Sociocultural themes in the art of Velile Soha

POSTED ON: May 20, 2021 IN On Artists, Sule Ameh James, Word View

by Sule Ameh James

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Born in Cape Town in 1957, Velile Soha was interested in art from a young age. This interest was nurtured through Soha’s informal education at the Nyanga Arts Centre in the 1970s. It was there that he was encouraged to apply to study at the Evangelical Lutheran Art and Craft Centre (commonly known as Rorke’s Drift), KwaZulu-Natal, where he enrolled in 1981. Established in the 1960s, Rorke’s Drift was one of the earliest centres that provided art training for black South Africans under apartheid. It aimed to nurture the artistic heritage of Africa in its practitioners. 

In narrating his three years of training at the centre, Soha notes that they were stimulating educational years for him, during which he was able to receive valuable mentoring from his teachers and students older than himself. [1] At the centre, he studied drawing, painting, sculpture, weaving, tapestry and ceramics, although it soon became clear that he was particularly gifted in printmaking and he specialises in that medium to this day. [2] However, it should be noted that Soha is also a proficient painter, and he points out that his paintings and prints have a comfortable, natural feel to him. [3]

After Rorke’s Drift, Soha returned to Cape Town in 1984 to teach young artists at the Nyanga Art Centre whilst pursuing his career as an artist. Since then, he has had a solo exhibition at the Association of Visual Artists (AVA) Gallery in Cape Town, shown his work in several Western Cape and international group exhibitions, spent a number of years as a Greatmore artist-in-residence and participated in numerous Thupelo workshops. 

An understanding of Soha’s background is significant in contextualising his artistic works. As he claims, he started creating art when South Africa was still in the clutches of apartheid and his work over the years reflects the dramatic changes that his country has undergone. [4] 

Soha’s artworks hint at being socio-cultural in conception and outlook. Their source of inspiration is the lives of black South Africans in the rural areas and townships. A major reason or motivation for this, in Soha’s view, is because he sees his role as an artist to be primarily that of a witness to the lives and the lifestyles of the people in his community, to their everyday struggles for survival and upliftment. [5] Soha lives in an established section of Langa Township in the Western Cape, providing him with sources of visual and thematic inspiration. Soha notes that his life in the township, as well as his childhood trips into his father’s former home of Ciskei, have profoundly influenced his works. [6] In this regard, the works show both rural scenes, telling of the influence of childhood memory, and township scenes, reflecting on everyday stories of black socio-cultural life.

The rural areas and urban townships that inspired Soha have different histories in South Africa. Whereas most black Africans lived in and populated the rural areas for centuries, the history of urbanisation of South African life began through industrialisation in the 1880s. When the mining industry began, black workers joined the migrant labour force in greater numbers. This resulted in the creation of black urban areas, known as ‘townships.’ Townships were created in outlying areas and provided substandard housing with limited infrastructure. This is because the purpose of housing black people near the cities was to provide labour — not to house extended families, support family or recreational life, or to attend to any of the basic necessities of residents. This development would have been very disappointing for many black African men, who migrated to the townships to make a living, because of the shortage of land in the rural areas. [7] But the history of Langa township unfolded differently to the majority of townships in South Africa, which largely developed from the late 1940s until the 1960s. Langa was established in 1927, following forced removal of residents from Ndabeni, an earlier Cape ‘native reserve’ area that was industrialised by the Cape Town Council. 

Although Soha’s works reflect socio-cultural themes, they can also be contextualised as being philosophical. As Soha observes, “the philosophy that guides my work is the people around me, where I grew up.” [8] This suggests that he is guided by a humanistically-inclined philosophy of life, informed by his own experiences in the township from a young age. A similar trend characterised the works of many black South African artists in the 1960s, whose artworks were stereotyped as ‘Township Art.’ This was, as Matsemela Manaka points out, “because the artists lived in the townships and their art was a portrayal of the joys and agonies of township life.” [9] However, ‘Township Art’ is often seen as a label for selling black art to white audiences because of its idealised depictions of township life. As such, ‘Township Art’ has been described as a “contemporary, modern, ‘Western’ approach to artmaking which distinguishes it [or them] from the perceived ‘primitivism and traditionalism’ of rural black artists’ work.” [10] Thus, it can be argued that they are the expressions of urban African artists in South Africa responding to their environment. Though their subject matters were diverse, the commonality lies in their reflections on the urban realities with which they contended in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. [11] It becomes problematic when any portrayal of black figures is categorised as depicting township life. The same applies to the label itself, ‘Township Art’, because it reduces all townships to a uniform geography and the experiences of all artists to one communal life, and in so doing, denies the existence of differences. [12]

