Azaria Mbatha’s The Revelation of St John (1965) comes under the spotlight in Anna Tietze’s second article as part of Masterpiece of the Month
About Masterpiece of the Month
In the build-up to the 150th anniversary exhibition of Iziko’s Art Collections, which will open on 24 September this year, distinguished UCT art historian Anna Tietze is presenting an essay each month shining some light on an artwork of her choice from the gallery's historical collection.
Anna Tietze is the author of A History of the Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on Art and National Identity (UCT Press, 2017).
Azaria Mbatha, The Revelation of St John (1965)
By the middle of the twentieth century South Africa’s National Gallery had acquired a good deal of work by living artists from South Africa and overseas. It is striking, though, that it was only in the 1960s that this institution began to buy works by contemporary black South African artists. This had largely to do with issues of availability; there were very few black artists practising professionally at mid-century, and so very little work to choose from. This in turn was a direct result of their lack of access to art training under the apartheid education system. 1There were relatively few art schools in South Africa in the first half of the century; those that existed were largely located within universities or technical colleges and were restricted to white students.
The situation began to change with the establishment of the Polly Street and Ndaleni art centres in the 1950s, and particularly with the founding of the Rorke’s Drift Art Centre in the following decade. Azaria Mbatha (1941-2018) was one of the more celebrated artists to be associated with Rorke’s Drift, although his training began earlier, by an unusual route that will be traced later. Through this training, he became a master of the printmaking technique of linocut, of which The Revelation of St John is an example. 2Although he had only been introduced to the medium in 1962, by the mid-60s he had become highly accomplished in it and The Revelation of St John won an award for the finest example of printmaking at the 1965 competitive exhibition Art South Africa Today, organised by the Durban Art Gallery. On the judging panel was the South African National Gallery’s new Director, Matthys Bokhorst, who decided to purchase the work for the gallery. The acquisition was part of a deliberate move to broaden the scope of the gallery’s collection, make it more representative of the nation, and celebrate some of the fine work emerging from the new black artists.
Analysis of the work
The purpose of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation remains a mystery: was it a warning to heretics, a chronicle of present-day persecution or a prophesy of tribulations to come? Whatever the message, its apocalyptic tone and rich imagery has made it an image source-book for artists as diverse as the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer and the Russian modernist Wassily Kandinsky. Like these artists, Mbatha was preoccupied with spiritual and moral questions and frequently turned to Biblical imagery for his subject-matter. His Revelation loosely describes scenes from the Biblical source, not so much detailing its narrative as using it as the basis for fabulous and evocative vignettes. He uses the ‘comic-strip’ narrative device of dividing the religious narrative into horizontal bands which are then further segmented into discrete sections, decorative trees and gesturing figures dividing each band into three.
While the modern-day comic strip has popularised this narrative method, much earlier precedents for Mbatha’s technique and for much of his pictorial style can be found in mediaeval painting and manuscript illumination, especially that of the period known as the Romanesque (11th to early 12th centuries). In this period, we see the stiff, frontal forms, rich decorative effects and horror vacui that is a characteristic of much of Mbatha’s work. The Book of Revelation makes frequent reference to the number seven and while Mbatha does not adhere literally to this, he captures the spirit of it with his massed figures and forms: multiple angels form a choir, wise men are banked together, hydra heads sprout from animal bodies. And between each of these groups is a framing tree and human figure. As in Romanesque visual art, there is a powerful awareness of the frame in relation to the imagery, the frame serving as a constraint, squeezing and holding together the abundant imagery as in a box packed with jewels.3
That the work has a coherence and legibility, despite this abundance, is remarkable. It has much to do with the tonal effects Mbatha uses, the skilful differentiation between darks and lights. The narrative groups are picked out in strong blacks, emphasised by the figures’ ornamented costumes. In the lowest band of the work, dark monster animals and a prostrate devil provide a subtle weight which grounds the work as a whole. Between and behind these groups – indeed in every potentially unoccupied space – the stylised foliage of the trees and areas of pure patterning are described with a more delicate touch, establishing light contrasts to the dark ‘action’ scenes. Repetition of pattern within a given zone generates a sense of a unified background. It hardly needs to be said that all these elements – the figures, the patterning, the horizontal bands – are rendered with great draughtsmanly skill while avoiding any impression of mechanical exactness: the work has an exuberance and vigour, an explosive energy.
