Mario Pissarra (ed) – Awakenings: The Art of Lionel Davis

Edited by Mario Pissarra
Texts by Ayesha Price, Barbara Voss, Bridget Thompson, Deirdre Prins-Solani, Elizabeth Rankin & Philippa Hobbs, Ernestine White, Jacqueline Nolte, Lionel Davis, Patricia de Villiers, Thembinkosi Goniwe and Tina Smith, with introduction by Mario Pissarra, forewords by Bonita Bennett and Premesh Lalu, and preface by Nomusa Makhubu.
Design by Carlos Marzia

Date: 2017
Publisher: Africa South Art Inititative
ISBN 978-0-620-77209-9

The first monograph on Lionel Davis, artist, educator and activist, published on the occasion of Gathering Strands, Davis’ retrospective exhibition at the Iziko Souh African National Gallery.


Lionel Davis: District Six beginnings
Bonita Bennett

Lionel Davis: the composite artist
Premesh Lalu

Art from the pluriversity of life: lessons to learn from Lionel Davis’ opus
Nomusa Makhubu

Awakenings: the liberatory art of Lionel Davis
Mario Pissarra

Telling my story
Lionel Davis

Remembering District Six: the restorative art of Lionel Davis
Tina Smith

The artist as autobiographer: Lionel Davis’ images of Robben Island
Deirdre Prins-Solani

Formative training: the artist as student at CAP and Rorke’s Drift
Elizabeth Rankin and Philippa Hobbs

Culture is a weapon of the struggle: Lionel Davis and the CAP Poster Workshop
Patricia de Villiers

Visualising and narrating the everyday: observation, commentary,
realism and the art of Lionel Davis
Jacqueline Nolte

Lionel Davis and drawing: a journey of self–discovery
Barbara Voss

An archive of private and public memory: the prints of Lionel Davis
Ernestine White

Points of contact: Lionel Davis and mixed media
Ayesha Price

The expressive content of Lionel Davis’ abstract works
Thembinkosi Goniwe

The restoration of Mas in the Cape Carnival: Lionel Davis
and the masking and unmasking of (African) identities
Bridget Thompson

Awakenings: the liberatory art of Lionel Davis
Mario Pissarra

Lionel Davis is a well known and respected figure in South African art circles and public life. His contribution as an artist is entangled in accounts of seminal art organisations such as the Community Arts Project (CAP), Rorke’s Drift (1), Vakalisa and the Thupelo Art Project (2); and his early history as a District Six resident and political prisoner has made him an invaluable resource for post apartheid heritage projects, particularly the District Six and Robben Island Museums.

Davis began his career as an artist in 1977 at the ripe age of 41, shortly after surfacing from twelve years of political banishment (3). It was a time when the art world, with the notable exception of community arts centres, was overwhelmingly white. When South African art history entered a revisionist phase in the latter half of the 1980s (4), Davis was featured in several of the seminal studies of the time (5). Subsequently, Davis has been intermittently featured in studies of South African art, notably in publications on the ‘schools’ or movements of which he has been a part, namely CAP (6), Rorkes Drift (7) and Thupelo (8), as well as in projects where his links to District Six and Robben Island have been paramount (9).

Despite Davis’ respectable representation in South African art historical literature, the observation can be made that few of these texts have discussed his art in any detail. There is a disjuncture between the visibility of Davis as artist and the relative absence of attention to his art. Furthermore, it can be remarked that Davis’ public profile as a former District Six Resident and political prisoner frequently overshadows his identity as an artist. Indeed, much of the public attention Davis receives has centred on these roles (10).

It is plausible to cite extraneous factors to explain these points. There are valid concerns about the general quality, breadth and depth of writing on South African art, and the extent to which it is market led. Davis has not fitted the mould. Alternately, one can look to the hegemonic stature of South Africa’s political history, which dwarfs public interest in South Africa’s art. With Davis being an articulate and compelling storyteller, qualified to tell the South African story, or certainly pivotal aspects of it, and his political biography being unparalleled in the South African art world, it follows that many writers and audiences would foreground historical, social and political themes.

Rather than dwelling on how the environment has shaped the state of scholarship on Davis’ art, it is instructive to consider his own agency in claiming space as an artist. Certainly, Davis opted to walk pathways of his own volition, rather than to follow signposts to the centre. Unlike many of his peers and contemporaries, Davis did not pursue a career as an artist in the ways that may be expected of someone who clearly had begun to assume a prominent role by the late 1980s. He not only retained his professional practice as an educator, but he also shifted the axis of this work from art projects to the heritage sector. Furthermore, for much of Davis’ career he did not pursue the traditional option of solo exhibitions, preferring to situate his practice as part of collective shows, often in informal spaces. Prior to his retrospective at the Iziko South African National Gallery in 2017, Davis held only two solo exhibitions, the first of which took place thirty years after he began his journey as an artist at CAP (11). In addition, I have found that despite interest in his art, Davis has made little effort to sell his artworks, to the extent that he is known to have even discouraged buyers.

