Important South African and International Art

Live Auction, 4 June 2018

Session Three

Sold for

ZAR 1 081 100
Lot 303
  • Sydney Kumalo; Figure on a Bull
  • Sydney Kumalo; Figure on a Bull
  • Sydney Kumalo; Figure on a Bull

Lot Estimate
ZAR 400 000 - 600 000
Selling Price
Incl. Buyer's Premium & VAT
ZAR 1 081 100

About this Item

South African 1935-1988
Figure on a Bull
signed and numbered 3-5
height: 43cm


A figural sculptor interested in synthesising the idioms of West and Central African sculpture with the volumetric experiments and simplifications of the human form by modernist sculptors like Brancusi and Moore, Sydney Kumalo’s syncretic style gained him great international acclaim. When he was still a teenager, though, Sophiatown-born Kumalo wanted to be a painter, an interest sparked by his encounters with the art in white suburban homes serviced by his house-painter father. In 1952, Kumalo began attending biweekly art classes at a hall designated for ‘non-European’ adult recreation on Polly Street in central Johannesburg. The death of Kumalo’s father, and the economic crisis it precipitated, prompted his sudden transition from watercolour to sculpture.

Kumalo’s first sculptural work was a ceiling mural at St Peter Claver Church in Seeisoville, Kroonstad, which he executed with his Polly Street mentor, Cecil Skotnes. Kumalo additionally produced bas-reliefs of the 14 Stations of the Cross, photographs of which Skotnes showed to Edoardo Villa. In 1958 Villa agreed to mentor Kumalo twice a week at his studio. In 1962 Kumalo held his debut solo exhibition with dealer Egon Guenther, who further aided Kumalo’s public reception by, from 1963, showing him under the Amadlozi banner with Skotnes, Villa, Giuseppe Cattaneo and Cecily Sash (later on with Ezrom Legae too). In 1965 the American dealer Eric Estorick included him on a group show at his Grosvenor Gallery in London. In its coverage of the show The New York Times described Kumalo as South Africa’s ‘best-known, most admired and most sought-after figurative sculptor,’ his work further praised for its ‘powerful monumentality’.1

Kumalo’s mature style from the 1960s and 70s, of which this is a representative work, is noted for its expressive figuration and preference for stippled and/or lacerated surface finishes. Alongside his diverse cast of human and animal forms, Kumalo also produced a number of bronzes that placed his two key subjects in conversation. Kumalo’s approach to form in these works was confident and expressive. His figures are effortlessly shaped and wilfully distorted. Many of Kumalo’s studies of humans astride bulls and horse-like creatures were compact and portrayed the human figure straddling a diminutive animal subject. The power relation in this study of a man seated on a bull is, to an extent, obvious: the animal is a beast of burden. But the figures also share limbs, useful in simplifying the composition but also complicating assumptions about the relations between the two beings. Their shared pose, both figures look up, further contributes to an exultant unity proposed by this work.

Kumalo’s approach to modelling further underscores this commonality. Eyes and mouths are evoked with the same elementary flourish. In this lot both the animal and human components feature the same striated surface texture. The pronounced grooves on the human figure’s abdomen bear noting. The same surface forms are discernable in Congolese ‘power figures’, or nkisi, representing heroic ancestors. There are also affinities between Kumalo’s overall approach to his human figure and the male guardian figures produced by Senufo and Northern Fang carvers. Guenther had these figures in his formidable collection of African art.

‘Art under Apartheid’, New York Times Magazine, 28 March, 1965.

Sean O’Toole

View all Sydney Kumalo lots for sale in this auction

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