Mention Alfred Thoba’s name in the mainstream art world – in all likelihood, you’ll get either a blank stare or a vague mention of the artist’s seminal 1976 painting Unrest. The artwork set a world record for Thoba in 2012 when it sold for nearly R1 million at a Strauss & Co auction.
Although Thoba does not enjoy the same recognition as his contemporaries, art historians nonetheless regard him as an influential and often underestimated South African artist. “Thoba is so underappreciated as an artist,” says Leigh Leyde, art researcher and cataloger at Strauss & Co. She was one of the co-curators of his retrospective, A Step Becomes a Statement, held at the Wits Art Museum in 2018. “He is largely self-taught and, apart from a brief apprenticeship with artist Bill Ainsley, has never had formal art training. He is also not affiliated with any art collective or institute. He is a loner and an artist and always seemed to move outside the canon of South African art history,” explains Dr. Rory Bester, art historian, curator and associate professor at the University of the Western Cape.
Under an oppressive regime
Thoba was born in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, in 1951, four years before the 1955 eviction. Then-Prime Minister DF Malan sent two thousand armed police officers to forcibly evict the 60,000 black residents of this black cultural center. Although the artist was still a toddler at the time of the evictions, the event must have had some impact on his subject matter, if only on a subconscious level.
His early works dealt with the erotic and the human figure. As cruel subjugation by the apartheid government escalated in the mid-1970s, the content of his artworks changed, suggesting a political awakening and commenting on the plight and struggle of black South Africans under a repressive regime.
When he talks about his craft, he has a pragmatic view of his talent. “I went to them [Ainslie] With [my emphasis] the knowledge I was actually born with it (in terms of his talent as an artist),” he recalls. “Thoba’s painterly technique has little academic relevance. Instead, it arises from the liberation he experiences through his unique process of applying paint to the canvas,” explains Dr. Rory Bester, art historian, curator and associate professor at the University of the Western Cape. “Thoba’s painterly style is unique and arguably sculptural. The paint, thickly applied, is gathered into sharp points using a variety of tools instead of brushes. Thoba uses his artworks to express his feelings about morality, politics, society and everyday life, making the subject matter deeply personal and interesting,” says Leigh Leyde, art researcher and cataloger at Strauss & Co. “There are also no obvious art historical references in the work of the artist. In our interviews, he never mentioned any other artist himself,” Bester continues.
news and money
For Thoba, painting was both a commercial endeavor and a creative outlet – to continue creating he had to sell a painting, take the money and buy new materials to produce the next. “Thoba often seems genuinely unconcerned about the artistic currency of his paintings or their place in an art-historical tradition or canon.” Best Muses.
For the artist, the importance of a sale lies in both the successful delivery of a message and financial gain, he adds. “When you talk to Thoba about art, he talks about an almost feverish need to communicate his messages through his artworks,” says Leyde. “Each painting also comes with a handwritten letter explaining the intention behind the work. It is incredibly important to Thoba that his images and the story they contain are interpreted accurately. He is moved by social injustices such as xenophobia and homophobia, and several of his artworks deal with these themes.”
Pioneering works for sale
bar Gas tank explodes, grandma lives (estimated at 35,000-50,000), all eight of Thoba’s artworks up for sale this week during Strauss & Co’s Cape Town auction week were created after 1994. Even after apartheid, the artist remained committed to dealing with political and social problems, the blacks affecting South Africans. His artworks comment on westernization, urbanization and the loss of cultural values and indigenous knowledge. Current events are a big part of his inspiration process – often a newspaper article will spark an idea or concept which he will clip and save for later use.
The eight Thoba paintings are part of the Oliver Powell and Timely Investments Trust Collection. An established liquidator with a passion for the arts, Powell’s primary focus is collecting South African paintings, sculpture and works on paper produced since the 1950’s. Color, graphic ingenuity, and emotional weight are attributes of artwork to which Powell is drawn, qualities that are abundant in Thoba’s work.
“It is a rare opportunity to see such a brilliant collection of paintings by artist Alfred Thoba being auctioned this Tuesday, September 20,” said Department Head and Senior Specialist Kirsty Colledge. “Thoba’s works have achieved record prices in the past,” she says, referring to the 1976 riots Painting.
terror and idyll
One of the auction highlights, They hit a cap and kill them in the same dark years abnormality evil muthis, 2007 of his body protecting eyes and hands (sic). (estimated 50,000-70,000) is a harrowing allegory of a couple mutilated for muthi practices and witchcraft. In the artwork, a couple crouch in front of three sinister, faceless figures. Dark, menacing hills and jagged peaks loom in the background, adding to the painting’s menacing atmosphere, while a cabinet of skeletons looms menacingly behind the main instigator.
In contrast to the harrowing painting Shepards are my Herrors (sic) (estimated 80,000 – 120,000) explores the pastoral idyll of rural South Africa and the place of cowherds in traditional African culture. In this oil painting, a cowherd watches over a herd of cattle. Thoba’s attention to the cattle’s facial expressions gives the animals an almost anthropomorphic quality. Combined with sensual, sinuous lines and the raised, stately position of the cowherd, the artist offers the viewer a visual celebration of a proud African tradition.
The Oliver Powell and Timely Investments Trust Collection will be presented at a standalone evening event on Tuesday, September 20, 2022 at 7:00 p.m.
Visit www.straussart.co.za to register and view the collection.