Event Date: 
9 February 2010-13th March 2010
Event Information: 

Press release

For immediate release

Exhibition: Ephraim Ngatane: Symphony of Soweto
Venue and dates: Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, 9 February – 13 March 2010

Ephraim Ngatane: Symphony of Soweto

Cecil Skotnes said that Ngatane “put his thumbprint on the history of South African art”. In the course of his short-lived but illustrious career, Ngatane made a marked impression on the art of the 1950s and 1960s, creating artworks that captured the essence of township living and conveyed emotion and depth.

Ngatane studied under Skotnes at the Polly Street Art Centre from 1952-1954, during which time he developed his unique method and experimented with different media, from gouache and watercolour to oil paint. Although many artists of that time used the township as their subject matter, what set Ngatane apart was his approach – he used abstract, geometric shapes and a wide spectrum of colour to create compositions that are both aesthetically appealing and emotive. At times he used unlikely combinations of materials, such as plaster of Paris or sand and oil paint to create unusual and richly textured surfaces.

Through his art Ngatane portrayed life in Soweto: emotions spanning from despair to hope, the soul of the township, its beggars, bicycles and barbershops, and the wind, snow and sun. While his work serves as a narrative of the hardship of living in Soweto, which was overcrowded and dirty, Ngatane was also concerned with depicting the music, sport and social life of the township. Fah Fee (1969) depicts the popular Chinese numbers game that was a common feature of everyday life in Soweto. Participants bet on 26 numbers represented by symbols, and in the painting, people queue to hand over their bets to the organising woman.

The music of the townships is a recurring theme in the work of Ngatane, who was also an accomplished pennywhistler and saxophonist. The pennywhistlers of the 1960s feature often, most likely due to the influence of Ngatane’s childhood friend, Rankusi Makua, who was a talented pennywhistler. The pennywhistle was an affordable instrument, as were soapbox guitars, both of which can be seen in Musicians (undated) and The Penny Whistlers (c.1968).

While other artists of his time tended to create generalised representations of township scenes, many of Ngatane’s paintings focus on specific areas or landmarks in the townships, such as Old Sophiatown (1963) and Pimville Township (1969). Even though many of these scenes show the unpleasant, congested and sometimes unsanitary conditions of the township (including, in some cases, the “bucket” system of sewerage), Ngatane treated these images with flamboyant colour, constantly parodying the callousness and degradation of the apartheid system.

The exhibition also features some of Ngatane’s more unusual works, such as Nude Woman (1969), the subject matter of which is a rare reminder that nudes are not just a “white” artistic tradition.

The style of Ngatane’s work ranges from documentary realism to abstract painting, but is always distinctively his own and focuses on the gritty reality of township life. Ngatane died of tuberculosis in 1971 at almost 33 years of age, but his work remains important to an understanding of South African art and township life under apartheid.

A hardcover book on Ngatane, entitled A Setting Apart, edited by Rory Bester, will be launched at the opening of the exhibition, which is curated by Natalie Knight.

Running concurrently in the downstairs gallery is ‘Harmony’, an exhibition of Natasha Christopher’s artworks focusing on Welkom, where she spent her formative years.

If you are unable to attend the exhibition in person, you can take an online tour of the gallery at the Standard Bank Gallery website: www.standardbankgallery.co.za

About Ephraim Ngatane

Ngatane was born in Maseru, Lesotho on 22 August, 1938. Despite dying at a young age of tuberculosis in 1971, Ngatane’s oeuvre contains some important artworks for understanding South African art in the apartheid era.

After completing high school in Soweto, Ngatane turned to the Polly Street Art Centre in downtown Johannesburg for his art education, where he was taught by Cecil Skotnes and Durant Sihlali. Sihlali was especially influential in helping Ngatane to develop his early watercolour style. Says Skotnes of his time at Polly Street, “We soon discovered that painting was not just a hobby for him, but rather a way of life.”

When Ngatane began exhibiting his work, his paintings quickly became sales successes. His work was shown at the 1960 Artists of Fame and Promise exhibition, and he held various solo exhibitions. In one of these solo shows at the Adler Fielding Gallery in 1963, all but eight of the 51 works on the exhibition were sold within the first two days. Artists struggled under apartheid as they did not have regular jobs and therefore no passes. Most of Ngatane’s contemporaries survived by selling their paintings for around R100 each, but Ngatane’s artworks often went for more than R200 a piece.

In 1964, Our Humble Homes (1964) became the first of Ngatane’s artworks to be acquired by a public collection when it was bought by William Humphreys Art Gallery. Today his works feature in a number of South Africa’s most prestigious public, private and corporate art collections.

Ngatane’s last exhibition before his untimely death in 1971 took place at the Champs Elysee Gallery in Hyde Park in the same year. Bill Hargreaves, who opened the exhibition, remembers that “The gallery overflowed on the opening night, with people on and under the steps. The paintings sold very well.”

In addition to his prowess as an artist, Ngatane was a boxer and an accomplished jazz musician, playing both the pennywhistle and the alto saxophone. He won a pennywhistle competition in 1957. His most significant contribution to South African culture is, however, immortalised in the many watercolour, oil paint and mixed media artworks that serve as a testament to the reality of township life under apartheid.



Symphony of Soweto

Ephraim Ngatane, The Approach, 1964. Oil on board. 58 x 72. Private collection
Ephraim Ngatane, The Beggar, 1969. Oil on board. 75 x 59 cm. Greg Blank
Ephraim Ngatane, Bridal ceremony, undated. Watercolour on paper. 48.5 x 66.5 cm. Johans Borman
Ephraim Ngatane, Fah Fee, 1969. Oil on board. 53 x 71 cm. Greg Blank
Ephraim Ngatane, Musicians, undated. Watercolour on paper. 55 x 71 cm. Greg Blank
Ephraim Ngatane, Nude Woman, 1969. Oil on board. 49 x 38 cm. Greg Blank
Ephraim Ngatane, Our Humble homes, 1964. Gouache on paper. 55 x 76.5 cm. William Humphreys art
Ephraim Ngatane, The Penny Whistlers, c.1968. Oil on board. 120 x 74.5 cm. Greg Blank
Ephraim Ngatane, Pimville Township, 1969. Oil on board. 59.5 x 74.5 cm. Greg Blank
Ephraim Ngatane, Soccer players, 1968. Oil on board. 80 x 58 cm. Private collection
Ephraim Ngatane, Snow scene, Township, 1967. Oil on board. 59.5 x 76 cm. Johans Borman
Ephraim Ngatane, Township, 1969. Oil on panel. 49.5 x 74.5 cm. Pretoria Art Museum

Standard Bank Gallery
Corner Simmonds and Frederick Street, Johannesburg
Tel: 011 631-1889
Gallery hours: Mon-Fri, 08:00-16:30; Saturday, 09:00-13:00
The gallery is closed on Sundays and public holidays.
Admission free

Issued by The Heritage Agency on behalf of Standard Bank Gallery
For further information please contact:
Jo-Anne Duggan
The Heritage Agency
Tel: 083 285 3600
Email: jo-anne@heritageagency.co.za