Although Soha sometimes conforms to the expectations of township art, in his best work, he achieves a level of realism that does not endear him to that market. In fact, a local gallery owner who sells a lot of township art once remarked that he is “hard to sell.” [13] Despite that, the reception of Soha’s artworks can be said to be encouraging: he has been included in a number of important art historical publications and exhibition catalogues, like the fourth volume of Visual Century: South African Art in Context, Gavin Younge’s Art of the South African Townships, Philippa Hobbs and Elisabeth Rankin’s Printmaking in a Transforming South Africa, Sharlene Khan (et al.)’s The ID of South African Artists and numerous others. [14] In Soha’s view, “most of my works have been sold overseas.” [15] The artist has been exposed to a wide international audience, showing in exhibition venues from the United States and Argentina, to the United Kingdom, Namibia and more. [16]

Analysis of the socio-cultural themes in Soha’s artworks 

In Soha’s linocut, Woman Making Grass Mat (1990), attention is drawn to the long tradition of weaving amongst Xhosa people in the rural areas. The naturalistically rendered print consists of intricate lines (which dominate the background) and the image (in the immediate foreground). The background’s sinuous linear forms are graceful and, as Soha points out, the linear patterns do not merely suggest the “background design of the work [but] … clouds coming together.” [17] A modestly dressed black woman is seated on the ground. Light and shade are used to model and define her form. This makes her appear bold and dramatic. Her arm is raised as she stretches a piece of thin, white thread from the neatly arranged thatch grass in the composition. Several ornaments on both of her hands are rendered in intricate lines. These ornaments are cultural signs, evoking a Xhosa woman’s style of body adornment and beautification. The woman’s raised arm acts as a focal point, drawing the eye to the method she uses in making the mat. Needle and thread bind the material, rather than another traditional method that interlaces the thatch grass.

This practice of mat-making dates back several decades. As a traditional craft in rural areas of the Eastern Cape, the sitting crafter makes the mat by stitching multiple grass strands together. Generally, the mats are plain and suited for indoor purposes or dry places, meeting the day-to-day needs of rural life, but those with elaborate designs are given as gifts on the occasion of marriage or engagement. Interestingly, woven grass mats were one of the few crafts allowed among black South Africans under the apartheid regime. In Afrikaans, these crafts were referred to as “Bantoekuns” (Bantu art), and seen as a lesser art than that of white people. [18]

Woman making grass mat, 1990. Courtesy of Heidi Grunebaum and Emile Maurice (eds.), Uncontained: Opening the Community Arts Project archive (Cape Town: Centre for Humanities Research, 2012), 155.

To this end, the print can be seen to reflect on black craftswomen’s livelihoods, specifically making objects from natural resources for social, cultural and religious purposes. Mat-making prompts interaction with patrons both within and outside the crafters’ immediate communities, serving both culturally specific internal functions and sought as a product by tourists. [19]

Soha’s painting entitled African Beer Maker (2016) reflects on socio-cultural constructions of identity. The title refers to the cultural practice of home-brewing African beer, which is often made by cooking the ingredients in large pots over an open fire. African beer is a kind of traditional beer made from fermented sorghum, millet or maize.

African beer maker, 1990 (Courtesy of ASAI)

This polychromatic painted scene is dominated by green, with other colours used to highlight the centralised figures. The pair of gloved, red hands and the yellow-brown colour of the liquid draw attention to her activity, which takes place in a compound surrounded by a perimeter wall. The eye is led from the woman’s raised hands to the bucket she holds, and then the liquid substance. The realistic style employed by Soha manifests in the depiction of the African fabric tied around the woman’s baby and the smooth texture of her garment. 

The work refers implicitly to the history of beer brewing. Home brewed beer emerged with the growth of migratory labour and accelerating urbanisation in colonial and apartheid South Africa. Langa has a long history of contestation with the law in regards to traditional beer brewing where, at a certain point, the City Council of Cape Town issued permits to married householders for domestic brewing only, making it illegal to sell. [20] But as the apartheid racial division of labour largely excluded black women from jobs in the formal industrial sectors, many women in the township depended on beer brewing for survival. Given that it was their only means of entertainment and recreation, they protested against the municipality and bought drinks illegally. Besides, the drinking of beer among Xhosa men was embraced as a cultural practice, where beer among friends and relations accompanied discussion of important social and political issues. Traditional norms dictated that only senior men and their immediate juniors, who were established heads of households, could drink African beer. Despite the fact that home-brewing was part of Langa history, there was decorum in checking drunkenness and rowdiness, particularly among the young generation.

Untitled, 2019 (Courtesy of Spier Art Trust)

This socially-inspired image reveals the industriousness of the Xhosa woman, with her brewing and selling facilitating interactions with people in the township. Soha notes that it narrates the “township way of making beer for ceremonies.” [21] Arguably, should this reflect beer’s preparation for a ceremony, the lonely activity of this Xhosa woman is in dissonance with the collective work usually associated with ceremonial preparations in a compound. But this is not to deny the fact that the work shows preparation of African beer for a ceremony, because socio-cultural ceremonies certainly do take place in the townships as well, even if they differ from their manifestations in rural spaces. 

Where there is an African beer maker, those waiting to patronise her are not far away. Thus, Soha’s linocut African Beer Drinker, showing two figures at a night-time drinking spot, thematically unites the two artworks. The figure on the right, further back in the composition, holds a cell phone in their hand, while the one front-centre of the picture plane holds a large cup of beer to his mouth. He is highlighted dramatically (with sharply contrasting light and a shadowy background) and is drawn with delicate lines, detailing the folds and textures of his clothes, hair and skin. In the contemporary era, the drinking of African beer can be a social pastime, with customers arriving to drink at night at shebeens – places of congregation and socialising after work. 

African Beer Drinker, 2020. (Courtesy of Velile Soha)

Soha’s linocut, Housewife Preparing for Supper (2017), introduces the theme of domestic activity. The woman in the composition is drawn with intricate black and white lines and sharp contrast, making her stand out from the receding background. She stoops in front of a black pot placed on a metal brazier in the backyard. The activity around the brazier is the focal point of the composition. The wall built around the brazier prevents breeze from putting out the fire while the cooking takes place. 

Housewife Preparing for Supper, 2017. (Courtesy of Velile Soha)

The woman’s headgear fabric is intricately designed with lines and patterns. Although this patterned cloth has become associated with African identity, such cloths are often only African through assimilation, but not production. [22] Although cooking using firewood and a stand made of metal or big stones has been practiced for decades in all parts of the world, including sub-Saharan African countries, in Soha’s work, the reference is probably to cooking in poor South African township households. Despite the lack of modern kitchen facilities, this method of preparing food in the backyard is frequently adopted by those taking care of households. 

In his painting Portrait (2018), Soha reflects on a nameless subject, conveying a person, but one without personal identity. This painting is richly polychrome, with earthy browns as well as tones of blue, grey and black. The background is painted black, and the figure’s face is the focal point. Her skin is painted in smoothly applied browns, and covered with many wrinkles. An elderly woman may be identified in isiXhosa as uMakhulu (grandmother). Shades of blue detail the several small circular shapes that pattern her headgear, along with vertical lines of grey and white that highlight the neatly woven sweater. She is in the centre of the composition, backgrounded by a window in disrepair. 

Portrait, 2018. (Courtesy of Velile Soha)


Soha’s portrait is woven into the socio-cultural histories of gendering in township households. In Langa, as elsewhere, during apartheid and after, not every husband worked, and not every woman had a husband. Some were widows, and there were — and still are — nightmarish experiences of poverty in many households, homes falling apart, and broken windows repaired with sacks. The portrait illustrates the living conditions of the majority of South African households, either outright poverty, or continued struggle and vulnerability. [23] To this end, there is a level of realism in this work that can be generalised to represent a broader demographic. It might also be argued that this work conveys empathy with the plight of elderly women in townships who, despite the conditions of poverty, may still receive and interact with visitors, relations, children and friends from the neighbourhood.

Given the fact that it is a post-apartheid era representation, it can be analysed as a reflection on a contemporary state of poverty in the township, implicating the legacy of apartheid and perhaps also the failures of the government today. To this end, Soha’s realism translates across time and different South African political contexts.

Floods in the yard extends these issues, drawing attention to urban environmental problems caused by the underdeveloped conditions of poor township spaces. 

Floods in the yard, 2020. (Courtesy of Velile Soha)

The painting, rendered in both dark and bright tones of blue shows two men carrying a fridge through a yard flooded with water. The image recalls the histories of flooding in Western Cape townships like Langa. The living conditions have been overcrowded for decades, with more established brick households earning rents from shacks dwellers living in their yards. [24] As a result of dense populations and insufficient drainage infrastructure, heavy rains often cause flooding, with polluted water exposing residents to numerous health risks. The image shows a moment of solidarity between neighbours taking place despite the inhumane living conditions to which they are exposed. 