Background to the work: Mbatha’s art training
Mbatha, as noted earlier, had reached this level of artistic proficiency very rapidly and by an unusual route. He was introduced to art, and to linocut printing specifically, in early 1962 while recovering from illness in Ceza Hospital, KwaZulu Natal, an institution run by the Evangelist Lutheran Church. Patients here, many in recovery from TB and other serious illnesses, would spend long periods of convalescence with little to occupy their time. Such an institution seemed an obvious place in which to establish a programme of creative and vocationally useful activity.
This idea occurred to a small group of Swedish Lutheran missionaries who were looking for ways to help black South African communities whose lives were constrained and impoverished by apartheid. Offering a training in a craft to patients during their long hospital stays would provide them with both a marketable skill and a form of creative therapy.
To put the plan into action, the project initiators turned to Peder and Ulla Gowenius, graduates of Stockholm’s Konstfackskolan. This Swedish art school was based on the principles of the German Bauhaus, which believed in the merger of fine art and craft and the need to treat craft and design as serious forms of creativity. Ulla and Peder Gowenius made this ethos central to their work in South Africa. When they arrived at Ceza Hospital, Ulla began to introduce the female patients to weaving, spinning and sewing, while Peder Gowenius turned to drawing and painting but particularly linocut for the male patients.4 The finished works of the male patients might be sold in their own right or serve as the template for designs for the woven rugs and tapestries being produced by the women.
Azaria Mbatha had already been in Ceza Hospital for six months when Peder Gowenius met him and he was reported to be in a seriously depressed state as a result of his enforced inactivity. The story of his recovery through the practice of printmaking and his rapid mastery of the medium is an affirmation of the great therapeutic potential of art. Initially slow to show an interest in the technique, Mbatha soon entered a phase of tremendous productivity and experimentation, producing a new linocut almost every day. 5Other patients were also energised by the various skills offered by Ulla and Peder Gowenius to the extent that the couple decided to set up a dedicated art centre later in 1962 in Umphumulo. This in turn gave rise to the even more ambitious establishment of the Rorke’s Drift art centre in 1965. 6All these were supported by the Lutheran Church, in the absence of state funding for black art training.
Mbatha’s artistic work, then, was produced within the context of Christian missions but this alone does not explain his focus on religious subjects. His upbringing and personal convictions also played a major part. His father was a devout Lutheran who the artist acknowledged as an important influence on him, while during his stay at Umphumulo Mbatha lodged with students of the theological seminary and spent much time debating theological questions with them. 7One of the artist’s particular concerns was to find ways of Africanising the Biblical stories so that they had a wider and more urgent relevance within the continent. In works like The Revelation of St John he strives for this relevance, replacing the figurative realism of Western religious art with abstract forms derived from African sculpture, and injecting into the image a rich network of pattern derived from the decorative work found on functional African carved objects. When works of this kind entered the National Gallery in the 1960s, they offered an entirely alternative visual language to that of the Western tradition that had dominated the collection there to date.
1The problem began at school level, where black children’s creative education was restricted to a training in functional craft skills such as the weaving of baskets and the carving of spoons, while white children were taught ‘art’. This distinction was turned into law with the passing of the 1953 Bantu Education Act.
2 Linocut uses the medium of linoleum, invented primarily as a floor covering in the late nineteenth century. It is a relief method of printing, ie. the ink picks up and reproduces the lines that are left on the surface while those cut away remain white. As such, it is identical to the technique of woodcuts but linoleum is inexpensive and is easier to work with than wood. For this reason, it became popular in school art classes in the twentieth century.
3Despite its much smaller scale, Mbatha’s intensely detailed work reminds us also of the large but intricate mosaics of the Romanesque period.
4 He felt that this print technique would appeal to the men because so many of them, including Mbatha, had established skills as woodcarvers, a function of their apartheid craft education.
5 P. Hobbs and E. Rankin, Rorke's Drift: Empowering Prints, Double Storey, Cape Town, 2003, 32-3..
6 Like Ceza, both locations within KwaZulu Natal.
7 Ibid., 48.