. But, alas too short.

On Thursday I saw you radiantly giving your first ever guided tour to an enchanted school group .
How is it possible that a huge presence and a visionary i could have his life snuffed out like that?
I know that many of us grieve for your lost life and the loss to your children and their mothers. I also know that many of us are fearful.
Go well Madi you will not be forgotten,.
Your friend and colleague

MamangeThandi

Iziko SA National Gallery, Cape Town.Carol Kaufmann, 05 March 2007

We will miss you, Madi

To have met Madi was to never forget him. I had the pleasure during the early days of the Thupelo workshops in Johannesburg and I was thrilled at his appointment in the Iziko Education and Public Programmes Department. I mourn his untimely and violent passing with my colleagues at Iziko South African National Gallery. Some met him only recently, but his enthusiasm, energy and excitement about his work here impressed everyone and the sense of loss is palpable. He loved the environment, which – as he said – opened up new avenues and possibilities for education and for his own work. Madi’s life has been extinguished, but he lives and shines through his work and in our hearts.Marilyn Martin, 05 March 2007

Watch over usOh how sad for us all – another beautiful, gentle soul lost when we really needed him in Cape Town. We will miss you, Madi.
J Ranson, 05 March 2007

A kernel of my research, for MadiHere I share a portion of my upcoming book (UMinn 2007)
in which Madi was the crux….It is my profound regret that Madi did not live to see this eulogy in print.In 1989, in a moving defense of what she called “Black Abstract Art,” against the contemporary writing of critics like Richards, Marilyn Martin pointed out that Gavin Younge neglected to comment on the work pictured above his own paragraphs on the Thupelo Project in Art of the South African Townships . The image was a mixed media work on canvas by Madi Phala that contained several stick figures and what appeared to be a hint of the corrugated metal wall of an urban slum shack. According to Martin, these figural elements, together with Phala’s title, These Guys Are Heavy, actually contradicted the thrust of Younge’s own argument about a non-referential, apolitical art emanating from the Thupelo workshops. I am inspired to expand upon Martin’s perceptive remarks on Madi Phala’s work. First, the title of the piece was a reference to the black American slang term, “heavy,” with its connotation of ponderous, serious, or deeply significant political or emotional implications as in the name of the 1990s rap group with a retro 1960s “Black Power” aesthetic: “The Brand New Heavies.” Martin’s essay cited other titles of abstract works by Phala, to strengthen her case that they held political implications: Garrison, and Adversity I.

Who are the figures in These Guys Are Heavy? Are they some township toughs, some youths, amatsosti, or Comrades, confronting the viewer with their crazed eyes, and meaning to make him or her a bit uneasy? Are they security police come to harass the youth? Are they political prisoners, sitting in their jail-box waiting? Planning their next revolutionary move?

If one were to study Madi Phala’s earlier graphic art, as published in the radical culture journal Staffrider, it becomes clear that his Thupelo Workshop-inspired paintings evolved from earlier figural work in what was locally referred to as an “African surrealist” mode. The style of this graphic work was similar to the early art of Thami Mnyele and to the mystical figural landscapes of Fikile Magadlela, both of whom were heavily involved with the Black Consciousness Movement during the 1970s. Madi Phala’s own drawings followed the example of these other artists, too, in his use of the theme of woman as a sign of the African soul, as something rooted in the soil and bursting under stress. An illustration of the popularity of this “Mother Africa” theme, and of its application among “BC”- oriented artists of the period, appeared in the March 1979 issue of Staffrider, in a poem titled, “Black Woman, Black Woman,” by Bonisile Joshua Motaung:Black woman, Black woman
Beautiful like sunset across the horizon,
With plaited hair and a face
Shining with vaseline, making her
More black in the night:
Her face wears the look of nature.
[. . .]
Black woman, Black woman
She moves with the
Dignity of a funeral,
It is not tears
Shining in her eyes
But petals of blood
Mourning the history
Of her suffering:
Obituaries of her children
Deeply line her face
Leaving freckles to mark
Their graves.
[. . .]

