|Mike Nkolo Maapola was born in 1949 in Hammanskraal near Pretoria and attended school there. From an early age he showed interest and talent in drawing and at 17 started working as an artist, mainly in water colour.
Maapola’s breakthrough came in 1970 when he brought some of his paintings to the South African Association of Arts for evaluation. The paintings caught the eye of a trained artist, Helge Jensen, who saw the potential in the young artist. She asked him to join the Art Design School in Pretoria.
Maapola’s work depicts the day to day experiences of black people living under apartheid. He mostly uses pen and ink to depict the township scenes but also uses pencil and water colours in his work and sometimes produces wooden sculptures.
In the early 1970s Maapola joined a group of 15 artists known as the Contemporary Black Artists. The group was very active and exhibited their works in embassies and galleries and in Durban and Cape Town.
These works appealed to many of the embassy staff and were encouraged by individuals like Di Johnstone and Bruce Haigh, both of whom served as Australian diplomats in Pretoria in the 1970s. Maapola remembers the role they played, “It was people like Di Johnstone that helped artists in the Pretoria area to survive and expose their work.”
Many of these diplomats and business visitors of the time also recognised the value of this struggle art. Foreign buyers with a collector’s eye snapped up the best of it and an empty space existed in South Africa’s heritage – the visual history of apartheid’s battleground in the locations. Maapola also comments that it didn’t matter if much of the work was not technically very good. It was an expression of the times by largely unschooled, self-taught young artists battling against heavy odds.
Maapola’s held three exhibitions in 1974, 1976 and 1978 and in 1980 opened his own Afro-Art Centre gallery in Pretoria. His own work and that of fellow black artists were exhibited there including works from Gabriel Kubane, Johnny Ribeiro and Stanley Motsepe.
The times were not easy for black artists and Maapola faced harassment from the police for his protest art, culminating in his arrest in 1988. The next year, his studio was torched and as a result years of work were lost.
With democracy, all these constraints fell away and black artists were free to explore any forms of expression and there was a move to using bright colours and portraying happier subjects instead of the bleak, dark paintings of the past.
Maapola continued to produce outstanding work in post apartheid South Africa, including his, now famous, drawing used on a stamp. Quite by chance, Maapola went to the Philitelic Services in Hatfield to sell some of his works. They so impressed the staff, Senior Manager, Dr. Franco Frescura commissioned him to produce a drawing for the Freedom Day stamp. The result was a charming scene of people queuing up to vote as in the first democratic election the country had ever held. The stamps were issued by the SA Post Office on 26 April 1997.
Mike Maapola’s work include the following: Weeping Family, Hangover, Washday, Salome, Witchdoctor, Lovers, Prisoner, Boy and Girl, Fatherless Family, Hello Marry, Winterveld Scene, Prisoners, Girls Fighting, Lazy Joe, Shy Prisoner, Restaurant, Boy Drinking, Scrubbing and Washing, Hauler, Meat Party, Friends, and Before the unrest. Today, Maapola continues to work as an artist. He still lives in Hamanskraal and his humble home doubles up as studio. Maapola also gives back to his community by nurturing school children in the field of art.
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