Despite not aggressively pursuing a career as an artist in the conventional sense it is evident that Davis has sustained his practice. It can further be argued that if one side steps the indicators most commonly used to ‘measure’ the stature of an artist – be these monographs, catalogues or journal articles; frequency of inclusion in influential art historical surveys; representation in prominent public collections; exhibits in prestigious museums; high market prices; and/or international success – and looks for evidence of recognition among peers and colleagues in the field, particularly in the geo-social contexts in which the artist is rooted, there are ample signs of Davis’ high standing in South/ern African art circles. Whether opening exhibitions (12), judging competitions (13), or participating in committees (14), Davis is frequently called on to perform functions befitting his seniority.

The point being made here is that while Davis has long been a visible and esteemed public figure, it is only in recent years that his art has begun to receive the attention it deserves. Davis’ retrospective exhibition, titled Gathering Strands, presents the first opportunity for a broad public to view and reflect on the scope and depth of his art. The retrospective, curated by Tina Smith and Ayesha Price on behalf of the District Six Museum, marks a major step in foregrounding his artistic practice. His complementary roles as educator and activist remain present, but they are for once secondary.

This book, Awakenings, was conceived as an autonomous but complementary companion to the retrospective exhibition, and constitutes a further step in looking and thinking about Davis’ art. This is the first time a range of perspectives have been articulated and presented on Davis’ art. Like Davis’ art, the book is exploratory. It provides what Ayesha Price calls a “point of contact”; a catalyst or prompt for later writings to elaborate on or reject the ideas enunciated here, and to introduce new perspectives.

Indeed, both the exhibition and the book build on an earlier point of contact, notably research conducted by the Africa South Art Initiative (ASAI), which took the form of an online archive and virtual retrospective, accessible to the public since 2014. It was during the course of conducting this research that I tentatively sounded out Davis on his interest in collaborating on a retrospective exhibition of his work. Davis encouraged me to talk to Tina Smith, who had earlier floated this idea with him. Thus began a collaborative partnership between the two organisations, with the District Six Museum taking responsibility for the exhibition and educational component, whilst ASAI concentrated on the book.

One of the outcomes of ASAI’s earlier research on Davis’ art had been a short essay titled “Awakenings: Impulses and threads in the art of Lionel Davis” (15). This somewhat sketchy account of Davis’ art constituted a preliminary attempt to map the scope of his art, and to surface the ideas that underpin his practice. In many ways the book began where the initial research had ended, with the various themes identified in the essay informing a series of briefs that were given to writers. Without exception, all the writers have had significant contact with Davis, with most having worked with him in various capacities at different points in time. They come from varied positions – there are curators, educators, artists, and a film-maker – and introduce very different styles, from the informal to the academic. All address specific aspects of Davis’ art, with most essays being the first written on its topic. Many of the writers conducted primary research, drawing on their own interviews with the artist, thereby significantly amplifying Davis’ voice, whilst simultaneously introducing a range of discursive frameworks.

The challenge to shift the focus away from Davis’ biography towards his art is easier said than done. Not only since art does not exist in a vacuum, but even more so because Davis’ life directly informs much of his art, and his practice as an artist impacts on his biography. Certainly there is good scope for future studies to explore the intersections between his art, his biography and his social and historical context. Some of that work will be done by Davis himself, who regularly contributes chapters to his memoirs. This book begins with a taste of this work, with selected passages from Davis on his memories of growing up in District Six, as well as on his life on Robben Island, first as a political prisoner, later as a heritage educator and tour guide. Davis’ autobiographical text precedes essays on his visual representations of District Six and Robben Island by, respectively, Tina Smith and Deirdre Prins-Solani. Smith’s essay on Davis’ drawings, paintings and linocut prints of District Six introduces the idea of his art as restorative, of memory making as an act of reclaiming and affirming humanity in the face of the trauma of the dispossession and loss that came with forced removals. For Prins-Solani, Davis’ rich depictions of Robben Island collapse personal experience with collective biography. Both these essays highlight ways in which Davis’ story has come to stand for more than his own. Furthermore, they reveal that Davis turned to these ‘biographical’ themes years after the ‘fact’ of living there. Recognising their retrospective character illuminates the view that his depictions of District Six and Robben Island were produced in the lingering aftermath of trauma, as a way of processing past events and making sense of their meaning. This may explain why Davis speaks so often of art as a form of healing, a point made by several writers in this volume.

Davis’ art biography, notably his formative training at CAP and Rorkes’s Drift is discussed by Elizabeth Rankin and Philippa Hobbs. To some extent the training he encountered in these early years was conservative, providing a counterpoint for his later experimental turn with Thupelo. However, this view should not discount key legacies of this period, it was after all in these early years that he was introduced to life drawing and printmaking, practices that have endured throughout his career, even if not always in the manner he was taught. It becomes apparent that these early experiences were liberatory for Davis, not only for affirming his new calling as an artist, but for introducing him to a creative community and fostering new relationships, many of which were sustained over ensuing decades (16).

If Hobbs and Rankin highlight instances of Davis’ political maturity making its presence felt in the secluded site that was the art centre at Rorke’s Drift, Patricia de Villiers recalls Davis’ central role in the work of the Poster Workshop/Media Project at CAP, the period in which he produced his most overly political work. Whilst acknowledging the agitprop character of the posters and banners designed at this time, de Villiers draws attention to Davis’ discomfort with symbols and conventions for depicting heroism. She remarks that a poetic and painterly naturalism permeated many of his poster designs. Similar commentary about Davis’ reticence to apply conventional visual and ideological tropes of both heroes and victims, in favour of empathetic representations of ‘ordinary’ subjects are made in Prins-Solani’s essay, as well as in Jacqueline Nolte’s account of Davis’ deployment of realism.

In discussing Davis’ visualisations of the everyday, Jacqueline Nolte provides a thorough account of the cultural politics of the time. Nolte situates contemporary South African arguments for realism as a politically effective idiom within an art historical trajectory that drew in good measure from early debates in the Soviet Union, filtered through the South African Communist Party into the political and aesthetic discourses of the day. However, Nolte extends and ruptures orthodox notions of realism, introducing consideration of how Davis’ forays in abstraction enabled him to develop pictorial languages that could capture ‘other’ realities, such as that of erased indigenous identities, as well as psychological and cathartic states of being.

Following Nolte’s intimation that realism and the visualisation of the everyday can divert from naturalistic modes of imaging likeness, it can be remarked that in the case of Davis’ linocuts of District Six and Robben Island, there is in part an almost illustrative realism, presented as vignettes or semi-autonomous scenes, and augmented by generous use of written texts. These elements in of themselves are classic forms for narrating content, aesthetic devices that align neatly with realist impulses. However, the dramatic juxtaposition of multiple settings and viewpoints departs from naturalist conventions and introduces a fragmentary ‘whole’ that is as much a reminder of the incompleteness of memory as it is a visual simulation of rupture and displacement.

Drawing is central to Davis’ art. Barbara Voss offers an expansive survey of his drawing development and practices, from childhood right into the present. Many artists who choose to work in related fields, such as education, inevitably suffer a decline in productivity. In Davis’ case, drawing regularly has been important in maintaining a creative momentum (17). In addition, drawing informs Davis’ mono-chromatic linocuts, where the narrative impulse is strongly evident. The linearity of some of his abstract works, a quality remarked on by Thembinkosi Goniwe, can be directly traced to his prowess in drawing. But if drawing is often technical, a means to capturing likenesses as well as ideas, it can also be a sociable act, as recognised by Voss who offers the cogent insight that drawing provides a means for Davis to connect with ordinary people.

It is productive to link the comment by Voss of the sociability of Davis’ drawing to Nolte’s implicit notion of the dialectic of realism as both retinally ‘accurate’ and psychologically revealing, and to apply these ideas to Davis’ train drawings. A lifelong train commuter, Davis has produced numerous works on this theme. Notable among these are the sketches produced on-site where his discreet scrutiny of individuals and groups is ably translated through modest means, typically pencil or pen on small formats. These are intimate, ostensibly unremarkable moments that affirm human presence and express a profound respect for the lives of ‘small’ people. These drawings chronicle an existential, liminal space between destinations – these are spaces fraught with uncertainties, sites of hope and fear, community and alienation. That these works date back to the mid-1980s, a time of serial States of Emergency, informs their often desolate tone, and underlines the displacement that the train journey replays with its shuffling between the city, off-limits to the majority, and the desolate locations to which many were forcibly relocated. It is a mark of Davis’ skill that deceptively simple drawings can evoke the trauma and resilient dignity embodied in the daily struggles that mark everyday life for ‘ordinary’ people.

The idea that Davis’ art serves as an archive of both private and public memory is discussed in Ernestine White’s essay on his printmaking. Earlier, similar conclusions on his District Six and Robben Island images were reached by Smith and Prins-Solani, but here White alerts us that this orientation is evident in a wider range of themes. Several of the works discussed by White date back to Davis’ tenure as a mature student at the Michaelis School of Fine Arts in the early 1990s, a time when much of his art reflected back on the trauma of social and political events of recent decades. While White discusses works as products of different print mediums, a pattern emerges, namely the convergence of content and technique. It is instructive that this phenomenon is remarked on in the context of a discussion of figurative art, since later in the book it emerges as a central point in Thembinkosi Goniwe’s interpretation of Davis’ nonfigurative art as “expressive content.” It is instructive in the sense that the erosion of borders between the realist and the abstract, the political and the aesthetic, becomes central to Davis’ work, as will be elaborated in varying contexts below.

While essays by de Villiers, White and Voss concentrate on specific media, a common feature in Davis’ work is his healthy disregard for the sanctity of individual media. He has no qualms drawing or painting on a print, drawing on newspaper or the pages of a printed book, tearing and collaging drawings and prints, and incorporating words into his images, from short phrases to extracts from poems and whole paragraphs. Ayesha Price highlights the artist’s tendency to revisit and rework older works, generally those considered unresolved or incomplete, and to introduce a wide-range of media into what were originally single-media works. Price likens Davis’ approach to an open-ended, “convivial conversation” between friends, picking up where things were left off, and introducing new elements into the picture. She posits that for Davis, “creation is an act of liberation” and that “mixed media was the tool of his resistance”.