This poem at first seems to so closely paraphrase “Femme Noire” (1945) by Léopold Senghor, that it might be considered an homage to the poet who was a cofounder of Négritude philosophy and a touchstone for the Black Consciousness Movement. Compare the final two stanzas of Senghor’s poem:

Femme nue, femme obscure
Huile que ne ride nul souffle, huile calme aux flancs de l’athlète, aux
flancs des princes du Mali
Gazelle aux attaches célestes, les perles sont étoiles sur
la nuit de ta peau
Délices des jeux de l’Esprit, les reflets de l’or ronge ta
peau qui se moire
A l’ombre de ta chevelure, s’éclaire mon angoisse aux
soleils prochains de tes yeux.

Femme nue, femme noire
Je chante ta beauté qui passe, forme que je fixe dans l’Eternel
Avant que le Destin jaloux ne te réduise en cendres pour
nourrir les racines de la vie.

Naked woman, dark woman
Oil no breeze can ripple, oil soothing the thighs
Of athletes and the thighs of the princes of Mali
Gazelle with celestial limbs, pearls are stars
Upon the night of your skin. Delight of the mind’s riddles,
The reflections of red gold from your shimmering skin
In the shade of your hair, my despair
Lightens in the close suns of your eyes.

Naked woman, black woman
I sing your passing beauty and fix it for all Eternity
before a jealous Fate reduces you to ashes to nourish the roots
of life.

“Femme Noire” was a statement, in verse, of the place of woman in Négritude philosophy. Senghor’s language reified black woman as the embodiment of sensuousness and as a place of comfort and warmth for men. In this poem, too, death was a metaphor for the entombment of Africa’s mythical past, as well as a source of sustenance for Africa’s future. Motaung’s description was more somber. For him the African woman suffered, she aged, and her tears bespoke the tragedy of the early death of her children. This perspective was shared among Black Consciousness writers in South Africa, most notably Mongane Wally Serote, whose poem “The Three Mothers,” began with the lines:
Yes;
This the silence of our speedy uncurling youth-tangles
Forms folds, curves little surprised faces
That gape at our heritage,
Our age,
That grab son from mother like the cross did Jesus from Maria
The faces that have eyes that are tears
Tears from mothers,
Lord,
This has left me so silent!
[…]

Through Motaung and Serote’s poetry, as well as that of other Black Consciousness writers, the rhythmic sensuousness of Senghor’s Négritude was translated into the cruel realism of the South African revolution. They described women’s hardship as much as their sensuality. Their women carried the most unbearable burden: the sacrifice of their children. Sections of Motaung’s poem also seem to have been a direct inspiration for Madi Phala’s images. Motaung’s lyric so closely approximated in word what Phala’s drawing achieved with line that it might as well have been an illustration of the drawing, or vise-versa. In addition to mirroring the poet’s theme of “Africa as a woman,” the images published by Phala in Staffrider also adapted and improved upon a theme then common among black South African artists: the black musician as a metaphorical sign of the condition of the race. Along these lines, it is noteworthy that the drawings that accompanied an article on Bob Marley, in the January 1981 issue of Staffrider, were credited not as “art” but as “Music by Madi Phala” (Figure 6.11). In each of two untitled graphite-on-paper drawings, a nude woman was illustrated playing an instrument similar to a saxophone or a bass clarinet. The figure’s beaded flesh seems to drip like sweat or blood from her ponderous breasts, her elbows, her mouth, and her bald head. She is completely covered with bubble-like spots, or freckles. Her fingers stick deep inside the instrument, which itself wraps around her body like a snake, and represents the horn’s music visually. The instrument and its player become soulfully one.

By moving beyond the quaint genre of street musicians associated with township art, Phala’s pictures extended the musical theme so that musicians could also be seen as interpreters of the crushing effects of apartheid on human bodies, and of an irrepressible desire for resistance. This perspective on the expressive and revolutionary role of the musician as a stand in for all types of artists can also be seen in the photograph of Abe Cindi by veteran Drum photographer Alf Kumalo, on the cover of Staffrider for February 1980 (Figure 6.12). The shirtless musician was photographed as he sprayed his horn defiantly in the face of the viewer. And there is the photo of jazz saxophonist from the 1950s Sophiatown era, Kippie Moeketsi, in the November 1981 Staffrider (Figure 6.13). The musician, whose tragic story was recalled on the pages that followed, stares intently at his own horn, as if wondering what kind of noise the thing is going to produce next. How will it speak for him? This photograph of “Kippie” was one of the images copied over into drawings by Thami Mnyele during the 1980s. Mnyele used it in a montage with photographs of the uprising in Soweto, and of Comrades in battle on the South African border.

