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"Homage to Thabang Noto Matseke (1930 - 1997): An Artist who Worked in Silence"
2000-02-08 until 2000-03-31
Unisa Art Gallery
Pretoria, , ZA South Africa

Thabang Noto Matseke was born in 1930 in Marabastad, Pretoria, where he was raised until about 1950 when the family moved to Atteridgeville. His father, Simon Peter Matseke was a founder member of the ANC and later president of the organisation in the former Transvaal region. His father had a major influence on the political consciousness of Matseke. Of his own childhood Matseke said, I grew up in an ordinary urban, location life * just an ordinary township boy.

Matseke had his primary schooling at the Methodist Primary School and secondary education at Hofmeyr High School in Atteridgeville, after which he proceeded to Kilnerton Training Institution for the Teacher's Higher Certificate, with specialised training in Art. He later received a special scholarship which allowed him to complete his Teacher's Vocational Certificate in Art at the Teachers Vocational College (DOCC) in Middelburg in 1953. It was here at college where Matseke met his wife Pauline Mothibi, whom he married in 1952.

He started his teaching career at Rakgatla Primary School in the Rooiberg district and soon proceeded to Atteridgeville where he taught at the Central Primary School. Here he initiated an art centre where children from different schools gathered for art lessons. Together they sang and experimented in art making. Culture, according to the Senegalese poet and philosopher, Léopold S Senghor, is the wellspring of living waters which must continue to sustain Life through endless time and space. Though partly fed by tributaries born elsewhere, culture must keep the savour of its original waters, it must preserve its soul (Nespoulous-Neuville 1999). Matseke's perspective on teaching and art had much in common with Senghor's view. Using as point of departure one's own culture and those deeper values which cause one to love and respect Life, said Senghor, ultimately provides the true source of freedom. True Freedom, he proclaimed, is integrity of the soul (Nespoulous-Neuville 1999:137).

Teaching was a period of inspiration in Matseke's life. He loved children and loved working with them. He saw the innocence and vulnerability of the African child against the harsh backdrop of the grim political situation in South Africa with living conditions of oppression, servitude and extreme poverty. The plight of the child was Matseke's major concern. Art had a major therapeutic role to play, even in his own art. Art and song gave children the opportunity to fully realise themselves and to express themselves creatively. It was during this time that Matseke produced art. He believed in the transformative powers of art. Art was a means of transforming his mind towards heightened consciousness.

The 1950s marked a turning point in South Africa's political and cultural history. In 1953 the Government passed the Bantu Education Act. The Act transferred control of African education from the Department of Education to the Native Affairs Department as scheduled from 1 April 1955. This was contrary to Matseke's ideal and vision for education and the future of his people. He resigned from teaching at the end of the 1950s. He also stopped making art.

In 1960 at the age of thirty, Matseke and his family moved to Hammanskraal where he started his own business. He became very involved in the community and became a member of the Maubane Tribal Authority and later the Bakgatla-Ba-Moche Ndebele Regional Authority where he played a leading role in the affairs of the tribe. Matseke acted as an advisor to the late Chief Godfrey Maubane. Religion and community life were his priorities, affirming the notion of communalism among the people, oneness within the self and connectedness with God. Matseke had great compassion for people and hated oppression with a passion. Not enough was done for women and children according to him.

In the early 1970s, Matseke entered politics mainly as a result of his sensitivity to the needs of his people. He became a member of the Tswana Legislative Assembly, then voted in by the people of Moretele as a member of Parliament in 1972 and later became Minister of Interior. He resigned in 1977 shortly after the declaration of independence. In his view this so-called independence was rubber-stamping apartheid laws. Loosening ties with South Africa also meant giving up the country that belonged to all its people.

He continued with his business in Hammanskraal and started to collect art. The late Lucky Sibiya and Nkoana Harry Moyaga were personal friends of Matseke and are among the artists best represented in this collection. Matseke was also a lifelong friend of the artist Walter Battiss. Among Matseke's art collection are two artworks by Battiss given to him by the artist. This collection as well as Matseke's music collection, consisting of mainly Afro-American jazz reveal Matseke's taste and sense of aesthetics.

Since the 1980s, Matseke was more indirectly involved in politics and continued to play an important role in conscientising the community and the youth. Matseke died in 1997 after a long illness.

The fifties marked an interesting period for the arts in South Africa. Disparate forces were at play. An urgent need to redefine aesthetic values and criteria existed in South Africa and a general sense of awareness of Africa awakened internationally. Battiss criticised the eclectic nature of South African art and said that our art threatens to develop along secondary lines of the European pattern and that it may hamper the growth of an art with a strong South African flavour. He encouraged the idea to look at the African environment for inspiration. Cecil Skotnes again contributed a lot towards the development of art and art appreciation among young urban Africans. He was the Cultural Officer at the Polly Street Art Centre in the 1950s and Sydney Kumalo was appointed Official Art Organiser at Polly Street in 1958. Polly Street Art Centre gave birth to a number of great masters, like Sydney Kumalo, Louis Maqhubela, Ephraim Ngatane, Durant Sihlali and others.

Industrialisation and urbanisation as well as the political situation in the country had their effect on artists and the general evolutionary process and dialectics of art. Politically it was extremely difficult to make it as a Black artist in South Africa. Apartheid legislation and attitudes as well as limited opportunities were major constraints. Unlike Gerard Sekoto, Ernest Mancoba, Selby Mvusi, and others, Matseke did not decide to leave the country in order to practice his art in free. He ultimately refrained from making art at the end of the 1950s.