What is privileged in Davis’ use of mixed media is the creative act as an exploratory and empowering process, one in which intuition and play are constantly present. The notion of play is foregrounded in Thembinkosi Goniwe’s reading of Davis’ non-figurative art. Goniwe, through introducing reservations regarding realism as “exhausted”, and through recalling the political pressure on black artists (mostly from the white left) to work in figurative modes, highlights the liberatory qualities that abstraction, through the agency of the Triangle network, introduced for Davis and many other black South African artists in the 1980s.

Goniwe posits that Davis’ works should be positioned within the discursive frame of African modernism. At one level, Goniwe argues, there is an intertextual conversation going on with South African precedents, such as Cecil Skotnes and Lucky Sibiya. This in itself would suggest their uni-directional influence on Davis, which, in Skotnes’ case, is confirmed by Davis himself. But in noting formal affinities with other African examples, notably from Nigeria, Sudan and Senegal, most of which Davis was not very familiar with at the time, Goniwe argues that Davis is not only influenced by but also constitutive of a pan African aesthetic that is best described as African modernism. Goniwe’s argument can be extended with the observation that a common feature of African modernism, or what I prefer to term the aesthetics of decolonisation, is a hybrid fusion of elements. These typically range from indigenous sources (repressed through colonialism) to ‘international’ references (that often draw substantially on the cultural legacies of colonising powers, or, less frequently, look to alternative internationalisms). That these practices, and contingent discourses, tend to be accentuated in periods preceding and following political independence would explain the timing of Davis’ most pronounced ‘African’ art, which becomes a more visible element in his art in the period leading up to and following political change in 1994.

While Goniwe uses figuration as a counterfoil to elaborate on Davis’ abstraction, we are once again reminded of how borders dissolve with Davis. Informing the aesthetic qualities of Davis’ abstract works is his command of drawing; between the discipline of looking and the freedom offered by an emphasis on process, there is fertile ground for Davis’s command of line, form and colour to assume its own momentum and assert its distinctive character, what Goniwe calls “expressive content”. What these works reveal is that the binaries between observational drawing and expressive, intuitive abstraction can dissolve, in the sense that these two tendencies feed off each other.

If Davis’ aesthetic comprises a hybrid vocabulary that draws substantially on mixed media, as well as on porous realisms and abstractions, his exploratory impulse can be situated within a perennial quest for learning – hence his appropriate use of the term ‘journey’ to describe his artistic and personal development. That this journey embodies both humility and enterprise is evident if one considers how his art education defies that of the trajectories most followed by visual artists. As noted earlier, Davis began making art in earnest at the age of 41, and he studied Fine Arts at the University of Cape Town in his mid to late 50s. In fact, as much as he has a rich history as an art educator, the converse applies equally – Davis has never stopped being a student. He still attends workshops and drawing classes, and he continues to be active as an educator. As Rankin and Hobbs point out, learning about art has always been a two way process for Davis.

This non-hierarchical approach to education, which centres learning as exploratory, intuitive and open-ended is central to the founding principles underpinning one of Davis’s artistic ‘homes’, Thupelo — lest we forget Thupelo is a Sotho word meaning ‘teach by example’ not too far removed from the idea of ‘learning by doing’, an original guiding principle for CAP. The idea of teaching and learning that operates here is only partially concerned with ‘technical’ questions; it is less fixated with traditional ideas of skill than it is concerned with personal growth. Titles, such as The Awakening (1995 – 2005) suggest a link between the creative act and a quest for consciousness. This work, part of a series of lithographs transformed into original works through the introduction of paint, retains figurative elements associated with masks, but is heavily abstracted. Along with many of Davis’ abstract pieces, such as Jikala and African Sunset, The Awakening is evocative of organic forms, of movement, of generation. As an idea, it resonates simultaneously at the personal and social levels. Indeed, a companion piece to The Awakening is titled Africa Awake. To reflect on the titles of these works is to support their interpretation as both revelatory signs of the act of becoming conscious (The Awakening), and as a call for consciousness (Africa Awake). More specifically, the introduction of Africa into the title links this moment of awakening to African identity, serving to both communicate a message to an Africa that exists already, as well as to the latent Africa that resides suppressed or dormant in individuals and communities.

