By Nkule Mabaso
Mxolisi “Dolla” Sapeta was born the third child of four children in New Brighton, a township outside Port Elizabeth, on January 26 1967. At the age of six he would, after school as he waited for his older siblings to arrive and grant him access to the family home, draw on the gravel outside the house and this over time became his favourite past time. The young Sapeta predominantly drew stick figures and sees this as the time that he developed what would later be his present relationship with the arts and a love for drawing.
In the years following, Sapeta drew and composed comic strips on folio paper that he sold to his friends. He also made pocket money by drawing the illustrations for his schoolmates’ school projects. This led to the formation of a group of students interested in drawing of which Sapeta was the leader. One of the members of this group lived in Thembalethu Ville, a small suburb on the outskirts of New Brighton where George Pemba also lived. When playing in this neighbourhood they were always welcome to pop into Pemba’s studio and see what was on the easel. After a while, Pemba opened classes in a local businessman’s garage in Thembalethu. Sapeta attended classes there, along with three of his friends from the artistic group.
Much earlier to this, Sapeta was apprenticed under Mike Ngxokolo who was a painter, teacher, a local jazz band trombonist, and a choral music writer. The time spent with Ngxokolo developed a quiet, sensitive and always observant experiencing of life in Sapeta. Especially in the context of the 1980’s when Sapeta’s family life was disintegrating amidst the country’s political upheaval as “chaos reigned in the townships.” At this time, understandably, Sapeta did very little drawing and while he hated the police invasions of the township, Sapeta considered and still considers himself to be apolitical even though his elder brother and father were actively involved in the resistance struggle, his father being the president of the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organization.
Sapeta aligns his personal politics with those of the black consciousness movement. In April 1987, in the house Sapeta had grown up in and stood to inherit, he and his family mourned the death of his father. The following year, 1988, Sapeta started painting after he received a gift of acrylic and oil paints and some brushes from a friend. The medium of paint was very different from the manner he was used to but “I really started to work with paints in solitude at home and managed to paint my first picture.” He went on to take part in his first group exhibition in 1989.
Sapeta is a bachelor and prefers to be alone, “I used to be very much about myself and decided when I wanted to see people, I tried to create an alienated atmospheric character in my work.” This atmosphere is exceptionally well handled in Sapeta’s paintings. He has developed an identifiable iconography in his use of the primary colours to create confrontational and controversial paintings that criticize urban life and its related social problems, while also revealing his sensitive attunement towards human emotions and his understanding of colour to effect these emotions.
In the course of his everyday life he has adopted the passive role of observer and this is evident in both his earlier works and current production. Sapeta’s earlier works circa 1994/1995 reveal an exploration of paint as substance and colour above form and show a deft application of both colour and formal aesthetics. This marks the time Sapeta joined art school in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (formerly Port Elizabeth Technikon), a point at which Sapeta achieves greater confidence as a painter producing images from calculated and informed approach. The astute calculations are satirically employed in his current production as he vividly captures the daily struggle for survival revealing in essence that urban existence is strained.
Sapeta draws inspiration for his painting from New Brighton where he has lived and worked for most of his life. His brush strokes are robust and flat without any inclinations towards realism or naturalism. This is especially evident in his colour consideration, which above all else conveys the feel of things and his consistent emphasis upon the human situation.
His canvases simplify complex concepts by drawing attention to his use of bright colors. He provides very little allusion to the content or meaning which lies in the human islands in these acid seas of paint. His figures are all anonymous and float on the canvas with no individual aspirations, dominating the foreground. The background becomes secondary but remains very evident and recognizable as it frames the setting for the figures. In other paintings, however, the background (in the form of landscape) becomes a brooding and menacing subject where the conventional use of perspective along with linear and geometric elements emphasize the eerie desolation of the landscape.
The elements that make up Sapeta’s current practice are clearly identifiable in his early paintings, which also demonstrate his skill as an imaginative painter and his affinity with bright colours in describing urban landscapes that oppress and deprive.
With all this in mind, in my previous writing on the work of Sapeta, I described his practice as socio-political. In this reflection I am curious about what it means for one’s practice to be labelled as such and the limits and potentialities of such a framing, especially as it relates to the bestial motifs that sometimes occur in his work. The artworks referred to here are acrylic paintings on canvas, both were made in 2010, and respectively entitled Unknown Soldier, and Blow Dog.
Blow Dog depicts a toothless Rottweiler with its jaw wide open and nose turned towards the sky, set against an acid green and yellow background with a solitary building. There is a suggestion of streetlights in the fore and background. The image reads as a kind of snapshot, or section of a comic strip with its dark border around the edges of the canvas. The Rottweiler is either mid-howl or mid-cry.
