b. 1963 Clermont, Durban.
Sfiso Ka-Mkame first made his mark as an artist in the 1980s with his vivid evocations of the turbulence of the time. Sfiso continues to chronicle his environment, frequently tackling issues concerning women and violence. He works mostly with oil pastels, producing powerful images marked by expressive use of colour, gritty texture, and a rich delight in pattern.
Sfiso Ka-Mkame: Charting his own course
This profile was originally commissioned by the Africa Centre (London) for their Contemporary Africa Database (www.africaexpert.org, no longer online), published in 2003. It was reprinted by the African Art Centre, Durban, for a catalogue produced for the exhibition Sfiso Ka-Mkame: Exhibition of oil pastels 13 to 30 October 2004.
Sfiso Ka-Mkame first received national and international recognition as an artist in the late 80s when he produced a series of “letters”. These took the form of full colour drawings that were themselves made up of different scenes, arranged in quasi-comic book format. However unlike comics these images did not suggest any sequential narrative. Rather each component told its own ‘story’, united by an overall theme. “Letters to God” (1988), which was bought by the South African National Gallery and appeared in several publications is probably the best known of these early works.
For many Ka-Mkame was the quintessential resistance artist of the 80s. Among early publications that popularised his works he featured under the heading of “Artists and The Struggle” in Gavin Younge’s Art of the South African Townships (Thames & Hudson, 1988) and Sue Williamson’s Resistance Art in South Africa (David Philip, 1989). While there is some merit in this perspective- Ka-Mkame was after all a youth activist in the United Democratic Front, and many of his early works contained representations of political conflict and resistance- he was at the root a chronicler of events around him. He commented to Williamson that “I have been told that my work is too political, but I say, my work is just what I see when I wake up in the morning.”
What Ka-Mkame ‘sees in the morning’ has both evolved and changed with society and his own growth, as well as demonstrated a continuity that reflects his commitment and integrity as an artist and as a human being. One of the most striking features of his most recent exhibition, (at the Association of Visual Arts in Cape Town), is that here is a male artist who appears to be primarily concerned with representing women. While this is usually a recipe for phallocentrism I would very surprised if Ka-Mkame’s works would be viewed in this way. Rather there is an overwhelming sense of empathy and respect for women that comes across unambiguously. When I comment on this to him he responds immediately “It’s because I love my mother!”
Women as a theme is not new to Ka-Mkame. See for example “Homage to the Mothers” and “Schoolgirls” (1988, in Williamson). “Homage to the Mothers” highlights the hardships faced by black women. Some of these hardships are clearly located within the apartheid era (eg pass laws), although themes of unemployment and exploitation still resonate today. “Schoolgirls” references teenage mores and pregnancies, with the latter theme recurring in several recent works.
In fact many of the new works reflect a preoccupation with life and death. This appears in works such as “Three Ages of a Woman” (2003) as well as in representations of pregnancy, birth, and abortion, (e.g. “No Light Voyage”, 2003; “Lament for Sister N”, 1995/6 & 2003). While these works are undoubtedly emotive both in subject and treatment, there is no sense of didacticism or moralistic judgement implied. This can also be seen in his treatment of HIV/Aids as a subject (eg. “Protect One Another from One Another”, 2001/3). Sexual abstention as an alternative form of ‘protection’ surfaces in his allusion to the controversial Zulu practice of virginity testing, in the provocatively titled “The Vagina Monologues” (2003).
Love is also a favored theme, with one new work jesting “this painting is not about pain!” (“The Unfettering of the Heart”, 2003), together with works about marriage (“Betrothal”, 2003; “The Coming of the Bride Nomalanga”, 2003). But it would be a mistake to see his interest in matters of the heart as a new development. Ka-Mkame recalls that in 1990 when the ANC’s Albie Sachs challenged artists to paint about love that the New African newspaper replied “but hasn’t he seen Sifiso’s ‘Love Letters’?”.
What is ‘new’ for Ka-Mkame is that works have become increasingly bold in composition, scale, colour and pattern, and this enhances the celebratory tone. In particular he delights in creating spectacular dresses for his female subjects (it is not surprising to learn that he has also printed textiles). As a result a room full of his recent works presents a most visually sumptuous experience, as much a festival for the eye as it is contemplative for the mind.
The contemplative qualities of Ka-Mkame’s works result not only from his choice of themes, but also from the fact that, while there is a sense of narrative and storytelling, the content is not always explicit.