Matseke met the artist Walter Battiss in 1953 when he invited Battiss to an art exhibition of his pupils' artworks. While Battiss was head of the Art Centre in Pretoria in 1953, Matseke at the time started an art centre for children in Atteridgeville when teaching at Central Primary. Battiss's unconventionality, open-mindedness and ability to share was greatly admired by Matseke. Matseke on the other hand stimulated and informed Battiss with regard African culture.

Matseke's enquiring mind led him into a variation of style and media, a vivid interest in modern European art and gave him as well the courage to experiment. A large collection of books on Modern European art is testimony of his interest in Modern art and quest for knowledge. The former may have inspired his stylistic and technical approach, yet the content and meaning of his work are informed by his own consciousness and experience as an African.

His creative oeuvre consists of portraits, still-life, groups of figures, landscapes and abstract works. A series of portrait paintings illustrates his sensitivity and compassion for humankind while group studies of Ndebele women working together portrays the important aspect of communalism and the collective consciousness in African culture. The frequent appearance of women with infants, also in his art collection shows the close bond between mother and child and perhaps symbolises the bond between the African continent and the African nation. It shows the important role of women in society, moreover it symbolises the spiritual role of women in African culture. His love and concern for children as well as his empathy with the situation of African women 'holding the knife in its sharpness' is also revealed. Matseke's vibrant use of colour serves to evoke a sense of spirituality and reflects the presence of the vital forces as understood in the African spiritual cosmogony - hence the potency of yellow throughout. Rhythm is also a prominent feature in all his works. Rhythm being the pulse of the unitary vitalism which flows through and permeates the African mind and world (King et al 1976:1187). Some of the works resonate a strong spirit and consciousness of ancestorism, birth, death and rebirth. Particular choice of colours, brushstrokes, line and light adds to a sense of connectedness and synthesis within a higher consciousness and spirituality. Rural scenes and landscape paintings in watercolour shows his love for the land and at the same time his concern with the land issue. The question of 'belonging', 'spiritual relatedness', 'ownership', 'rootedness' and 'uprootedness' comes to mind. Apartheid legislation denied African people of their birthright - the land and soil which their ancestors had been inextricably part of over the centuries. His abstract works confirm his understanding of the fundamental principles of the African cosmogony - the presence of the vital forces and the cosmic interrelatedness of everything.

It is not merely a manipulation of shapes and forms. Expressing one's inner feelings through art was important to Matseke. He also recalled Battiss saying Capturing what you feel, should be reflected in art. The abstract works may also relate to what Kandinsky's perception of the supreme work of art, a highly conscious construction determined by the patient elaboration of plastic forms to correspond to a slowly 'realised' inner feeling (Read 1976:143).

Matseke sadly never exhibited his art anywhere. He said: I have never exhibited my work - my works are private. My paintings must talk for themselves.

Through his art Matseke contributed to the process of rediscovering and revitalising the indigenous cultural and spiritual heritage and values. His work is a manifestation of the synthesis of original and foreign elements without sacrificing his original Africanness. Matseke's creative drive grew out of the alienation caused by foreign forces. He wanted to express and give visible evidence of the pain and mental dislocation caused by the alienation confronting him. On the other hand he wanted to celebrate the inner grace, strength, spirituality and dignity of traditional African values. Through his art he attempted to remedy the situation.

Matseke's obsession with Adam and Eve and the 'original sin' issue could suggest the origin of alienation caused by the dualism where the relationship between human beings and nature was transformed into a bitter struggle as opposed to one of unity and interaction. This poses and interesting analogy with colonialism and apartheid. The absurdity of apartheid could be ascribed to this struggle to regain power and control over a 'lost paradise'.

His creative output has left us with a cultural legacy rooted in a very particular South African historicity and African consciousness. The opportunity to fully realise himself as an artist never dawned, yet his artistic offering is here today for all to appreciate. It makes one realise that an artist's deprivation over much of a lifetime is surely an irreversible cultural loss in multifold. In Matseke's case, it is probable that we have been robbed of a lifetime's artistic growth and a contribution to the dialectics of aesthetics and culture in this country.

The works in this exhibition project not only the ironies of a lost era, but in a distinct way bear witness to the dynamics of a vital moment in our artistic and cultural evolution. The exhibition presents an amalgam of aesthetics and cultural values out of a South African crucible. Moreover, it celebrates Matseke's efforts, his love for and courageous encounter with the spirit of creation. His artistic career was terminated at the end of the 1950s, yet he was drawn to art and music throughout his life. Matseke's private collection of works by other artists has a strong Afrocentric focus and testifies to his commitment to art and artists. This collection also forms part of the exhibition.

On his deathbed, Matseke's message to artists in this country was: Make use of every opportunity not to be cheated by somebody's cleverness. Find out for yourself the basics, the truth about the arts in the country. Exploit whatever opportunity, don't wait for somebody to come and do it for you. Get down on it! Art comes from within.*

1. King, L, Dixon, VJ, Nobles, WW. 1976. African Philosophy:assumptions and paradigms for research on black persons. Los Angeles: Fanon Research and Development Centre.
2. Nespoulos-Neuville, J. 1999 Listen to Africa: a call from L S Senghor. Pretoria. Unisa.
3. Read, H 1967. Art and Alienation . London: Thames & Hudson.

A CATALOGUE IS AVAILABLE AT R50-00 for students and R75-00 for general public.

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