Mario Pissarra

Awakenings: impulses and threads in the art of Lionel Davis

By Mario Pissarra

This text first appeared on Davis’ artist page on asai.co.za in 2014

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.

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Resilience and empathy: Sfiso Ka-Mkame at the AVA

by Mario Pissarra

Review of Sfiso Ka-Mkame’s solo exhibition at the AVA, Cape Town, published in Artthrob, 2003
http://artthrob.co.za/03oct/reviews/ava.html

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”

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Affirmations of humanity: Sfiso Ka-Mkame’s dialogues with himself

by Mario Pissarra

Unpublished text for opening speech at opening of Sfiso Ka-Mkame’s ‘Dialogues with myself’ solo exhibition at the African Art Centre, Durban, 2016. It was originally published on Ka-Mkame’s page on asai.co.za in 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.

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Sfiso Ka-Mkame: Charting his own course

by Mario Pissarra

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, and first appeared on asai.co.za on Ka-Mkame’s artist page.

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.

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Quiet Provocations: Thoughts on two works by Randolph Hartzenberg

by Mario Pissarra

This text was originally published on Hartzenberg’s page on asai.co.za in October 2014

Randolph Hartzenberg has worked most of his professional life as an educator. For several years, he taught art at Alexander Sinton High School in Athlone and later lectured in design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Alongside his work as an educator, Hartzenberg has produced a rich body of artworks. He first attracted attention for his work as a painter, notably Domestic Baggage (1994), and later received some attention for his printmaking (Map of the Neighbourhood (1996)). In more recent years, there has been increased interest in his performances and installations. For the latter, there is typically a strong sculptural element, although these pieces tend to be categorised as installations because most make use of found materials and are produced for specific locale, usually in response to invitations from curators.

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Recalling The Natal Visual Arts Organisation: a roundtable conversation

Proceedings of a conversation with Sfiso ka Mkame, Thami Jali, Paul Sibisi and Zamani Makhanya, moderated by Mario Pissarra, with contributions from Scott Williams and Russel Hlongwane. 

Editorial note: Participants arrived at various times during the morning, leading to certain points being revisited with different inputs.

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Dogs on Duty: The unsettling aesthetic of Trevor Makhoba

By Mario Pissarra

Editorial note: This was originally commissioned by the Africa Centre, London and published on their now off-line website, Contemporary Africa Database, c. 2001, with the title “Trevor Makhoba Profile”. Apart from the correction of minor typographic errors, the essay is retained as in the original. It can be noted that the retrospective exhibition referred to at the conclusion of the essay was cancelled, due to unforeseen problems arising from negotiations with the late artist’s family. A photocopied series of essays commissioned for the catalogue can be found in some South African libraries (universities and museums). Makhoba’s work can be viewed in H. Proud (ed), ReVisions, SAHO and Unisa Press, 2006.

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Time to stand up for the South African National Gallery: or why no one cares any more…

To begin: why is it that we hear criticism of Zeitz Mocaa, and that the Department of Arts and Culture is routinely condemned for its handling of the Venice Biennale, but we hear next-to-nothing about the ongoing crisis at the South African National Gallery (SANG)? Can it be because Zeitz Mocaa and the Venice Biennale represent power and prospects, whereas the National Gallery has already sunk so low that no one really thinks it is worth fighting for?

To continue: why have I sat on this for months? Certainly, in part, because I was involved in a project that included an exhibition at the SANG, and I did not think Iziko’s management would know how to separate issues if I’d dropped this then. But also because one tires of raising issues about the SANG, and becomes despondent with the deafening silence that inevitably follows…

So, here we go, again…

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Owning your Liberation History: Nise Malange on the work and lessons of the Culture and Working Life Project

Note: Nise Malange, poet, activist, archivist and director of the BAT Centre, Durban, was interviewed by ASAI’s Mario Pissarra, Tasneem Wentzel and Scott Williams. The interview took place at the BAT Centre on 24 March 2017, and forms part of ASAI’s Community Arts Legacy Archive, funded by the National Lotteries Commission.

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Imvaba in the ‘hub of the struggle buzz’, an interview with Annette du Plessis

ASAI: What were the factors that contributed to the establishment of Imvaba? How was Imvaba established?

ADP: Following in the footsteps of the 1970’s struggle, and more specifically during the mid-1980’s, as well as after the establishment of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a large number of activists from Port Elizabeth and surrounds, increasingly arose from the masses. In addition, the local establishments of workers unions were particularly taking off more.

The need for arts and cultural support in taking the anti-apartheid revolution forward was urgent. The local liberation movement needed new logos, banners, art backdrops, leaflets and pamphlets, t-shirts designs, resistance poetry and literature, as well as support from all other art disciplines – and Imvaba became a vibrant vanguard tool in the forefront of the Struggle.

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