I woke to an email from a curator at a Johannesburg art gallery bearing the sad news of the death on June 30, 2019 of David KNthubu Koloane, one of South Africa's most accomplished and revered artists. He was 81.
We were in the midst of moving house, so I couldn't pay tribute by looking at the many Koloane paintings we own. Though they were in storage, they were vivid in my mind. Especially a large painting of dogs running across a Soweto landscape in the deep reds, blues, purples and blacks David favored. My husband and I had pooled the money we got as wedding gifts in 1995 to buy that painting, called “Flight.”
David did a series on the dogs of Soweto. We have another, a bit smaller than “Flight” and more quietly dramatic, showing three strays on their haunches, staring down the viewer. They also stared down the artist. David told me that he had a habit of drinking heavily when he was younger. Returning to Soweto in the early morning after a night of bingeing, the sight of those wild dogs seemed like a warning to him. He quit drinking.
David was a friend. I met him on my first stint as a reporter in South Africa in the early 1990s. One encounter will always be fresh in my mind. I was in a framing shop near the Market Theatre with a charcoal drawing I had by William Carter, a not particularly well-known American Harlem Renaissance artist. David was there hanging out with the shop owner, himself an artist, and other artists. David stopped chatting and brought his face very close to the Carter I wanted reframed. David moved his head slowly, tenderly to follow the charcoal swoops and swirls. It was a master class in looking.
Over the years David and his wife Monida came to treat me, my husband Fred and our daughter Thandi as family. Especially when we returned after a few reporting assignments elsewhere to live in Johannesburg from 2008 to 2012. I'm pretty sure Monica accepted our dinner invitations just so she could have little heart-to-heart talks with Thandi.
David once told me: "Being born in South Africa, I know no other country. And I don't think I can love any other country as much as I love the country where I was born and where my ancestors were born."
He expressed that love by looking closely and with great empathy, then translating what he saw onto canvas.
In addition to painting, David wrote eloquently about art and was a noted curator. He was also one of the founders of the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios, a Johannesburg collective with shared studio space in an old bag factory, that helped many artists find their feet. David served as the Bag Factory’s director for many years. I loved visiting him at his studio there. The collective members each had a cubicle with no ceiling. They would talk to one another over the thin partitions, laughing and joking. It was a boisterous place. Occasionally they’d call a friend over for a consultation about color or form or mood. Soft-spoken, smiling David was a popular consultant.
A retrospective of David's work opened at the Iziko South African National Gallery on June 2. The show is scheduled to travel later from the national gallery in Cape Town to major galleries in Johannesburg.
David was notoriously slow at answering emails. I will never get an answer to the one I sent him congratulating him on the retrospective. I wish I had called him instead.