Senghor, Motaung, Serote, Mnyele, Dumile, Kippie, Fikile, and Madi Phala. Why not call attention to connections made between these artists and between music, and the body in distress, and poetry? Why reduce the work of South African artists during the last decades of apartheid to a polemic distinction between abstract and figurative art, that only seeks to ask whether the one is more committed to the struggle than the other?

Moving beyond this boundary, it is possible to discern that there were also European art references in Phala’s image from Thupelo. Clearly the work owes a debt to Paul Klee, especially in its economical use of line to simply make figures out of sticks, thread, or squirts of paint direct from the tube. And its theme riffs off Picasso, especially the Picasso of Guernica and even more so the Three Musicians of 1921. These two are works from Picasso’s planar and colorful studies in Synthetic Cubism. In purely technical terms, Phala’s work is not Synthetic Cubism; its style is more a marriage of Klee’s spare technique with some Abstract Expressionist flourishes. But These Guys Are Heavy seems to jump off directly from several key aspects of Three Musicians: the flat frame with three men staring out flatly from it, the hatch marks indicating a beard, and the light square ground surrounded by a darker rectangular ground. The overall feel of the abstraction itself is more in line with Klee’s child-like glyph style, but the thematic influence here is certainly Picasso. Phala’s painting scat-sings over the form of a famous Picasso, itself an icon for all modernist painters, but that does not mean that Phala meant to depict the same thing as Picasso. There is also memory work in this piece: a memory of township art, the art of shacks and squalor. There is also a consciousness of protest art, with its titular hint, an evocation of heinous conditions and of their refusal through music. This is a tough mixture. The eye, if attentive to art and to history, is led from the discovery of the Picasso Three Musicians reference, to Phala’s earlier work on musicians, and back again.

Are Phala’s musicians swinging, bluesy, and heavy with political portent? Are they singing yakhal’inkomo, “the cry of cattle” at the slaughterhouse that could also be seen in Dumile’s tortured drawings, heard in Kippie’s jazz, and read in Wally Serote’s poems? Abdullah Ibrahim had already suggested the conflation of music and political protest at the Culture and Resistance Festival in 1982. If Ibrahim’s purely tonal piano music could have a revolutionary appeal, could not the abstraction of color and line in visual art do the same? Phala mined this golden vein in his painting. Seen in light of his earlier drawing, Phala’s painting seems to be searching for a further means to make the visual more musical. I read it as a kind of acid-dipped sheet music, wherein the body and the music and the visual sign are as one, and are heavy with radical political intention. These are some of the meanings of These Guys are Heavy.

John Peffer Copyright 2006
John Peffer, 05 March 2007

Madi Phala

Madi was such an beautiful human being, it is with great sadness that I receive this news, he always visited me at my shop and he always left a energy of inspiration and positivity. He left us a happy man I am sure, but I dont think he was finished with what he was busy with here. My deepest sympathy. What a great, great man. I will miss his visits and his smile and his voice. I feel angry for the way he left, he didn’t deserve to go like this.
Erick, 05 March 2007

Murder of Madi Another cultural hero has been stolen from us. They say the spirit of a nation shall be judged by its artists, through acts like this the soul of our nation is being robbed, raped and bludgeoned to death.

I wish there was more time
Sanet Visser, 05 March 2007
I wish there was more time to honor him as an artist. He was engaged and involved in his art and as an educator and artist always inspired me with his stories. To see him at Design Indaba and experience his excitement and his new designs will last forever in my mind. I wish that I was on his first tour at the National Gallery, I wish he could read what everybody writes about him, we only walk this road once in our life, let us reach out and touch somebody’s life like he did.Hazel Friedman, 05 March 2007

