Sydney Kumalo. Features a bronze stylized female figural form sculpture fixed to a marble plinth and wood base. Bears signature on base. Measures 9 1/2" x 4 1/4". There is no edition number on the piece.
Sydney Kumalo (1935 - 1988) was born in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, on 13 April 1935. His was one of the families who had to move out of the "white" city to the South Western Townships, or Soweto. Raised in Diepkloof and educated at Madibane High School, he took with him from old Sophiatown the curious and diverse heritage of its heyday. Art classes in the Catholic school, "Sof' town" blues and jazz, the vibrant street culture and growing defiance of its population of various races who were gradually forced out into separate race-group areas. So it was that these various aspects of his early life created for Kumalo a cultural mix of a Zulu family related to the traditional royal house; city schooling, nascent township music and lingo; growing urbanised political defiance and the deep-rooted Zulu pride and respect for the legends and ancient stories of a tribal people. This mix of old and new cultures was reinforced when he began his studies at the Polly Street Art Centre in 1953 where he became a member of Cecil Skotnes group of serious artists who were encouraged to acquire professional skills. Skotnes introduced a basic training programme with modelling as a component, which marked the introduction of sculpting (in brick-clay) at Polly Street.
Kumalo was Skotnes’ assistant at Polly Street from 1957 to 1964, and having recognised his great talent as a sculptor, Skotnes encouraged him to become a professional artist.
After Kumalo’s very successful assistance with a commission to decorate the St Peter Claver church at Seeisoville near Kroonstad, with painting designs, sculpture and relief panels in 1957, Skotnes arranged for Kumalo to continue his art training by working in Edoardo Villa ’s studio from 1958 to 1960. Working with Villa, he received professional guidance and began to familiarize himself with the technical aspects of sculpting and bronze casting. In 1960 he became an instructor at the Polly Street Art Centre.
Kumalo started exhibiting his work with some of the leading commercial Johannesburg galleries in 1958, and had his first solo exhibition with the Egon Guenther Gallery in 1962. He was a leader of the generation who managed to leave behind the forms of African curios, reject the European-held paternalism which encouraged notions of "naive" and "tribal" African art, and yet still hold fast to the core of the old legends and spiritual values of his people. He introduced these subjects into his bronze sculptures and pastel drawings, evolving his own expressive, contemporary African "style".
Together with Skotnes, Villa, Cecily Sash and Giuseppe Cattaneo, Kumalo became part of the Amadlozi group in 1963. This was a group of artists promoted by the African art collector and gallery director Egon Guenther, and characterised by their exploration of an African idiom in their art. Elza Miles writes that Cecil Skotnes’ friendship with Egon Guenther had a seminal influence on the aspirant artists of Polly Street: “Guenther broadened their experience by introducing them to German Expressionism as well as the sculptural traditions of West and Central Africa. He familiarised them with the work of Ernst Barlach, Käthe Kollwitz, Gustav Seitz, Willi Baumeister and Rudolf Sharf.” It is therefore not surprising that some of Kumalo’s sculptures show an affinity with Barlach’s powerful expressionist works. Guenther organised for the Amadlozi group to hold exhibitions around Italy, in Rome, Venice, Milan and Florence, in both 1963 and 1964.
Kumalo’s career took off in the mid 1960s, with his regular participation in exhibitions in Johannesburg, London, New York and Europe. He also represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale in 1966, and in 1967 participated in the São Paulo Biennale.
EJ De Jager (1992) describes Kumalo’s sculpture as retaining much of the “canon and formal aesthetic qualities of classical African sculpture. His work contains the same monumentality and simplicity of form.” His main medium for modelling was terra cotta, which was then cast in bronze, always paying careful attention to the finish of both the model as well as the final cast. He began casting the pieces he modelled in clay or plaster into bronze at the Renzo Vignali Artistic Foundry in Pretoria North. He worked throughout his life with its owners, the Gamberini family, and enjoyed learning the technical aspects of the casting process, refining his surfaces according to what he learned would produce the best results in metal. De Jager further writes that Kumalo’s distinctive texturing of the bronze or terra cotta is reminiscent of traditional carving techniques of various African cultures. “In many respects Kumalo thus innovated a genuine contemporary or modern indigenous South African sculpture”. Kumalo came to admire the works of the Cubists, and of British sculptors Henry Moore and Lynn Chadwick. He became noted for adapting shapes from them into his own figures. The success of his use of the then current monumental simplicity and purely aesthetic abstractions of natural forms has been emulated by many South African sculptors since the 1970s.
He was in many ways the doyen of South African Black art. As such he was an important influence especially on younger African sculptors, by whom he is greatly revered. Through his teaching at Polly Street and at the Jubilee Centre, as well as through his personal example of integrity, dedication and ability, he inspired and guided students who in their own right became outstanding artists, for example, Ezrom Legae, Leonard Matsoso and Louis Maqhubela
From 1969 onward, he allied himself with Linda Givon, founder of The Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, where he exhibited regularly until his death in December 1988. Working with Givon also perpetuated his associations with his many friends of strong principles. Skotnes, Villa, Legae and later such peers from the Polly Street era as Leonard Matsoso, Durant Sihlali and David Koloane have all exhibited at The Goodman Gallery. Kumalo, Legae, and later Fikile (Magadlela) and Dumile (Feni) were among the leading exponents of a new Afrocentric art, which provided a powerful voice for the anger and desperation of many South Africans. His work can be found today in every major museum and academic collection in South Africa, and thanks to its wide exposure abroad, has been sold to museums and collectors in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Holland, Israel, the United States of America, Canada, Germany, Colombia, Australia, Italy and Belgium. It is a great tribute to Kumalo that he was so celebrated in his lifetime, and his many bronzes in public collections will continue his influence for many generations.
Young contemporary artists such as Vincent Baloyi and Peter Shange count him as their single strongest influence. Percy Konqobe, one of today's leading South African sculptors, credits Kumalo as his inspiration, mentor, teacher, and source of legends which motivate much of his work.
Sydney Kumalo received a number of awards throughout his career; he was invited to the ‘Artists of Fame and Promise Exhibition’ in 1960, and in 1967 he won a travel bursary from the Transvaal Academy, travelling to Europe in 1967 and to the USA in 1985. His work was included in the Cape Town Triennial in 1985, and in a number of significant South African exhibitions, such as ‘The Neglected Tradition Exhibition’, held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1988.
Regarding the impact Kumalo had on the South African art scene, De Jager writes:
Kumalo is held in high esteem by all his fellow South African artists and the art community of South Africa.