Arguably, of all the leitmotifs and themes that manifest in Davis’ art, the most critical is his approach to race and identity. Classified ‘coloured’, Davis has frequently addressed the denial of African heritage that marks many communities who have embraced the notion of coloured identity. Direct provocations emerge in Davis’ imaging of District Six, where, as Smith points out, Davis troubles the now normative characterisation of District Six as a quintessential coloured area. Here he reinserts the erased presence of African residents. Occassionally he directly addresses the prejudice towards looking too black with an emphatic treatment of physical features commonly identified as ‘African’. More frequently Davis avoids racial types by conjuring presences that are unequivocally black, without being distinguishable by apartheid nomenclature. At times, Davis’ dissidence takes the form of claiming an African identity for his work through titles, a trend most visible in many of his abstract works. Elsewhere Davis reverses the gaze from coloureds who negate African identity, towards narrow, exclusionary, apartheid era constructions of African identity. When Davis incorporates rock painting motifs into his work, or phonetic elements from repressed or extinct Khoisan dialects, he does not only, as Nolte states, give voice to the marginalised.
Rather, Davis troubles fixed notions of both coloured and African identity, highlighting the absurd exclusion of the descendants of the first people from both statutory and popular classifications of African identity. Similarly, his poster commemorating the history of Robben Island reminds us that it was ‘hunter-gatherers’ who were the first political prisoners banished there. If the idea of leadership in the Congress movement was once closely tied to a mission-educated modernity, at odds with the ‘primitivism’ signified by Khoisan peoples, Davis reminds us of some of the earliest freedom fighters. All of these interventions perform a dual function: fixed notions of identity (largely coloured but also exclusionary notions of African identity) are troubled, and a new, more inclusive African identity is affirmed (18).

Davis’ unsettling of fixed coloured and African identities dominated his Maskerade exhibition at the Association for Visual Arts Gallery in 2009. The significance and seminal importance of this exhibition is discussed by Bridget Thompson. Thompson details how in these works Davis entangled the painted, minstrel face conventions of the Cape Town minstrel (Klopse) carnival with those of West or Central African masquerades. Bringing these two traditions into conversation, Davis introduces questions of what constitutes masking in Africa. Additionally, he reclaims the presence of West Africans in the cosmopolitan mix of District Six, which conservative interests have ethnically cleansed as a ‘coloured’ heritage site.

Throughout this book, the idea of “awakenings” has had a way of inserting itself. It is a concept that resonates for a series of life events that impacted profoundly on Davis’ political and artistic development – District Six, Robben Island, CAP, Rorke’s Drift, Thupelo and UCT among them. Seen in this light, “Awakenings” speaks to multiple moments of revelation as much as it does to the larger quest for fulfillment and wholeness, for self and community. Additionally, the concept resonates at the level of the everyday, through the spirit of open-ness. “Awakenings” speaks to the embodiment of the principles of creativity, social consciousness, critical engagement and receptiveness to life-long learning and growth that inform Davis’ approach to his art and to life itself. The application of this ethos over four decades, manifested through the process of making art, has bequeathed a rich archive. It is a liberated archive, one that has been produced free of any pressures to be anything other than meaningful for Davis’ own journey of self-discovery and socialisation. Through this committed approach to his practice, Davis affirms the potential of art as a means of
making sense of the world and one’s place in it.

(1) Popularly known by the name of its location, the correct name for Rorke’s Drift is the Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre.

(2) Here I include reference to Greatmore Studios, as an offshoot of Thupelo.

(3) Arrested in 1963 for political activities against the apartheid regime, Davis was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1964 until 1971 and subsequently placed under house arrest for five years.

(4) South African art history underwent a fundamental shift in the mid to late 1980s. It was a shift away from an almost exclusively white art history towards a revisionist project centred on writing black artists into the South African art canon. While this activity was most noticeable in the 1980s and 1990s, it remains an ongoing project.

(5) Davis’ art was included in Matsemela Manaka’s Echoes of African Art (Johannesburg: Skotaville, 1987), Steven Sacks’ The Neglected Tradition (Johannesburg: Johannesburg Art Gallery, 1988), and David Elliott’s Art from South Africa (Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 1990). He was also pictured, leading a poster workshop, in Gavin Younge’s Art of the South African Townships (Oxford university Press, 1989).

(6) Davis’ posters are featured in Upfront and Personal: Three decades of political graphics from the United Kingdom plus South African political graphics (Cape Town: British Council, 2003); Jon Berndt, From Weapon to Ornament: The CAP Media Project posters 1982- 1994 (Cape Town: Arts and Media Access Centre, 2007); Judy Seidman, Red on Black: The story of the South African poster movement (Johannesburg: STE and SAHA, 2007); and a linocut appears in Heidi Grunebaum and Emile Maurice, eds, Uncontained: Opening the CAP archive (Cape Town: Centre
for Humanities Research). Uncredited posters by Davis appear in The Poster Book Collective, Images of Defiance: South African resistance posters of the 1980s (Braamfontein: Ravan Press, 1991); and Deirdre Prins-Solani et al, Struggle Ink: The poster as a South African cultural weapon 1982- 1994 (Cape Town: Robben Island Museum, 2000).

(7) Philippa Hobbs and Elizabeth Rankin Rorke’s Drift: Empowering prints (Cape Town: Double Storey, 2003). Earlier, Hobbs and Rankin featured Davis in Printmaking in a Transforming South Africa (Claremont: David Philip, 1997). 

(8) John Picton and Jennifer Law, eds, Crosscurrents: Contemporary art practice in South Africa (Somerset: Atkinson Gallery, 2000); and Polly Savage, ed., Making Art in Africa 1960- 2010, (Surrey: Lund Humphries, 2014). Both these books draw on the collection of Robert Loder, one of the founders of the Triangle network, to which Thupelo is affiliated. Davis is photographed producing work in John Peffer, Art and the End of Apartheid (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). A work produced by Davis at the Triangle affiliated Pachipamwe workshop in Zimbabwe is featured in Kahrin Adahl and Berit Sahlstrom, Islamic Art and Culture in Sub-Saharan Africa (Uppsala University, 1995), although in this case the inclusion of Islamic sources is of primary interest to the authors.