Madi, friend of my heart

… to meet you, to walk a distance together with you, talking, laughing, discussing, planning, inspiring each other – what a wonderful time this was … and even by email, over 10.000km this connection never ended … what’s now with your exhibition in Germany, the kids workshops and the idea of swap-working together again ?! you really leave me alone … not only me !
Madi, mad-I, wonderful, crazy, lovable person … Cape Town is different now, because it was both at once, meeting you and the mother-city … you showed me a lot about the way of living and thinking and history of South Africa, you made me understand your view to the world and your vision and optimism that things will become better …
Talking about “those old times in Jo’burg” you always called yourself a township-soldier who survived so many situations.War is still not over.
I am so sorry and sad, nothing will fill up the hole your senseless death brought into my world … you’re in my heart, my friend. MASEGO – as you always told me ! Gehe Deinen Weg in Schönheit und Frieden ! UTA from Aachen-Germany

Uta Göbel-Groß, 05 March 2007

Dear Madi

…things been hard since you left. Your’e in God’s hands now but I’m so scared about the future and don’t want to die all alone: you came through to visit and supported my career, sat down spoke deeply to me in words hard to put in writing. I looked up to you with pride as a brother able to humble himself down and part wisdom and support in so many ways.

Sharing the same platform at your last show was really an honour I will keep with the highest ideal. Thank you for showing me the way in this journey of life we all pilgrim through…

Rest in Peace Madi…
H.Bruce, 05 March 2007

Madi Phala

I’m very saddened by this news. I had occasion to spend time in a workshop here in Durban during 2006 and he was a great inspiration to me. May he rest in peace, and dance his dance of joy.
Terry-Anne Stevenson, 05 March 2007

great loss

I am so deeply saddened by the news and angry about how this could have happened.

South Africa is supposed to have the most “advance” constitution of the world, but in reality even the most basic human right -the right to live safely-is not protected!

I hope Mr President Mbeki has the wisdom to see that in order to promote the “African Renaissance”, one must protect the safety of the African equivalence of Da Vinci’s.
Kristin Hua Yang, 05 March 2007

Madi Phala

Madi was an inspiration to artists and had the courage to say and do what he thought was correct. He was a leading light at GreatMore studios and his influence will be greatly missed.
The South African art scene has lost a valuable member who had a great deal of energy and enthusiasm. Such a senseless act of violence will have a significant effect on the lives of many including those not actively pursuing a career as an artist.
Isky Gordon, 06 March 2007

CRIME that we know & live with

The crime that we know and live with has yet robbed us of our dearest friend.This was a very humbled,soft spoken, dedicated man who poured all his energies to his work.He loved doing what he did with all his heart ART. Lives in our townships are seen valueless & hence the CRIME that we know and live with will continue to tore our hearts & take our valuable, beloved ones.All my sympathies goes to the Phala family in Kwa Thema, Springs.I will miss those rainy Friday nights at your place listening to some Music and having cold one, till we meet agin.Terrible way for a person of your calibre to get recognition if he is ever gonna get any.

‘Robala ka kgotso Phala, Mmino wa molodi wa hao o tla o dula o lla ha monate.’
Gaoutwe Styles Mosala, 06 March 2007

I Missed Meeting You!

I’ve heard so much about this great Artist but it’s very unfortunate that I didn’t have a chance to meet him!

Rest in peace Madi
Mary Ogembo, 06 March 2007

Is it True?Madi Son of the soil.
I had a privilege meeting you in my life and what a great person. You will not only be missed by South Afrikans but all your friends around the world my dear Brother. Yet another son of the soil taken by the Criminals who no longer respect human life, its sad. We will all miss you and your smilling face will always reflect all your loving heart.

I am running out of words and your love for the development of art will be missed by many my dear brother. lots luv
Raphael chikukwa Chinovava, 06 March 2007

Madi PhalaI met Madi Phala at AVA at the opening of his exhibition in 2004. His charisma remains with me.
Malcolm Payne, 06 March 2007

Lala ngoXolo Madi

I read with shock the sudden death of Madi at the hands of crimininals who have no respect for sanctity of life. It was befitting for Madi to have been commissioned to do work on the sinking of the S.S. Mendi…with this let’s remember the last dance of the black heroes with Reverend Wauchope leading them on…..’ Ukuntsika kweMendi”
Ulale ngoXolo
Andile Magengelele, 06 March 2007

Madi, my Brother

What a great loss! We will remember your infectious laughter, sense of humour, your unique & colourful style of dressing. You were a very peace loving person who did not deserve such a violent death.

