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In memory of Louis Maqhubela, pioneering and enigmatic South African painter

The pioneering South African artist Louis Khehla Maqhubela died on November 6, 2021 at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, UK, a few days after the death of his wife Tana Maqhubela. He leaves behind an important and emblematic legacy.

He created a bridge for the urban and black “township artists” of South Africa of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The movement he proposed to move away from normative expressionism towards styles and internationalist concerns can hardly be overstated.

First years

Maqhubela was born in Durban, South Africa, in 1939. His parents moved to Johannesburg in 1949, while he and his sisters were sent to live with their aunt in the rural town of Matatiele in the Eastern Cape Province, until they join their parents. three years later.

Maqhubela was a member of the artist and teacher Durant Sihlali group of weekend artists from 1955 to 1957. From 1957 to 1959, while still at school in Soweto, he studied under Cecil Skotnes – known for his painted and incised wood panels, prints, tapestries and sculptures – and sculptor Sydney Kumalo to Polly Street Art Center. The center was housed in a hall in Johannesburg and focused on black art students. He exhibited artists of all races, challenging the racial segregation of the white minority government aside policy that saw black citizens settle in townships outside of cities.

Maqhubela began working as a commercial artist but from 1960 he was commissioned to create paintings and mosaics in hospitals, schools, lobbies and bar lounges in and around Soweto canton. Skotnes facilitated a commission to create four large-scale oil paintings for public buildings. The only existing one is township scene (1961).

Township Scene (1961)
Africa Museum

It demonstrates a vitality, rigorous draughtsmanship, and use of strong, non-descript color and an expressionistic application of paint that set it apart from the more stereotypical impressions of black and urban life popular at the time.

Although he worked in a hostile apartheid environment, Maqhubela excelled and was successful early in his career.

A transformative journey

He won first prize at the Adler Fielding Gallery’s annual “Artists of Fame and Promise” exhibition in 1966 with a monumental work storytelling called Peter’s denial. Namibian-born artist Stanley Pinker was the runner-up and Maqhubela became the first to bridge the divide between black and white South African artists. His work was in high demand.

A black and white image of a young man, a serious expression on his face, his hair cut short and sporting a mustache.
A young Louis Maqhubela.
Image courtesy of the Maqhubela family

Maqhubela’s price included a return airfare to Europe; he was already well informed and read, but the three months spent abroad transformed his life and his work.

In the great museums and galleries, he meets the masters of Modernism and abstraction. A major exhibition of Swiss-German artists Paul KleeThe work in Paris left a deep mark on him.

Skip the chance to meet the famous painter Francis Bacon, Maqhubela traveled to St Ives in Cornwall to see a South African-born artist Port Douglas. In Portway he found not only a mature and exceptional painter, but also a kindred spirit, someone in search of creativity and expression beyond observed reality, someone who explored the realms of spiritual and metaphysics of artistic creation. In an interview published in The star newspaper in 1968, shortly after his return, Maqhubela noted“I learned a lot from him. We spent many hours discussing art and techniques. His own path to a divine source was as a student of Rosicrucian Order.

Maqhubela’s break with the past and its new leadership meant the end of figurative expressionism, with its emphasis on the human figure, and the beginning of a personal engagement with modernist abstraction, referring to shapes and forms. This was accompanied by the development of an artistic language and iconography inspired by his quest for spiritual growth. His oil paintings on canvas or on paper from the 1970s are characterized by thin layers of paint articulated by means of scraffito, sometimes completely abstract, at other times with figures, birds and animals emerging from threadlike lines, color and floating forms.

An abstract artist emerges

Maqhubela succeeded, but the obstacles he and his family faced during apartheid South Africa proved too great for them. They moved to the Spanish island of Ibiza in 1973 and settled in London in 1978.

He studied at Goldsmiths College (1984-85) and the Slade School of Art (1985-88). At the Slade Maqhubela was exposed to printmaking and in 1986 he produced a series of prints which are among the most important of his oeuvre. He continued to exhibit extensively in South Africa, in group and solo exhibitions and featured prominently in Esme Bermanthe book, The history of South African painting (1975).

Two brightly colored paintings hanging on the wall of an art gallery.  They feature circular and angular shapes in yellows, reds and blues.
Maqhubela paintings on display. On the right, a work called Ndebele Gate.
Image courtesy of the Maqhubela family.

Stimulated by his new environment, and artists like Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and John McLean, Maqhubela’s work became increasingly abstract.

A trip to South Africa in 1994 to experience firsthand the euphoria of freedom that followed the country’s first democratic elections, and again in 2001 to receive medical treatment, had a powerful impact on Maqhubela. This gave new impetus to his work, bringing thematic and technical changes.

Large collections

In 1998, Maqhubela’s gouache on paper, Tyilo-Tyilo (1997), was purchased by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, USA. The painting celebrates 1960s music from South African townships. The previous year, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK had acquired an untitled oil painting Maqhubela with etching on paper. He depicts etched figures, lines and shapes with a dreamy, childish quality, but the careful composition reveals the hand of a master draftsman.

Many paintings hung on two walls of the art gallery, with fluid, abstract shapes and bright colors.
Maqhubela’s art focused on spiritual forms and concerns.
Images courtesy of the Maqhubela family

The artist is represented in all major public collections in South Africa. The exhibition A departure wake – Louis Khehla Maqhubela, a retrospective 1960-2010 opened at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg in 2010 and traveled to Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town and at the Durban Art Gallery.

The exhibition, as well as the vast catalog, offered South Africans the opportunity to welcome and embrace an important artist who, for too long, had been absent from the national consciousness and from the art history books.

Maqhubela had no immediate successors in a stylistic sense: his art was perhaps too personal and private, too enigmatic to be emulated, but – understanding that there was a world beyond the immediate and visible and that he could be revealed through art – he served as a source of inspiration for his compatriots and artists around the world.