This is due, at least in part, to his technique and to his approach to creating meaning. He works organically, in the sense that his pictures develop as part of the creative process (i.e. he does not illustrate a preconceived idea or work from a preparatory sketch). Ka-Mkame’s preferred media is oil pastels, and he begins intuitively, working from light to dark. He scratches, scrapes and also pours melted pastels onto his paper, creating rich textural surfaces and exquisite tonal contrasts. Ka-Mkame acknowledges that for each work “there is a story” but that “the interpretation is up to the individual”. He also says that he sometimes leaves parts of his drawings ‘incomplete’ so that the viewer can ‘finish’ them themselves. The titles he usually etches into his works, and by so doing he provides clues about his intentions.
Contemplation is also enhanced through ambivalence and contrast. This can be achieved by expressing the depth and duality of emotions. For example a painting about marriage is both celebratory and sad, since marriage simultaneously represents both gain and loss. Formally he often creates a visual tension by contrasting naturalistic colour (usually applied to skin tone, land and sky) with a more subjective use of colour. Expressive, symbolic and decorative colour is best seen in his depiction of female clothing, but also features sometimes in the landscape as with the intensely emotive red sky in “Sorrow Swallow Me” (1995/6 & 2003).
Ka-Mkame also effectively contrasts clothed and unclothed figures, with the representations of naked women often communicating a sense of transcendental spirit. This is achieved, not only by showing them in ‘essential’ form but also by locating these figures further from the picture plane and by giving them more movement than is usually accorded to the formal and composed representations of (clothed) women that take ‘centre-stage’.
Another strong feature in Ka-Mkame’s works is a sense of pan-Africanism. Ndebele murals, San rock paintings, masks as a vehicle for communication with the ancestral spirits and colourful robes, all of which are atypical of his native Kwa-Zulu Natal exemplify his inclusive sense of African identity, and complement those details that are more ‘local’. He remarks that “I don’t want to create borders. The art I make is not specifically made for one region. It’s Africa. I’m part of Africa.” Despite this strong sense of African identity he also sometimes crosses the borders of western cultural history. The three witches in Macbeth appear in “No Light Voyage” and the menacing faces that appear in the lower right hand corner of this work he attributes to the influence of the Austrian art nouveau artist Gustav Klimt.
Ka-Mkame is an evocative and inspirational artist. That he achieves such startling results using such modest materials is further testament to his integrity and vision as an artist. At a time when so many of South Africa’s ‘leading’ artists appear to be led themselves by the
dominant trends in the art capitals of the world it is refreshing to know that Sfiso Ka-Mkame is charting his own course, and we can thank him for that.
Resilience and empathy: Sfiso Ka-Mkame at the AVA
Review of Sfiso Ka-Mkame’s solo exhibition at the AVA, Cape Town, published in Artthrob, 2003
There is an integrity to Ka-Mkame’s engagement with his materials and his subjects. His use of oil pastels is spectacular, the result of years of practice: “we understand each other” he says of this most modest of mediums. His subject matter also demonstrates continuity as he began chronicling the trials and tribulations of women in the eighties. Today this theme is more prominent, and his work is increasingly bold in scale, colour and pattern. He often contrasts naturalistic colour (usually applied to skin tone, land and sky) with a more subjective use of colour best seen in his depiction of female clothing, but also featuring sometimes in the landscape as with the intensely emotive red sky in “Sorrow Swallow Me”
There is a sense of narrative and storytelling, but the content is not always explicit. Ka-Mkame acknowledges that for each work “there is a story” but “the interpretation is up to the individual”. Some of his strongest works are concerned with the big themes of life and death, more specifically with pregnancy, birth, and abortion. See for example “No Light Voyage” and “Lament for Sister N”. There are also works dealing with HIV/Aids (“Protect One Another From One Another”) and “The Vagina Monologues” raises the issue of sexual abstinence by referencing the controversial practice of virginity testing that occurs in Kwa-Zulu Natal.
Despite the emotiveness of many of these themes Ka-Mkame does not adopt a judgmental or didactic tone, and despite the ‘heaviness’ of some of his subjects what comes across is a strong sense of the resilience of the human spirit and a celebration of life. His empathy for women he explains simply: “its because I love my mother.”
Pan-Africanism is another dominant theme. His iconography references San Rock paintings, Ndebele murals, west and central African masks, and he creates his own brand of female attire that matches but does not copy the splendour of the very best of west African textiles. But his pan-Africanist vision is not exclusive: “No Light Voyage” has space for Macbeth’s three witches and even traces of Gustav Klimt.