Madi, you were more than just a friend with whom we played football on the dusty streets of Kwa Thema as teenagers. You were more than a colleague in model design at the SABC. You were more than a colleague in art. You were a brother. You epitomized humanity. Your art will continue to truly represent you. Like the oils you used in your paintings, your memories will take long to dry & once they dry, they will not fade away.

Rest in peace Madi, the artist, designer, teacher, avid reader and once again, Brother. SAM NHLENGETHWA
Sam Nhlengethwa, 07 March 2007

Madi

I remember meeting you in 2005 in May when you were at bag factory as if it was a moment ago. We sat and talked about cattle like two herd boys from different tribes. shared their passion of cattle. I remember your laughter at my theories of lobola and cattle.

Such memorable laughter and smile you had. It would have been nice to meet you again.

May soul rest in peace.
Anawana Haloba
, 07 March 2007

To Madi Phala

“Death is not a journey to a strange country; it is a journey home. We are not going to a foreign country, but to our father’s house where we will be with our family and friends”.

Madi you’ve been with us when we lost our beloved sister last month, it is so sad now to say that about you. You’ve been a very good & kind family friend to us and, we will definitely miss that lovely smile of yours every time you enter our house and the twins will miss your sweets too.

Uhambe kakuhle, ulale ngoxolo, sohlala sikukhumbula Madi!
Bukelwa Soha, 07 March 2007

Robala ka Kgotso

Robala ka Kgotso Ta Madi, you’ll forever be remembered, Rest in Peace Son of the Soil.
Kgomotso Raborife, 07 March 2007

tragic and senseless

I had the privilege of meeting Madi Phala through Mario Pissarra, when I was in Cape Town very briefly in November of 2006. Our meeting is one I’m unlikely to forget. Such a tragic and senseless loss of life. My deepest and most sincere condolences to his family and close friends.
Eddie Chambers, 07 March 2007

Madi Phala

One abiding memory of Madi Phala is observing his encounter with a very young artist at an exhibition opening in Cape Town last year. The young artist recognised Madi, and came up to him somewhat awestruck, nervously trying to convey how much he admired his work. Madi responded with absolute humility, saying “YOU are an inspiration to ME.”

Peace, Madi. I look forward to meeting you again.
Matthew Cannon, 07 March 2007

Madi

Madi, I was going to write to you to tell you I miss you, but then I read the news that we will all be missing you for a very long time.

The memories of you dancing and laughing make me smile. The last time we spoke was such a short time ago and you were smiling like the sun; it was as if anything could flourish under the warmth and light you radiated…and still do.

Madi, I am glad to have met you and I am shocked and sad you are gone so soon. I send my thoughts and sympathies to the Phala family.
Maryalice Walker, Maine, USA, 07 March 2007

Bra Madi

I have no words to express the state I’m undergoing. Such realities in our society are inconceivable to imagine. It is in such times that one’s presence become apparent in the case of one’s absence. I remain grateful to have had an opportunity to exchange ideas and receive professional advice from ‘Bra Madi’. The warmth and love of your fellow artists you had at all times. Your presence will remain with all those you came across. Lala ngoxolo Madi Phala.
Loyiso Qanya, 07 March 2007

Aluhlanga lungehlanga

Madi mfowethu ulale ngoxolo.
REST IN PEACE
Velile Soha, 08 March 2007

Madi Phala

I am shocked to hear how someone who seems so alive in my memory is no longer around. I am in cold and gloomy London, but am taken back to my memory of speaking with Madi on a sunny day in Cape Town and his warmth and enthusiasm that still seems so present. There is no excuse for a needless death but the least one can do is try to enable life to continue the way the person who left it would want us to.
Jade Gibson, 08 March 2007

Madi

What a tragedy. Wonderful to have met and worked with
such a charismatic and talented man. Pse forward my condolences to
the studio and family.

Ros Lurie, 09 March 2007

Madi

Lala ngoxolo Madi, You’re a great inspiration to many , young and old. Am thnkful that I got the chance to be arround you even if it was for a short time.Your star will forever shine
Zipho, 09 March 2007

SADDEST NEWS EVER!