(9) Davis’ inclusion in Grunebaum and Maurice’s Uncontained centres on his representation of a District Six site. Davis’ production of art reflecting on his experiences as a political prisoner provides the main rationale for his inclusion in Annie Coombes, Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (Duke University Press, 2003); Sue Williamson, South African
Art Now (New York: Collins Design, 2009); and in John Giblin and Chris Spring, South Africa: The art of a nation (London: Thames and Hudson and British Museum, 2016).

(10) Davis’ representation in John Peffer’s Art and the End of Apartheid, is telling of the way he is often treated. His authorative voice is generously used but his work is not illustrated. Similar observations can be made of Graham Falken, ed., Inheriting the Flame: New writing on community arts in South Africa (Cape Town: Arts and Media Access Centre, 2004); and Wofgang Weirauch et al, Schuld…Immer nur die anderen? (Flensburgher Hefte, 2004). In addition, Davis has spoken on broader cultural and political issues on numerous public platforms, including in the USA, Canada and Norway.

(11) This was held at the Gill Alderman Gallery, Kenilworth, Cape Town, 2007

(12) Davis has been a popular choice for exhibition openings, especially in Cape Town.

(13) Notable examples include the Cape Town Triennial and Zimbabwe Heritage. Davis was one of the first (and last) black judges of the Cape Town Triennial, at the point that the prominent exhibition had come under fire for its exclusion of black artists. The event was subsequently terminated by its funders, the tobacco company Rembrandt van Rijn, who failed to grasp that the exhibition had been transformed into a more dynamic and inclusive platform. Davis served as international judge at three successive Zimbabwe Heritage exhibitions at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare (1996 – 98).

(14) Davis was among the first crop of appointees appointed to the board of the South African National Gallery in the post 1994 period; and was a long serving member of the organising committee
for Thupelo, Cape Town. Davis also served as trustee of CAP in the 1990s.

(15) Mario Pissarra, “Awakenings: Impulses and threads in the art of Lionel Davis,” Africa South Art Initiative, 2014. Accessed 1 August 2017, http://www.asai.

(16) Note, for instance, the high proportion of Thupelo stalwarts who are Rorke’s Drift alumni.

(17) One also can note that the sociability of attending drawing classes — and their egalitarian, non-gladiatorial culture, typically conducted with fellow students, amateurs even — is typical of Davis’ consistent gravitation to artistic and community-centred networks.

(18) This extends to a (Robert) Sobukwe-like position where African identity is denoted by allegiance to the continent rather than being a matter of colour.

Ayesha Price is a Cape Town based visual art practitioner. She was born in Parkwood Estate in 1975 and has lived and worked in many other communities across the city. She completed her studies in Art Education at the Hewat College of Education, Athlone in 1996 and has been active in art education since. In 2008, she enrolled at the University of South Africa for a Bachelor of Arts in Visual Art and received the excellence award for top national result for her graduate exhibition in 2013. She works conceptually across a wide variety of media, employing visual art as a device through which to mediate social issues. Recent exhibitions have included large scale video installations, printmaking and embroidery. The artist has also been actively engaged in a wide variety of collaborative art projects with local and international art and heritage institutions including Philadelphia University of the Arts (mural painting), Thames Festival (artist/ art educator) and District Six Museum (art educator/ curator). She has exhibited artwork at numerous group exhibitions since 1998, including at the Association for Visual Arts, University of the Western Cape, Durban Art Gallery and Iziko Museums. Her work also features in private and public collections.

Barbara Voss was born and raised in Germany. She immigrated to South Africa with her family in 1966. Barbara completed her high school education at the German School, Johannesburg. While working in many varied jobs ranging from bookkeeping to child care to language instruction and adult education, she studied towards a degree in psychology and sociology which she completed through UNISA. She later qualified as a high school teacher. Barbara met Lionel Davis at the Community Arts Project in 1986, and they have been life partners since then. They have a son, Leon (born 1988). Barbara and Lionel share a passionate interest in visual art and they supported each other while obtaining degrees in the subject, Lionel through UCT and Barbara through UNISA. Barbara exhibited her own artwork alongside Lionel’s in an exhibition titled A Conversation in 4 Parts in 2006, at the Robben Island Museum (the two other participating artists were Paul Stopforth and Ruth Carneson). Barbara is currently teaching Visual Arts at a Cape Town high school.