A powerful and inspiring show, Ka-Mkame’s solo debut in Cape Town was a commercial failure. He has works in numerous public, corporate and private collections; has participated in several important international shows; and his previous exhibitions, he tells me, have all done very well. Was the work ‘over-priced’ and ‘repetitive’ as a few people have suggested? Does his work have more resonance for buyers in other parts of the country? Or was it that it didn’t fit into current trends? A financial set-back for Ka- Mkame, but then this an artist charting his own course at his own pace, and that’s how it should be.
Affirmations of humanity: Sfiso Ka-Mkame’s dialogues with himself
Unpublished text for opening speech at opening of Sfiso Ka-Mkame’s ‘Dialogues with myself’ solo exhibition at the African Art Centre, Durban, 2016
I wish to thank the artist and the African Art Centre for inviting me to open this exhibition. I am indeed honoured to have this opportunity to share some thoughts about Sfiso ka-Mkame, an artist who I hold in high esteem.
I first became aware of Sfiso in the late 1980s. His ‘Letters to God’ was one of the most widely published artworks in that period, and I came to learn that it was not a work that was produced in isolation. Rather, it was part of a series of “letters”. Formally, these works consisted of semi-autonomous images, combined to form a dense composition. Notably, when many works from this period were large and imposing, Sfiso’s Letters were intimate works, modest in scale and requiring you to look at them closely. The series was also remarkable for having been produced with oil pastels, a medium. usually associated with preparatory rather than finished works. Thematically, the work of this period related directly to what was happening in the artist’s environment, noting that this was a time of mass resistance to apartheid.
Although I didn’t see many more of Sfiso’s works until 2003 his Letters left an indelible imprint on me. I was thrilled when he exhibited at the AVA in Cape Town, as it gave me an opportunity to meet him, and I published two articles on him shortly afterwards. The AVA exhibition comprised mixed media works with pastels still prominent. These works differed significantly from Letters in that they were much larger, and there was an extravagant, even sumptuous use of colour. Compositions were unified, and unlike the claustrophic intensity of Letters the images featured both deep and shallow space. The predominant theme was women, with some works touching on sensitive subjects such as abortion, virginity testing, and HIV aids. It was an extremely strong showing, but as I noted in a review the Cape Town art market was indifferent. The works from this show were subsequently exhibited at the African Art Centre, where they were favourably received.
Fast forward another thirteen years and here I am reflecting on a new body of work. Unlike the earlier works with which I am familiar, these new pieces operate within a more restrictive compositional range. Pictorial space is shallow, and all images represent individual subjects, adopting the frontal gaze, head and shoulder format commonly associated with identity photographs. Technically there is a consistency in the choice of pastels and mixed media, although the works are more textural, more physical. Certainly these works can be admired for their experimental use of media.
This exhibition is titled Dialogues with Myself, and yet it is clear that these images do not depict the artist. The dialogue the artist is having with himself concerns the pervasive challenge of HIV/Aids, a theme that runs through his work all the way back to the early 90s. It is a theme one cannot avoid in contemporary society, not least in KZN, the province with the highest statistics in the country.
And yet, perhaps contrary to expectations, these are not portraits commemorating specific individuals. While some of these figures may be modeled on real persons, the artist has chosen to create imaginary portraits, each expressing something unique.
This exhibition features two distinct but related series. In the one series the artist has included written text. In these works identities are partially erased and reconstructed through gestural, random, markings. In the other series the images are sliced vertically, at equidistant spacing, and then reassembled.
It is in reflecting on the content of these works that one begins to identify consistent concerns in Sfiso’s career. Perhaps the most obvious is violence. Violence has been a theme in much of Sfiso’s work. It has been there in scenes of political, social and domestic conflict, but it is perhaps more pronounced here. All these images manifest an enactment of violence on the part of the artist. The acts of erasure and slicing are destructive, violent. But following this violation there is a regrouping of identity, a reassertion of humanity, an affirmation of being that restores dignity.
There is some irony that the sliced portraits began with photographic portraits of Mbeki’s cabinet ministers. From the perspective of HIV/Aids activists Mbeki represents a period of denialism. Sfiso comments that some of the Ministers were depicted with red ribbons pinned on their jackets. He has not retained traces of these portraits but I think it is revealing to acknowledge the origins of this series because it reveals something of the artistic process. It is within the intuitive, contemplative spaces of creating that artists struggle and produce ‘meaning’, and it is this usually unseen process that constitutes another level of dialoguing with oneself. The creative process can be a lonely space, followed by public exhibitions where the best an artist usually gets is ‘nice work’.