I was very suprised to hear about Madi’s death because the way I saw him he was a good person. I don’t know why some people can do bad things like this.
I met him on the 28/02/07 at the gallery but to what I saw HE WAS A DARLING.
May the good lord be with his family in this time. MAY HIS SOUL REST IN PEACE!
Obedience Motlhanke @ CPUT BELLVILLE CAMPUS, 09 March 2007

You made such an impression

Dear Madi

You made such an impression on me.

I met you in the week preceeding the opening of parliament at the National Gallery. You came in to visit a calligraphy workshop several times. Your infectious laugh, love of life, life philosophy and your hair were just fabulous. We had a good laugh about how you had put up your hair and how incredible it looked. We talked about happiness and about life and you made such an impression on me – I will not forget you.

Rest in peace. I am sure you will walk with us as an angel. Know that you have touched so many hearts …
Leesette, 12 March 2007

A Kings child

“A King’s child” Madi said to Reason and I when we briefly spoke at the iLetters workshop. My aching heart finds comfort in his answer.

Dit is ons kalligrawe se gebed dat God elkeen wat treur met Sy Liefdeskombers sal vertroos.
Heleen de Haas, 13 March 2007

Madi Phala

I never had the opportunity cross paths twith the well-known and celebrated Madi Phala, but have heard so much rich and joyful things about him that it was quite a shock for me…However, I have the pleasure of sharing a history with one of his children who, to me, is a direct image in art and character as his father. Although Madi is gone, I know that his spirit is living through the hearts and lives of his children…Madi, I know that I have not met you, but I do know that we would have chatted about life and art (in all its spheres) till the sun would rise…Rest in Peace
Anon, 14 March 2007

Its a shame

The news of the death of Madi Phala came to me with great shock. He was made of so much energy and humour, intelligent and vibrant. The international art community will miss his creativity and friendship. Its a pity he had to go in such a brutal way.
We will all miss you Madi.
My sincere sympathy to the greatmore community, his family and friends. may his soul rest in Eternal peace.
Anon, 15 March 2007

Madi Phala

If you were a star
we would hate to see sunlight.

but then again what is life without sunshine

may your brightness dazzle us
may our rainbow’s colours be richer.

may the tears of your kith and kin be wiped by the HEAVENS ANGELS and their smiles be restored because you were one of a kind and with that they and all of us can walk tall and proud;

because in you, with you, around you, about you our humaneness was defined.

ROBALA KA KGOTSO MADI
RE TLA HO HOPOLA KA NAKO TSOHLE
Anon, 20 March 2007

gentle mentor

Madi was the first artist that I ever collaborated with on a show called Exfoliate, curated by Norman O’Flynn in 2003. I can’t remember how I ended up being paired up with Madi, but I do remember a man that was full of grace, stories and passion. We both loved paper, but he taught me extremes that paper and collage could be taken to, with me definitely in his shadow. He welcomed me as a visitor to Greatmore and guided my students where I fell short. He was our Mentor. Most of all in collaboration he awakened the practicing artist in me that had been lost in so much theory. Thus dawned a beginning for me, which I will always remember.
I’ll rememeber the last I saw you, your intrigued smile at my show in January, I’ll remember your art, burned into my memory.
What a pity to have to say good bye.

Anon
, 01 April 2007


Madi Phala

I’m mainly shamefully ignorant about our black artists but I’m trying to catch up and educate myself …… I’d never heard of Madi Phala, but his beautiful face stopped me in my tracks, and the story of his senseless death broke my heart. My deepest sympathy goes to his family and friends. I will catch up now Madi, and learn more about you – thank you for leaving us your beautiful work.
Elaine Hurford, 10 April 2007

WHERE THOSE KILLERS?

I wonder where are those killers because I was a student to Madi Phala. Artists they die like nothing. May Madi’s soul rest in peace.
Tshepo Senyeho, artist from Kwa Thema, 15 May 2007

Unbelievable!!!! RIP

I am extremely devasted by Madi’s passing. Who could do such a mean thing to the world? I vivsted Madi Phala while i was doing my study tours of South Africa. I once spent a week at his house in Langa, Cape Town! May the GOOD MAKER rest him in eternal peace. Collin
Collin Sekajugo, 01 December 2007

RIP Madi

Madi’s works rocked my heart! I first met during an international artists workshop in Lusaka Zambia. I pray that his inspirational works continue to impact positively on other people’s lives.
Rest in Peace. Collin Sekajugo, Kampala, Uganda
Collin Sekajugo, 01 December 2007

Thank you!

