South African art – A Book Review of Mihloti ya Ntsako

I have been interested in and sojourning through art spaces for some years now. Being passionate about inclusion, this book and its telling of 20th century South African art by black artists has been a joy to read.

I often get the question why is it that as an actuary, I decided to become an art entrepreneur. A few reasons indicate why it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The first is the number of artworks in the backgrounds of the people I have met with in virtual Actuarial Society of South Africa (ASSA) committee meetings over the past two years. The second is the beautiful Zanele Muholi photograph in the background as an actuary based in the UK moderated a discussion at the 2022 ASSA Annual Convention. And the last is the history of art in the portfolio of the British Rail Pension Fund’s foray into investing in art from 1974 to 1980 to beat raging UK inflation at the time.

It also shouldn’t come as a surprise, especially as my family is decidedly both left- and right-brained as all of my siblings are known for their forays into being DJs while being members of various professions. Sadly, I am still waiting for my lessons, so I have missed out on the opportunity to be like the Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon.

Telling the oft-omitted parts of South African art history

The book Mihloti ya Ntsako by Prof. Pfunzo Sidogi covers three broad aspects:

  1. How The Bongi Dhlomo Collection came about,
  2. Some background and history about Bongi Dhlomo and the environment in which she operated throughout her extraordinary career, and 
  3. Some of the artworks in the collection itself.

In 2016, the Javett Foundation commissioned Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa to establish a collection of 20th-century South African art by black artists. In doing so, the late Michael Javett, the chief patron of the Foundation, wanted to see Dhlomo’s eye through the collection and also see “how black artists saw their immediate community, how they felt about their existence, and how they saw South Africa.”

Some background on the patron for the collection

Michael Javett was a retired businessman who studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand. He practised as an attorney at Webber Wentzel and then moved to London to join the international law firm, Allen & Overy. Then he began a career in finance (as a merchant banker) at Hill Samuel. On his return to South Africa, he established the Unisec Group, which was later sold to Standard Bank. He also founded Tolux SA, which has since become Brait. He turned his attention to philanthropy in 2006 and was also a thoroughbred owner.

South African art history in lockstep with Bongi Dhlomo’s life

The book gives excellent insight into the period from 1952 to the present. It contains a walk-through history in a way that resonated strongly with me. With so many of the artists also coming from Soweto (where I was born) and having known the Funda Art Centre in Soweto well, I could see the parallels with the life of Bongi Dhlomo. Bongi Dhlomo’s career has spanned roles as an artist, a cultural worker, an activist, a curator, a judge and a collector. She lives in Alexandra and worked at the Alex Arts Centre and others in Johannesburg and Durban, as she is from KwaZulu-Natal. For that reason, the artwork Mgodoyi 5 by David Koloane (1938 – 2019) is one of my favourites.

The social context of black artists and their place in collections

The third section is where Sidogi provides a critical social history of black artists in the 20th century in South Africa. And even in 2023, many of those themes are still at play concerning African art in general. The challenge of the relative pricing of artworks by black and white artists is something that plagues us, even today. The same applies for the challenges with developing a diverse and representative local collector base – many a visit to an exhibition opening highlights this challenge. Ensuring a local collector base also provides stability to pricing as opposed to only having collectors based in North America or Europe. It protects the artist and their collectors from changing tastes which might create a crash in the economy of the artworks of an artist.

Sidogi also outlines the problematic ways curators, gallerists and others packaged and narrated black artists. For example, branding Eli Kobeli as the “Chagall of Soweto” and Dumile Feni as the “Goya of the townships”. This third section outlines all the inspiration for the current activism that I and many others engage in around the inclusion of many South African Masters and many artists and collectors today. My only difference of opinion is in a section on Religious Images and Blackness regarding how African (in addition to European) modernity came about. It would be good to engage with other readers and unpack this part with others’ views.

The actuarial community is now familiar with the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion. This collection is an example of radical inclusion, especially when considering art collections and how their patron generally names them.

A poster for the exhibition Yakhal' Inkomo which ran from 26 March 2022 to 15 January 2023. The exhibition was of South African art and based on The Bongi Dhlomo Collection.

The exhibition based on the collection

My reading of the book was enriched as I had attended a walkabout at the Javett Art Centre on Freedom Day. I had deliberately chosen that day to visit not only because the entrance is free on public holidays. I know this collection is assisting in challenging the documented art history of South Africa. The collection includes the oeuvres of artists who might not have been included because of the history of South Africa.

One aspect of diversity (or lack thereof) acknowledged by both Sidogi and Dhlomo is the lack of black women artists in the collection. It reflects the lack of art historical acknowledgement of black women artists. Visiting the exhibition was indeed a great gift to celebrate the anniversary of democracy in our country. Similarly, the book offers a masterclass in thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion; using art and the art world as the thought canvas on which to explore the themes.

My thoughts on the book

There are probably many books written about South African modern and contemporary art. Still, this one is very different and is a read that anyone who knows nothing about art nor is a collector will learn from significantly. I also think one does not have to be South African to appreciate the book.

Sadly, the art exhibition on which the collection is based, Yakhal’inkomo (named after the song with the same title by saxophonist Winston Mankunku Ngozi), ended in January 2023. However, one can experience it somewhat through a read of this book which is why I recommend it. You might want to ask Javett for the playlist of the sonic experience that was part of the exhibition to enhance your experience as you read the book.

A wall at the Javett Art Centre which features five examples of South African art, all in shades of black and white.
Artworks from the Bongi Dhlomo Collection, as part of the exhibition Yakhal’ Inkomo at the Javett Art Centre

An after-thought (for the actuaries)

After reading all I have said about this magnificent collection, I know my fellow actuaries – you’re still stuck wondering how the British Rail Pension Fund’s foray into investing in art went. According to a Wall Street Journal article from 1996, the result was “respectable, if not spectacular”. When they sold the last of the artworks in the portfolio, they had achieved a 13.1% return per annum, which was nearly 6% above inflation over the 22-year life of the investment. Mihloti ya Ntsako means “tears of joy” in Xitsonga.

This blog post is based on an article which appeared in the April 2023 edition of the South African Actuary magazine. We edited the post to provide additional context and improve readability.

Book title: Mihloti ya Ntsako: Journeys with The Bongi Dhlomo Collection
Written by Pfunzo Sidogi, Collection by Bongi Dhlomo
Publisher: Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (Javett-UP) in association with the Javett Foundation

ISBN: 978-0-6397-1824-8

You can purchase the book from Latitudes Online or in-store at the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria