|Ezrom Kgobonyane Sebata Legae was born on June 1, 1937 in Vrededorp, Johannesburg. He grew up and went to school in Soweto. As a student Legae was fascinated by the striking drawings of one of his teachers, creating the first seeds of his creativity. Unfortunately for Legae, his father died forcing Legae to leave school and find a job.
Legae found himself a menial job at the Carlton Hairdressing Salon in the centre of Johannesburg, where the hairstylists, some of whom were originally from Europe, encouraged Legae’s artistic talent and often brought him art related books. Legae’s love for art further developed later when, in 1959, he discovered the Polly Street Art Centre. His elder brother, Abner, an enthusiastic draughtsman, introduced Legae to the Centre. At that time Legae was focused on being a musician, playing the trumpet. It was only in 1962 that he became a full time student at Polly Street. Here he came under the mentorship of Cecil Skotnes and Sydney Khumalo.
In 1964 he became an instructor at the Centre and remained there for five years. It was during this time that Skotnes encouraged Legage to consider modeling and sculture. Though Legae was initially unwilling to consider this, he developed the skill and produced very good sculptural heads.
Initially better known as a sculptor, over time his drawing and mixed media added value to his career.vi In 1972 he became director of the African Music and Drama Association Art Project. The Director of the Gallery, Egon Guenther, noticed that Legae was a talented young artist and was prepared to assist where he could.
In 1965 Guenther asked Legae to exhibit his work at his gallery and in 1967 he was awarded the Oppenheimer Sculpture Prize on ‘Art-SA-today’. Many of Legae’s paintings depicted township suffering, but his sculptures of this time had a heroic quality, with mask–like heads and the athletic torsos of young men with a sense of confident bravado that one suspects may have had an autobiographical reference.
In 1970, Legae made a decision to work as a full time artist with a focus on sculpture. He received a bursary from the Merit Grant Fund in the U.S. Between the years 1967 to 1976 Legae had not produced anything really substantial in his field. Looking back he states, ‘In that period I hibernated like a little furry animal. I needed some kind of explosion to rock me out of my inherent laziness as an artist and also out of the lethargy and lack of incentives and confidence in my work that I was suffering from at that time.’
When Steve Biko died in 1977, it was as though a great giant had been awakened. ‘Chicken Series’ came out containing aspects on Biko and the politics of the country. He recalls, ‘You see I used the chicken as a symbol of the black people of this country, because the chicken is a domestic bird. Now, one can maim a chicken by pulling out his feathers; one can crucify him and even kill him; but beware there will always be another egg and always another chicken. If you remember in all these drawings with the symbolism of the domestic fowl, the spirit of Biko hovered and emerged even in the shadows, sometimes behind bars and sometimes free…And then watch out because that chicken suddenly became a vulture and the aggressor.’
In 1979 he exhibited his drawings on ‘Freedom is dead’ at the Valparaiso Bien and was awarded an Hourable Mention. Legae was inspired him to do the work and what it meant to live in the apartheid South Africa, by saying, ‘With the ‘Death of Freedom’ I felt such a deep disillusionment about my people - not only black but the people of South Africa, who are oppressed. Sometimes the whites do not even realize how oppressed they are’.
Legae went on, ‘I mean the blacks are more physically oppressed, but the whites don’t know what freedom is either. It seemed to me then that even in my own environment my people had forgotten how to fight for freedom, how to understand the word, and so the broken wings of birds and dying animals became my symbols, but I never forgot the spirit of Biko and of hope’.
‘Freedom is Dead’ was followed by the ‘The Anatomy of a Dying Horse’. To Legae, the horse is a symbol of regeneration in a world of oppression. He explains that, ‘In my culture I do believe in the hierarchy of nature, but also believe, like all my people, that my spirit cannot die with my corporal body. I am not sure that I will be re-incarnated into another being, but I do know that man and beast are equal in the scheme of things.’
Legae drew satisfaction and joy from his work. He states that, ‘I am not prolific as an artist because when I work it is my chance to be at one with what I do. I cry gallons of tears - for joy and sadness - and I wallow in both equally. I do not have a great facility to express myself verbally. I only know that my soul and my being join in sculpture or on paper to express me as a person’.
While given a chance to exhibit in the US, Legae was full of joy and gratitude, ‘So when you offered me this very rare opportunity to exhibit in the United States I saw it as an incentive from the bottom of my heart as a fulfillment for a longing to express to the world how it feels to be a black artist in South Africa, not only politically and emotionally, but also a chance to justify and complete my spiritual need’.
In 1985 Legae produced a small bronze called ‘Germination’ which presented ‘smooth swelling shapes conjuring up the burgeoning life of unfurling plant forms, but also implying human sexuality’. In the rest of the 1980s, Legae’s work (paintings) continued to reflect human suffering, lamenting the plight of black people in the townships. For example his work ‘Destroyed Beast’ depicts agony and human misery. In the late 1980s, Legae worked in plaster more than clay itself. An example of his work on clay is ‘Point of Departure’, completed in 1989. One of his last works before democracy was the ‘Dying Beast’, completed during the political transition in 1993.
In the post apartheid South Africa, Legae secured himself a studio at the Fordsburg Artists Studios (The Bag Factory). Not long after he had acquired the studio, Legae died in 1999.
Hearing about Legae’s death, Linda Givon, the director of the Goodman Gallery, paid tribute to a long time friend and colleague. ‘Thirty years of working together through the heaviest time in a country shattered by the cruelest and most devastating destruction, a nation's deconstruction and reconstruction and your humility as an artist. All these make the memory of a complete all-round man who will always remain as one of the treasures of our nation. It was fitting that you were chosen to present our great President Nelson Mandela with a bronze sculpture on his stepping down as head of the ANC’.
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