The bewildering talent, vision and style of an artist like Madi… will never die! May his soul fare and excel as well on “the other side” as his creative physical did on this one…thank you for what you left us with, my friend – boundless inspiration!!!
Courtney Anthony Forbes, 11 December 2007

Madi Phala

It is exactly two years since your death Madi but your’e always remembered, loved, missed by your friends, colleagues and family. I always think of the past where we used to enjoy together with your fellow friends the late Nhlanhla Xaba and Sam Nhlengethwa. May your soul rest in peace.
Your brother Teboho Xaba.

Teboho Xaba, 14 May 2009

Madi Phala

Madi, did not know you. Could not because our paths were thousands of miles away from each other. However, in spirit were knew each other. We are Africans.

I contemplate the waste that took your life – and the lives of so many others – before our time and now in our own time. It troubles my soul.

In the past, others did it to us. A few who cared for humanity protested. Our people fought with their blood.

Today we seem to be doing it all to ourselves. We should all be outraged. Beyond outrage we should all be doing something to stop the blight of violence. We do not have replacement for the Madis of our world.
Nativeson, 04 September 2009

Rest in peace My Brother.Sohla sikukhumbula

i remember Madi making his trips to my granny’s house to see my uncle how is also an artist,sohlala sikukhumbula
lorraine plaatjies, 02 March 2010

remembrances

… 3 years ago our talking stopped … the conversation is not over … it takes place here and there in my life and in my art … you are remembered, still here, with your art, your laughter, your spirit … I will come back to CT soon – and meet you here and there wihin the remembrances of friends and artist-colleagues … still miss you … with a SMILE …
UTA Göbel-Groß, 13 April 2010

Artworks Looks at Traditions of Past & Present Melvyn Minnar, Businessday September 2007

 
Madi Phala: The herd boy artist in his prime Chris Barron The Sunday Times 11 March 2007
 
Langa Artist brutally murdered.Jazz Concert to Honour His Name Tarzan Mbita

Phala se dood ruk kunsgemeenskap Liza Grobler, Die Burger
 

Arts community mourns tragic loss of Phala Melvyn Minnaar, Cape Times March 8 2007
 

Madi Phala: Obituary Cape Times 8 March 2007
 

Artist stabbled to death Thulani Magazi, Vukani 8 March 2007

 
Tin Hats
 

Honouring the brave


Local artists shine Melvyn Minnar 2005
 

Bayjula.By the People for the People

Art Education


Arts and crafts at Tlakula High School, Springs

Workshops & residencies


2005 Bag Factory, Johannesburg
2004-07 Residency at Greatmore Studios, Cape Town
1992 Triangle workshop, USA
1985-92 Thupelo Workshops

Solo Exhibitions


2007 Solo exhibitions at the Association for Visual Arts, Cape Town
2005 Solo exhibitions at the Association for Visual Arts, Cape Town
2005 Solo exhibitions at the Bag Factory, Johannesburg
2004 Solo exhibitions at the Association for Visual Arts, Cape Town

Group Exhibitions


2005 Joint exhibition with Nkoali Nawa, Renault showroom, Claremont
Several group exhibitions in South Africa since 1979, Kwa Thema, Springs; also in Johannesburg.
These include Tributaries (1985); and exhibitions at the Goodman and Shell Galleries.
One group show in France (Benefit for Gerard Sekoto).

Collections


French Embassy
De Beers, London
Several private collections including Minister Pallo Jordan and art historian Barbara Lindop.

Publications


M. Pissarra Botaki [Exhibitions 1 – 4] (2004, 2005, 2006)
E. De Jager Images of Man (1992)
G. Younge Art of the South African Townships (1988)
M. Manaka Echoes of African Art (1987)
R. Burnett Tributaries (1985)
Also Staffrider.

Awards


1984 Jazz Art Poetry Appreciation Award

Other


Member of the Bayajula arts society (1975-79).
Worked for SABC as a sound effects maker.
As founder of the Arts Enhancement Programme Phala taught children art in his garage from 1992- 98.
Among those he is credited with mentoring is the late Nhlanhla Xaba.