And yet in that solitary space the artist makes choices that reflect a profound engagement with his art. When one body of work includes systematic slicing it brings up questions of violence as institutionalized, as impersonal. Whereas when the gestural and random dominate it highlights the unpredictability and arbitrariness of violation. When one body of works adopts the language of Aids education, inserting phrases and slogans commonly identified with posters this highlights the ongoing necessity of didactic campaigns, whereas when one excludes written text this introduces a comparative silence, highlighting the secrecy and taboo that often comes with infection. Thus, through what may appear to be a limited range of formal devices, a whole spectrum of ideas and thoughts are activated.
In conclusion, on returning to the theme, Dialogues with Myself, it becomes clear that this exhibition represents a journey of reflection, and of critical engagement with contemporary social realities., specifically HIV/Aids. The theme also introduces questions of the role of the artist in society, in not only addressing social challenges but of empathizing with the everyday struggles of ‘ordinary’ people. The artist is part of his community and the people’s pain is his too. By visualizing the atrocity of violation, and defying the destructive impulses towards disintegration, Sfiso presents a new wholeness, scarred, damaged even, but with dignity restored.
Mario Pissarra 2016
Mario Pissarra, Visual Century: South African Art in Context 1907-2007 (Vol. 3, 1973-1992),(Wits University Press, Johannesburg, 2011), 85,88
Education and Training
1991 Aids in Canada workshop – posters for Southern Africa Education Trust Fund
1987 Clermont Arts Society – founder member
1986 Student teacher in Printmaking, Community Arts Workshop, Durban
1983 Art classes, Little Abbey Theatre, Durban
1982 Printmaking, Abangani Open School, Durban
1979 Handicrafts and drawing, Mtwalume, High school
2004 The African Art Centre, Durban
2003 AVA, Cape Town
2002 The African Art Centre, Durban
2000 The African Art Centre, Durban
1996 Me and My Conscience, BAT centre, Durban
International Group Exhibitions
2007 African Millennium Foundation B.A.D. 100% Zulu, gallery@oxo, London, U.K.
1997 Lifetimes: Kunst aus dem sudlichen Afrika, Out of Africa festival, Munich, Germany
1996 Common and Uncommon Ground, South African Art to Atlanta, U.S.A.
1995 Rise with the Sun, Winnipeg, Canada
1993 Icroci del Sud: Affinities-Contemporary South African Art, Venice Biennale
1990 Art from South Africa, MOMA, Oxford and other venues, U.K.
Local Group Exhibitions
2016 Beyond Binaries, Essence Festival, International Convention Centre, Durban; and Durban Art Gallery
2007 Exhibition of works of artists appearing in the book ‘Revisions’, African Art Centre, Durban
2006 Renault selected artist
2004 Exhibition of oil pastels, African Art Centre, Durban
2004 Ties that Bind, The Durban Art Gallery
2003 Veterans of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban Art Gallery
2002 Untold Tales of Magic – Abelumbi, Durban Art Gallery
2001 Fundraising exhibition, Ruth Prowse School of Art, Cape Town
1999 Exhbition with with Percy Konqobe, The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1999 Klein Karoo National Arts Festival, Oudtshoorn
1999 Emergence, Durban Art Gallery; Standard Bank National Arts Festival, Grahamstown
1990 Faith and Trust, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1990 Thupelo group show, FUBA Gallery, Johannesburg
1988 The Neglected Tradition, Johannesburg Art Gallery
1988 Three-person exhibition, Grassroots Gallery, Westville, KwaZulu-Natal
1987 Clermont Art Society group exhibition, Clermont Hall, Clermont, Durban
1987 Paul Mikula and Associates, Durban
1987 African Arts Festival, University of Zululand, Kwadlangezwa, KwaZulu-Natal
1986 Community Arts Workshop group exhibition, Café Génévè, Durban
1986 Artists Against Conscription, Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, Durban
1987 UZ African Arts festival first prize for drawing
Johannesburg Art Gallery
The Campbell Collections of the University of Natal, Durban
Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg
University of Zululand
Durban Art Gallery
S.A.N.G. Cape Town
Mobil Oil Collection
SASOL Art Collection
The Carnegie Art Gallery, Newcastle, KZN
Cape Provincial Library
Wits University Art Gallery
UNISA Art Collection