Tom Nevin

How it all began

The following passage was taken from a feature by Dirkie Offringa, former chief curator of the Pretoria Art Museum. It was published in Ifa Lethu’s inaugural brochure.

“The return to South Africa of Australian diplomat Diane Johnstone’s collection of art of the townships might have been relegated to a paragraph or two in the local press and quickly forgotten had it not been for journalist Tom Nevin.

“As South Africa correspondent for the Australian Sunday Age newspaper, Tom had been invited by Australian High Commissioner, Ian Wilcock, to cover the official handover to the mayor of Tshwane, Father Smangaliso Mkatshwa, of Di’s collection. Tom later called her in Canberra and in an hour-long conversation came to realise the implications: there might be thousands of pieces of ‘forgotten township art’ scattered around the world. He set about the formidable task of tracking them down.

“Getting every possible contact name from Diane of other diplomat-collectors of the time, he got the ball rolling. It took a year for him to gather enough evidence of the existence of such art around the world to approach me as the chief curator of the Pretoria Art Museum and seek my help.

“I readily agreed. When Tom showed me what he’d discovered, and in subsequent discussions with Di Johnstone, I was quite astounded that so much of our art heritage, especially from so historically poignant and significant a time, had disappeared. And, anyway, Tom on his Homecoming Mission, as he called it at the time, was hard to resist – you were simply carried along on the voyage of discovery. And what a ride it was, battling against all kinds of odds, many quite unexpected.

“The result, and the fact that Ifa Lethu has become an important component of South Africa’s art heritage, made the effort completely worthwhile.”

Today Tom writes for leading newspapers and journals in South Africa and abroad and has had several books published on African culture and tradition.