| Winston Churchill Masakeng Saoli; mixed media artist; born January 3, 1950 in Mpumalanga, South Africa; attended school at Arthurseat Primary School where his father, Rev. Russell Saoli, was the principal. In 1963 when Saoli was only 13, his family moved to Johannesburg. From then onwards he remained in the city growing up on the dusty streets of Soweto.
In Soweto, Saoli attended the Morris Isaacson High School in Moroka. This school made headlines during the Soweto insurgency of 1976. As a teenager, Saoli was privileged to watch his grandfather carving wooden stools and stone figures which lead to his own interest in art.
One of the first artists to recognize Saoli’s potential was Ephraim Ngatane who encouraged Saoli to pursue his career with conviction. Ngatane reminded the young man that art was the labour of love. Later on established artists such as Ezrom Legae, Bill Hartand, and Cecil Skotnes also encouraged the young Saoli to pursue a career in art.
With Saoli’s father working as an editor for a religious publication and with a family of seven to feed, he could not afford to send his son to an art school. Determined to make a mark the young Saoli, then 18, headed to the Jubilee Art Centre in Soweto where he was met by Bill Heart who opened his arms for this young,unknown yet talented artist.
Within a year (1969) Saoli was given a chance to exhibit his work at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg where all his works at the exhibition were sold. Saoli continued to produce excellent works, specializing on canvas.
Saoli’s work covered the life experiences of blacks in the townships - a life of misery under apartheid reflecting township suffering, distress and the fight against the apartheid regime.
In 1972, Saoli was identified by the regime as attending ANC underground meetings at the University of the Witswatersrand. Saloi was detained without trial and sent to the notorious John Vorster Square in Johannesburg and kept in solitary confinement.
While in prison, Saoli passed the time doing what he liked most, painting and drawings. With no paints, brushes, and canvas he used his fingernails, eggshells and tea leaves to produce pictures on the walls of the prison. Saoli was eventually released from John Vorster after 6 months. As so many before and after him this experience traumatized Saoli. From then on his life took a downward spiral as he turned to drink for release and comfort. In the days, months and years to follow, he lived the life of a hobo, disappearing for days, weeks. The bottle was indeed a kiss of death for the young artist.
Despite his miserable life, Saoli continued to produce outstanding works exhibiting in different galleries across South Africa. His work attracted the attention of those in other countries including Germany and Canada where his work is often found. In spite of this he continued to drink and lived as a homeless person on the streets of Johannesburg.
In 1992, Saoli and Peter Sibeko, the owner of the Soweto Art Gallery, teamed up. Sibeko was concerned and worried about the well being of Saoli and the talent that was under threat. Also, Sibeko was aware that there were those who knew Saoli’s work and often preyed on him and his talents. Such people would request Saoli to paint and often rewarded him with alcohol or a few Rands. From the time that Sibeko took him under his roof, Saoli spent most of his time at the gallery, literally living there, often painting through the night only to be stopped by the rising sun. It was around that time, between the years 1993 to 1995 that Saoli produced the most remarkable work in his life. The gallery provided him with the stability and space he needed to do such work.
Unfortunately even though the gallery had given him a lifeline, the ill-fated Saoli developed cancer and he continued to find solace in the bottle, hoping that it would ease his physical pain.
The night before his body was discovered in the streets of Johannesburg, Saoli insisted on going out to get a beer or two in one of the city’s bars. No one could stop him and he was found dead the next day. Fortunately, this amazing talent left a legacy for all to remember him.
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