The analysis of Soha’s artworks in this paper reveals his exploration of socio-cultural frameworks from Langa to the rural Eastern Cape. Through people, history and cultural heritage, the works explore meaning in the everyday predicaments of South Africa. Soha’s art also considers the dignity of ordinary people, evident in the often-gendered social labours of beer and food preparation, grass mat-making and collective survival. The works show the persistence of culture within both rural spaces and townships, emphasising that culture, in South Africa, is never divorced from the scars of apartheid’s long years of segregation and oppression.

Sule Ameh James obtained his Ph.D. in Visual Studies from the University of Pretoria. His research focuses on modern/contemporary art history and visual culture.

[1] Velile Soha, “Velile Soha’s story,” unpublished autobiographical text (2020), 1.

[2] Soha, “Velile Soha’s story,” 1.

[3] Soha, “Velile Soha’s story,” 1.

[4] Soha, “Velile Soha’s story,” 1.

[5] Soha, “Velile Soha’s story,” 1.

[6] Soha, “Velile Soha’s story,” 1.

[7] The Land Acts description. See “The Natives Land Act of 1913,” South African History Online, 6 March 2013. Available here.

[8] Interview with the artist, June 2020.

[9] Matsemela Manaka, Echoes of African art: a century of art in South Africa (Braamfontein: Skotaville Publishers, 1987), 15.

[10] Lize van Robbroeck, “‘Township Art’: libel or label?” de Arte 33, no. 5 (1998): 3–16.

[11] van Robbroeck, 4.

[12] van Robbroeck, 5.

[13] Mario Pissarra, communication with the author, November 2020.

[14] Mandisi Majavu, Thembinkosi Goniwe and Mario Pissarra, Visual Century: South African Art in Context Volume 4: 1990 – 2007 (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2011); Gavin Younge, Art of the South African Townships (London: Thames & Hudson, 1988); Philippa Hobbs and Elisabeth Rankin, Printmaking in a Transforming South Africa (Cape Town: David Philip, 1997); Sharlene Khan, Janine van den Ende and William Wells, Identity: The ID of South African Artists (Amsterdam: Stichting Art & Theatre, 2004).

[15] Interview with the artist, June 2020.

[16] Exhibitions include: Cape Town: Contemporary Prints by Sipho Hlati, Velile Soha and Ernestine White, Polvo Art Studio, Chicago (2006); The ID of South African Artists, Fortis Circustheatre, Scheveningen, Netherlands (2004);University of Brighton Gallery, Brighton (1994); Manyano, Museo Etnografico Azul, Buenos Aires (1993).

[17] Interview with the artist, June 2020.

[18] Anitra Nettleton, “Life in a Zulu village: craft and the art of modernity in South Africa,” The Journal of Modern Craft 3, no. 1 (2010): 56.

[19] This then echoes the Xhosa woman’s socio-cultural role in poverty alleviation in a homestead, where perhaps the man is absent from home for a long time because of labour migration. Jabulani Nyawo and Betty C. Mubangizi, “Art and craft in local economic development: tourism possibilities in Mtubatuba local Municipality,” African Journal of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure 4, no. 2 (2015): 5.

[20] In the 1940s, in Sophiatown township in Soweto, “Beer brewing by blacks themselves was illegal … it had to be done without the [municipal] authorities noticing.” S. Eloff and K. Sevenhuysen, “Urban black living and working conditions in Johannesburg, depicted by township art (1940s to 1970s)” S.A. Tydskrif vir Kultuurgeskiedenis 25, no. 1 (2011): 5.

[21] Interview with the artist, June 2020.

[22] Wax prints, which are often labelled ‘African’ fabric, signal a kind of essentialist reference to the fabrics distributed by Dutch companies (from which the fabric derives the name ‘Dutch wax prints’). The history of African fabric reveals that it is “printed fabric based on Indonesian batik, manufactured in the Netherlands, Britain, and other countries (including some in West Africa) and then exported to West Africa, where it is popular but foreign, commodity.” Nancy Hynes and John Picton, “Yinka Shonibare: Re-Dressing History,” African Arts 34, no. 3 (2001): 60.

[23] Julian May and Andy Norton, “‘A difficult life’: the perceptions and experience of poverty in South Africa,” Social Indicators Research 41, no. 1/3 (1997): 95. 

[24] Ben Wisner and Henry R. Luce, “Bridging ‘expert’ and local knowledge for counter-disaster planning in urban South African,” GeoJournal 37, no. 3 (1995): 338.