Bridget Thompson is a researcher, producer, writer and director of social documentary films. She writes and lectures on film-making and has served on several international film festival juries. Bridget’s documentaries have won numerous awards, been shown on all continents, and licensed by a number of television stations. Her work originates in many languages (Swahili, Afrikaans, Isixhosa, Sepedi among them) and has been distributed in different language versions, (English, Spanish, French, Polish). She has trained and mentored other filmmakers and advised the directors of an Oscar nominated documentary Long Night’s Journey into Day (2000). She is a member of the international scientific committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, where she advises on film projects. As a member of this committee she was invited by the Colombian Ministry of Culture to screen her films in nationwide tours (2012 and 2013). Bridget entered the visual arts through her film Ernest Mancoba at Home (1995) which led her to curate In the Name of all Humanity, the African spiritual expression of Ernest Mancoba (2006-2007), the founding project of the Arts and Ubuntu Trust, which she directs. The Trust provides training and materials to supplement formal art education. Bridget is currently producing a multi-media series, The South African Arts, Past and Present.

Deirdre Prins-Solani has served as Director of the Centre for Heritage Development in Africa (based in Kenya); Head of Public Programs and Education at the Robben Island Museum and World Heritage Site; Chairperson of the South African Museums Association (SAMA); President of the International Council of African Museums (AFRICOM); a committee member of the Institutions of Public Culture (an Africa/ USA collaboration between the academy, practitioners in public culture, museums and galleries); committee member of the Board to the African Program in Museum and Heritage Studies; and a member of the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) National Standards Body for the Arts and Culture sector. She is a Salzburg Global Seminar Fellow and Resource Person; and an UNESCO accredited expert to the 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). She has developed materials for the Global Strategy for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage and conducted numerous training and advocacy activities to ensure its implementation. She provides policy and strategic planning support to cities and state parties in the African and Caribbean regions. She serves as heritage advisor to the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Exclusion and Resistance Network.

Elizabeth Rankin is Professor Emeritus of the University of Auckland. She was for many years Professor of the History of Art at the University of the Witwatersrand, where her special research interests lay in sculpture and printmaking, often with a focus on the recovery of unrecorded histories of black artists. She has maintained these interests alongside her work in New Zealand, particularly through her collaborative research with Philippa Hobbs, with two books written together since she left South Africa: Rorke’s Drift: Empowering Prints (2003) and Listening to Distant Thunder: the art of Peter Clarke (2011/ 2014). As well as publishing, she has curated a number of exhibitions in South Africa and New Zealand. It was while working on an exhibition and catalogue for the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 1997, Printmaking in a Transforming South Africa, again with Philippa Hobbs, that she first became acquainted with the prints of Lionel Davis, and she got to know him and his work well over the years whilst researching such topics as CAP and Rorke’s Drift.

Ernestine White was born in Cape Town and is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG). She spent a decade living in the United States and returned to South Africa in 2001. Ms White holds a Bachelors degree in Fine Art cum laude (State University of Purchase College, New York, 1999); a Master Printer degree in Fine Art Lithography (Tamarind Institute, New Mexico, 2001); a Masters degree in Fine Art (Michaelis School of Fine Art, UCT, 2004); and a Honours degree in Curatorship (Michaelis School of Fine Art, 2013). Ernestine White obtained her initial curatorial experience working as the Exhibitions Coordinator and subsequently Senior Projects Coordinator for the Parliamentary Millennium Programme (2004- 06, 2007- 11). She also worked as the Collections Manager for ISANG (2003- 04). Career highlights include curating the retrospective of Penny Siopis (ISANG, 2014) and recently being appointed as a member of the National Arts Festival’s Artistic Committee. As an independent artist Ms. White’s work can be found in major collections in South Africa as well as in the United States. Ernestine White’s most recent accomplishment was the inclusion of her artwork into permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Jacqueline Nolte has been Dean of Arts at the University of the Fraser Valley, Canada, since 2010. Previously, she was Head of the Visual Arts Department at UFV where she taught Art History and Theory and, prior to that, she taught Art History and Theory in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town. Her doctorate (University of Cape Town, 2001) is entitled The Location and Dislocation of Space in the Lives and Works of Contemporary Women Artists Working in South Africa. Publications include “Narratives of Migration in the Works of Noria Mabasa and Mmakgabo Sebidi,” in Between Union and Liberation: Women Artists in South Africa 1910-1994 (ed. Marion Arnold and Brenda Schmahmann, 2005); “Ownership of the Community Arts Project (CAP), 1976-1997,” Africa South Art Initiative, (26 May 2011); “Women’s citizenship and identity in Stó:lō Territory: a collective essay from the University of the Fraser Valley’s Lens Project,” co-authored with Stephanie Gould, Shirley Hardman and Sarah Ciurysek with Jessica Bennett, Andrea Smith and Jennifer Janik, in Home/Land Women, Citizenship, Photographies (ed. Marion Arnold and Marsha Meskimmon, 2016). She was active at CAP for many years, and served as chairperson of the Board of Trustees.

