A new exhibition by Strauss & Co and Kalashnikovv Gallery celebrates the legacy of South African Modernist Alfred Thoba

30 Jan 2024

The life and work of South African Modernist Alfred Thoba (1951 – 2022) is highlighted in a new commemorative exhibition at Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg space, running from 5 February to 1 March 2024. 

Titled True Love, the exhibition is a collaboration between Strauss & Co and Kalashnikovv Gallery, and will commemorate Thoba’s 50-year career as an artist. A selection of his artwork will be exhibited alongside archival materials and a reconstruction of his home studio, which was at 12 Gainsborough Mansions in Hillbrow.

Born in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, Thoba was a largely self-taught artist, best known for his politically charged paintings. Deeply concerned with the disenfranchisement of black South Africans, both during and post-apartheid, Thoba’s work explores contemporary events and moments of historical significance, while also portraying the private and political aspects of sex, marriage, and love.

Named after a painting by Thoba of two lovers embracing, reproduced in the South African Playboy magazine in the 90s, True Love provides a deeper understanding of his Modernist approach to his practice, and his personal life, inextricably linked to his painting. 

Central to this is the reconstruction of his home studio, offering a rare, immersive look into the artist’s life and process.

“After he passed away, the Kalashnikovv team visited his studio and documented the space, taking photos of everything,” explains Strauss & Co-Head Curator and Senior Art Specialist Wilhelm van Rensburg. “I think the reconstructed studio, with Thoba’s works-in-progress and personal items, will have a real impact on art historians and art lovers. We have the last painting he traced on the easel, for instance. It indicates his working process, and his practice, which is very important to be able to see.” 

Also present in True Love is a collection of hand-written letters by Thoba. As far as known, every work Thoba ever produced was accompanied by a hand-written text explaining the artwork and its themes. A selection of these letters are displayed in vitrines in the space and are available to read alongside Thoba’s work. The rest of the exhibition features prime examples of the artist’s work, with around 30 artworks being mounted.

A politically engaged artist with a signature style and artistic process

Thoba’s subject matter was greatly inspired by his personal life as well as the media he consumed. Many of the themes and events portrayed in the artist’s paintings were inspired by newspaper and magazine articles which Thoba read and then meticulously filed away to be used as reference material and for his letters accompanying each work. 

Themes of social justice, intimacy, sexual identity, government policies, international news, violence and abuse, discrimination, faith and religion all inform his subject matter. 

In terms of his practice, while Thoba had a varying and complex palette, and while his stylistic approach changed over time, his aesthetic is recognisable across his oeuvre. True Love exhibits work from the early 1980s through to his last completed painting before his death. 

Thoba’s use of pencil drawings to underpin many of his works, and his proclivity for figures and trees are all characteristic of his way of working.

A focus on education

The latest in Strauss & Co’s series of annual, non-selling legacy exhibitions aimed at underrepresented or overlooked South African artists, True Love will similarly carry a focus on education, with the exhibition’s programming featuring weekly walkabouts with schoolchildren as well as workshops. 

While previous legacy exhibitions have been used to place two artists in conversation – A Meeting of Minds: Louis Maqubela and Douglas Portway; Parallel Lives: Maggie Laubser and Gladys Magudlandlu; Social Stances: George Pemba and Robert Hodgins; Dream Invisible Connections: Dorothy Kay and Mary Sibande; and most recently The Sculptures of Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae – True Love holds a unique focus on the artist. 

Similarly, the exhibition’s opening event will feature an illustrious panel discussion about the life and work of Thoba, featuring Curator, Artist and Arts Administrator Bongi Dhlomo,  internationally renowned Modernist and Artist Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, Wits Art Museum Curator Julia Charlton, Goodman Gallery stalwart, Researcher and Archivist Neil Dundas, and Curator, Writer, and Art Historian Rory Bester.

True Love runs from 5 February to 1 March 2024 at Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg offices. The official launch and panel discussion for the exhibition will take place on Tuesday 6 February at 18:00. 

Walkabouts will take place on Wednesday 7 February at 11:00, and Wednesday 14 February at 10:00. The Teachers’ Workshop takes place on Wednesday 21 February at 10:00 (Pre-Service student teachers) and at 15:00 (In-Service art teachers).

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