Artists with a passion for Africa

2 May 2010

A significant number of works by Edoardo Villa, Cecil Skotnes, Sydney Kumalo, Giuseppe Cattaneo and Ezrom Legae have been gathered together for Strauss & Co’s 24 May auction in Johannesburg. According to Stephan Welz, South Africa’s most reputable fine art auctioneer, "visitors to the preview at The Country Club at Woodmead, will have a rare opportunity to see the works of these artists who as a group and as individuals, have had a marked influence on the development of South African art".

Edoardo Villa, Cecil Skotnes, Giuseppe Cattaneo and Sydney Kumalo exhibited together as the Amadlozi Group, a name, meaning ‘spirit of the ancestors’, which was conceived by Kumalo. Ezrom Legae was closely associated with the artists. Goldsmith and art dealer, Egon Guenther, curated their first exhibition which opened in his Johannesburg gallery in October 1963. Vittorino Meneghelli, who was later to open the famous Totem Meneghelli Gallery, arranged, through his Italian contacts, for the exhibition to tour Rome, Florence, Milan and Venice in 1963 and ‘64.

Guenther, who believed that a significant work of art should reflect its time and environment, was instrumental in encouraging these artists to draw on African inspiration for their work. Exposure to his significant collection of traditional African art at a time when these could not be seen in South Africa’s public institutions or market places, stimulated these artists to consider what it meant to be making art in and about Africa and placed them at the forefront of serious discussions and analyses of African art in southern Africa. Although the artists never exhibited together again as the Amadlozi Group, their impact on South African art was to be profound.
Bringing together the dramatic forms of the African environment and their understandings of European modernism, they forged new formal languages that were innovative and distinctly.

African. In 1964 Villa modelled in clay and had cast in bronze a series of monumental heads that suggest the faceted planes of African masks and of Analytical Cubist sculpture. Reclining Figure, (R50 000 – 70 000) dated 1968, and Standing Female Figure (R60 000 – 90 000), dated 1970, reveal how Villa was shifting towards abstraction without abandoning the human form that remained so central to his work.

Drawing on South Africa’s abundant resources of iron-ore and steel, Villa developed unique forms of expression using these local materials to reflect an increasingly industrialised and mechanised age. Heraldic Figure (R50 000 – 80 000) and two bas-relief sculptures with sharp thorn-like forms also reflect the local flora. The strong influence of traditional African sculpture is evident in the verticality and symmetry of forms and in the strong presence the sculptures evoke.

Like Villa, Giuseppe Cattaneo was also Italian-born. Inspired by his experience of mining, he experimented with metallurgical materials to express his African-inspired conceptions. Thorned Condition (R50 000 – 80 000) on this auction is created with epoxy-bound pigments on steel, similar to African Shield (R8 000 – 12 000) that won him the Second Annual Artists of Fame and Promise award in 1960.

Cecil Skotnes was appointed Cultural Recreation Officer at the Polly Street Centre in 1952 where Sydney Kumalo began attending classes at that time before being appointed Art Organiser in 1958. Legae joined in the activities when the Polly Street Centre relocated to the Jubilee Centre in the early 1960s and was later appointed to a post there. Skotnes introduced Kumalo and Legae to Guenther, whose astute criticism and market promotion were to prove invaluable.

Skotnes also arranged for Kumalo to work with Villa twice a week from 1958 to 1960, and later Legae also assisted Villa, initiating an association that was to affect the work of all three sculptors. Skotnes discussed with Kumalo the Cubist approach to the simplification of three-dimensional form that is evident in the latter’s planar treatment of the human form in Standing Female Figure (R150 000 – 200 000). Legae’s Torso (R100 000 – 150 000) shares many of the characteristics of African art and European modernism with which his fellow artists were grappling.

Guenther also acquainted Skotnes with contemporary German graphic artists, who were to have a seminal influence on his early woodcuts. Seeing the potential of developing his original wood blocks into the incised paintings on wood, Skotnes evolved this unique art form into his signature work. The magnificent African Figures (R700 000 – 1 000 000), an early panel produced in 1965 on a monumental scale, uses a dark ground with raised figures embellished with marble dust and ochre oxides. By contrast, in Three Figures (R300 000 – 400 000) and Two Figures (R500 000-700 000) the incised backgrounds are painted with oxides with the figures finished in flat black to create dramatic effects. The unusual African Head, with its dynamic pattern of raised black lines dividing areas of luminous colour, translates an African subject through the bejewelled quality of stained glass windows.

The exchange of ideas and practices at the Polly Street Centre and through the Amadlozi Group were undoubtedly the catalysts in developing the African-inflected style, content and technique of this extraordinary group of pioneering artists. Rarely does an auction provide such a broad selection of works by so important a group, making it possible for auction goers to appreciate individual works and trace networks of influence and inspiration between artists and collectors.
Media release drafted by Emma Bedford after an interview with Egon Guenther on 26 March 2010.

Friday 21, Saturday 22 and Sunday 23 May 2010
Stephan Welz / MJ Darroll Tel 011 -728 8246

2010 Press Releases