Mario Pissarra is the founder and director of the Africa South Art Initiative (ASAI), a non-profit company that researches and publishes resources, mostly online ( He is committed to developing an Africa-centred art history ‘from below’ and has written numerous texts on art and artists, with an emphasis on publishing open access material. His research focuses on the aesthetics of decolonisation. Pissarra project managed and was the chief editor of the four volume, multi-authored Visual Century: South African art in context, 1907 – 2007 (Wits University Press, 2011). He has curated several exhibitions, notably Against the Grain (Iziko South African National Gallery and Sanlam Art Gallery, 2013- 14); and co-curated Beyond Binaries (International Conference Centre, Durban; Durban Art Gallery; and KZNSA Gallery, 2016- 17). A former director of the Community Arts Project (CAP), Pissarra has lectured on canonical and contemporary African art at the Universities of Cape Town (UCT) and Stellenbosch; and presented public talks in Botswana, Mozambique, Portugal, Senegal, UK, and the USA. Pissarra studied
Fine Arts and History of Art at UCT, and Adult Education at the University of the Western Cape. He is registered for a PhD at UCT.

Patricia de Villiers was born in Cape Town and schooled across South Africa and overseas, obtaining a Diploma in Fine Art at the (then) Johannesburg College of Art. She fled the grim realities of apartheid South Africa in the early 1970s to study, then practice, stage design in London, and spent ten years under the radar of the immigration authorities, most of them with a Brechtinspired
touring theatre group that made plays ‘with and about’ the trade union movement. She resolved to return to South Africa and became an offset lithographic ‘machine minder’ at a print cooperative, joined the ANC and returned to Cape Town in 1982. After a period with the People’s Space Theatre, she began a ten-year association with the Community Arts Project shortly after the Gaborone Arts Festival, working in the CAP Poster Workshop at Chapel Street, then at Community House in Salt River. Concurrently she obtained a Postgraduate Diploma in Adult and Continuing Education at UWC. After a spell freelancing in illustration, cartooning and poster design, she took up a management post in the newly configured provincial health department in 1998. She retired from this in 2012 and is working as an illustrator, writer and editor.

Philippa Hobbs is a PhD candidate at the University of Johannesburg and research associate at the University of Johannesburg Research Centre: Visual Identities in Art and Design. She is a South African artist, researcher and curator, who has published numerous historical and educational art books on marginalised artists and art forms during the apartheid period, notably Printmaking in a Transforming South Africa (1997), Rorke’s Drift: Empowering Prints (2003) and Listening to Distant Thunder: the art of Peter Clarke (2011) (all co-authored with Elizabeth Rankin). Hobbs holds a Higher Diploma in Fine Art (Printmaking) from the Technikon Witwatersrand and a Masters Degree in History of Art from the University of the Witwatersrand. From 1979 to 1995 she lectured at the Technikon Witwatersrand. Her PhD research focuses on the pictorial tapestries made by women at the Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre, Rorke’s Drift.

Thembinkosi Goniwe, an artist and art historian, is a visiting researcher at the Wits School of Arts. Goniwe has known Lionel Davis since the late 1980s, when in high school he attended part-time art classes at the Community Arts Project (CAP). In the early 1990s, Goniwe studied with Davis at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town (UCT). Goniwe has taught fine art and art history at CAP, Sivuyile Technical College, UCT, University of the Witwatersrand, University of Fort Hare and Vaal University of Technology. His artworks have been exhibited locally and internationally. He has contributed essays to various publications and curated Andrew Tshabangu: Footprints, Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg and Grahamstown (2017); Towards Intersections: Negotiating Subjects, Objects and Contexts, Unisa Art Gallery and Museum Africa (2015); Where Do I End You Begin, City Center Edinburgh Arts Festival (2014); Impressions of Rorke’s Drift: The Jumuna Collection, Durban Art Gallery, and Museum Africa in Johannesburg, Grahamstown National Arts Festival and Iziko South African National Gallery (2013-2014); Desire: Ideal Narratives in Contemporary South African Art, 54th Venice Biennale (2011); SPace: Currencies in Contemporary African Art, Museum Africa, Johannesburg (2010).

Tina Smith is head of exhibitions at the District Six Museum. She is a fine arts graduate and holds a higher diploma in education from the University of Cape Town. As an arts educator and cultural activist from the 1980s, she participated as a volunteer artist in the creative production of the inaugural District Six Museum exhibition, Streets: Retracing District Six (1994), and later joined the staff (2006). She became closely invested in the Museum’s curatorial practice, working with the testimonies and stories of displaced communities and is now instrumental in maintaining its curatorial vision. Her key interest is using creative mediums as a restorative process to assist in the retrieval and reconstruction of memory. The recent publication of the District Six Huis Kombuis Food and Memory Cookbook, which she conceptualised and produced, demonstrates how the collective memory of District Six derives meaning, dignity and relevance. She has worked on numerous heritage projects including exhibitions for the Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island, the Alexandra Renewal Project, Iziko Museum’s Slave Lodge and Digging Deeper (the District Six Museum’s permanent exhibition). Her most recent work is Lionel Davis’ retrospective exhibition, Gathering Strands, which she co-curated through the District Six Museum.


Copies of Awakenings: The Art of Lionel Davis can be purchased directly from ASAI.

Alternatively, the book can be purchased from the following outlets:


Clarke’s Bookshop

District Six Museum

Kalk Bay Modern

SMAC Galllery (Cape Town and Stellenbosch)


Adams Bookshop Musgrave

Ike’s Bookshop

KZNSA Gallery Shop


David Krut Bookstore

SMAC Galllery 


Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac