|Durant Sihlali, the eldest son of Sonwabo and Agnes Sihlali, was born on March 5, 1935 in Dukathole, Germiston, east of Johannesburgi Sihlali was sent to Cala in the former Transkei where he lived with his paternal grandparents and it was here he discovered his interest in art being fascinated by the traditional wall and floor painting activities by Xhosa women.
In the 1950s, Sihlali returned to live in Johannesburg where he married his childhood sweetheart Annah Mokholo Moloi in 1958 and produced five children. Between 1950-1953 Sihlali’s talent was nurtured by Alphius Kubeka, joining the Polly Street Art Centre where he was fortunate to be mentored by Cecil Skotnes. In addition he was highly influenced by Carlo Sdoya, an Italian artist and learned much from him. Having been introduced by contemporaries in Soweto to oil painting, and helped by Sidney Goldblatt, Sihlali struggled to perfect this medium.
The 1960s were a bleak period with the tightening of apartheid laws and this was reflected in Sihlali’s fossilized rock paintings of 1964 but socio-economic pressures, the political climate, and the artistic dictates forced him to shelve his wall impressions for some time.
Like many black people growing up in apartheid South Africa and with few opportunities to produce, market and eventually establish themselves as artists, Sihlali found it difficult to make a living through art. In addition, societal pressures and especially family pressures pressed him to seek formal jobs to enable him to put food on the table for his wife and children. He worked in several jobs until 1972 when he resigned to be a full time artist.
As a watercolour specialist, Sihlali produced works that depicted the lives and sufferings of black people under apartheid. A unique aspect of his work was his depiction of miners in the coal mines of Witbank and their exploitation and dehumanization. Their hostel life and hard conditions underground were what Sihlali hoped to capture.
Moved, unsettled, troubled and unable to concentrate on his work after his father’s death in 1977, Sihlali found himself being drawn to a railway sleeper earlier purchased as firewood in preparation for the funeral. It was this that would imaginatively reconcile him with his late father and thus help him to deal with his loss. This experience was his first brush with sculpture.
Together with Ben Nsusha, also a product of Rorke’s drift, Sikhali began to work in metal using wrecks from cars. Never shy to experiment with different media he was very explorative and fascinated by the different art techniques and even with poor equipment produced metal works including scenes of mine-workers and also women in the streets of Soweto.
Sihlali was keen to share his artistic skills with emerging black artists and from 1983-1988 he was the Head of the Fine Arts Department at the Federated Union of Black Artists. He was also attached to other centres like the Chiawelo Art Centre, Moroka Recreational Centre, Funda Centre, Wits Technikon and Entokozweni Art Centre.
Sihlali was an expert in art and his work took him to different to exhibit his work. He received a scholarship from the French Government and went on to study at the Pilot International School of Arts and Research in Venice in the mid-80s and attended the Triangle Workshop in New York State in 1989.
In 1986, Sihlali founded the Umhlanga Paper Studio which was later formally established in Florida in 1995 in post apartheid South Africa. In 1997, he took six students from the Wits Technikon and mentored them on recycling in a handmade paper art course. The Wits group was followed by 14 students from Funda Art Centre.
Click here to view other artworks