The minimalist style of paintings establish their own urban dystopia through both the independent objects stripped of all inessential detail and the heavily outlined figures that appear plastered onto the foreground, as if forcibly removed from some other place. His flat backdrops create isolating abstract environments that condense the equally abstract and illusive sentiments, and emotions by bringing into sharp contrast the bestial as a metonymy for the human condition.
This similar treatment is evident in Sapeta’s 2010 painting Unknown Soldier where an avian type strangely adorns goggles atop a helmet as well as a sweater and shirt. The figure is placed in the left hand corner of the canvas against an acrid lilac background. Further behind the figure is a slightly ajar door with a ladder, the shadows of which crawl out of the right edge of the canvas. Similarly, this work sits within a dark painted frame tapering the edges of the canvas.
Although they are individual works, each of the two canvases appears as a part to a much larger puzzle, some clues to a meta-narrative of unsettled characters in different disguises.
My description of Sapeta’s work as socio-political describes a philosophy I find to be permeating through his practice, rather than as a description of an artistic style. To a certain degree, framing Sapeta’s practice as socio-political is not only over zealous on my part but unfairly prescribes a narrative and sets up expectations that the work has in fact no duty to fulfill. But the embodied philosophy that plays itself out on Sapeta’s canvas is situated at the intersection of variable social and political phenomena that are constantly in struggle; a charged struggle that plays itself out in the daily press and related media in this country.
In 2016 I curated an exhibition that included both the above-described works by Sapeta. The premise of the exhibition was about the allegorical use of beasts in contemporary art and how they relate discourses around racial humiliation projected towards black people in South Africa and how it comes to manifest itself in the public, and private sphere. At the time of the exhibition a white woman in Durban has referred to black beach goers as monkeys on social media. The comments were constitutive of a symbolic group humiliation, where all black South Africans were implicated in the humiliation of some of its members.
The works invited to the exhibition, engage with subject positions that critically query differing forms of actual and perceived violence in discourse on the black body. Through allegory, the works evidence a concern with notions of both injurability, vulnerability, and reveal a concern for the relationship between corporeality and violence, particularly the instances of violence that are rendered invisible within certain economies of representation.
Without a doubt Sapeta’s artworks embody various forms of agency and pose astute questions and observations, in addition to Sapeta’s dynamic immediacy in presenting local conditions pervasive within the present social frames. His paintings, rather than essentialising peri-urban desolation, aesthetically distil and make poignant deeply felt, but otherwise fragmented temporalities of a particular black experience punctuated by alienation, fear, pain and violence.
The bestial reference complicated Sapeta’s work, as ‘the animal’ remains so mired in its negation that it can offer no possible hope for disruptive re-articulation. The “bodies made animal and therefore put under erasure, made killable and consumable in real and symbolic terms”. Sapeta’s re-inscription of this does not disrupt colonial and apartheid racism and its speciesism politics “that fix ‘the animal’ outside the law and thus in symbolic and political relations of lack and negation.”
While the bestial portrayal of the human condition is evocative, and has a function within Sapeta’s paintings, it is also pejorative, when one considers that the gallery visiting and art buying public in South Africa is mainly white, who for the most part have not unlearned apartheid dogma. Instead of problematizing the negation, the image that is produced, when encountered on its own merely presents it anew, and runs the risk of re-inscribing the de-subjectivisation of black bodies already vulnerable and defined in terms of their use value in the exploitative capitalist sense. My discomfort with the continued appearance of abjection and beasts in the works of contemporary black artists, in the end, is that the conceptual devices deployed do not prove to be useful enough in the re-articulation of blackness and fail to offer up nuanced manifestations of black subjectivity.
On close inspection and on reflecting on previous conversations with the artist, Sapeta’s work presents, and does not necessarily question, current societal and political structures and their failures to provide viable economic support for the full and equitable realisation of black lives in South Africa. The paintings of Sapeta do not offer anyone the tools or knowledge needed to disrupt the systems of oppression, do not offer a way out, an alternative perspective outside of the hegemonic social frame. They enforce the present psychosis and make it inescapable.
This in and of itself is not the responsibility of artists, because artworks, however socially conscious, do not have direct political influence, as Rancier puts it: “the images of art do not supply weapons for battles.” However, how can artists use devices such as satire, metaphor and allegory to speak about historical grievances without requiring supporting text to counter perceptions that they are perpetuating negative stereotypes?
Despite my concern about the retention of abjective tropes, within the larger spectrum of his oeuvre Sapeta is an accomplished painter and his practice endeavours to communicate our collective trauma of the terrible reductions imposed by a racially stratified society. Sapeta’s paintings are deeply pensive and induce a particular pathos. Their viewing becomes another event of encounter for the lived, and psychological reality in parts of our society.
Nkule Mabaso currently works for the University of Cape Town as Gallery Curator at the Michaelis Galleries, which is part of the Michaelis School of Fine Art.