From Mancoba and Sekoto to Mslaba and Sibande: Johannesburg’s Post-Apartheid Emergence as an Art World City

“The embarrassment that my presence caused – to the point of making me, in their eyes, some sort of ‘Invisible Man’ or merely the consort of a European woman artist – was understandable, as before me, there had never been, to my knowledge, any black man taking part in the visual arts ‘avant-garde’ of the Western World.”

– Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002), reflecting on life in Denmark during the CoBrA years, c.1948-50 (Obrist, 2010: 380)

In a similar way to the voices of anti-racist novelists, playwrights, performance poets and musicians from South Africa – not least the singer-songwriter Miriam Makeba, the novelist Mongane Wally Serote and the poet Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile, etc. – a number of contemporary visual artists have been highly influential in using art as a platform for commenting on the changing socio-economic and political landscape of post-apartheid South Africa.

Photograph of South African artist Ernest Mancoba.
Photograph of South African artist Ernest Mancoba.

Several early modernists whose work openly challenged the apartheid regime included the abstractionist and sculptor Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002) – who was born in Johannesburg, but emigrated to study fine art in Paris, and later became one of the founder members of the influential CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) art movement; the abstract expressionist painter Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993) – who in 1940 became the first black South African to have a painting exhibited in the Johannesburg Art Gallery; and the mixed-media illustrator and graphic designer Zwelidumile Geelboi Mgxaji Mslaba (known internationally as Dumile Feni) (1942-1991), who was often referred to as the ‘Goya of the townships’ because of the poignant monochromatic ballpoint pen drawings he created to comment on urban poverty and the struggles against apartheid (Peffer, 2009: 44).  In more recent decades a number of new artists have also emerged from the Johannesburg art scene – largely as a result of the city’s hosting of two successful biennials in 1995 and 1997 that put South Africa on the art world map.

Portrait of Mrs M D Sekoto, by Gerard Sekoto (1947).
Portrait of Mrs M D Sekoto, by Gerard Sekoto (1947).
Untitled artwork by Dumile Feni, the 'Goya of the Townships'
Untitled artwork by Dumile Feni, the ‘Goya of the Townships’

The 2nd Johannesburg Biennale (based on the theme of ‘Trade Routes: History, Geography and Culture’) was directed by the Nigerian-American curator Okwui Enwezor and served as a career springboard for arts activists who have since become internationally known – including  the Johannesburg-born conceptual artist and film-maker William Kentridge (b. 1955), and the Johannesburg-based feminist artist Mary Sibande (b. 1982) – who recently came to prominence as a result of creating very moving photographic portraiture featuring images of black women’s bodies as a metaphor for exploring power relations and construction of identity within post-apartheid South Africa (Bidouzo-Coudray, 2014).

Beyond the city’s key state-run art institutions, Johannesburg also has a number of independent contemporary art galleries that have played a major role in documenting the political struggles against apartheid and the birth of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ – including the  Goodman Gallery founded in 1966, which hosted the famous exhibition ‘Art Against Apartheid’ in 1985 (see,  and the more recently opened Gallery MOMO which stages highly innovative exhibitions and represents a new group of emerging young artists, such as the afore-mentioned Mary Sibande, and contemporary photographer Ayana V Jackson.

'Sophie Merica' installation artwork by Mary Sibande (2009).
‘Sophie Merica’ installation artwork, by Mary Sibande (2009).
Photograph of South African artist Mary Sibande.
Photograph of the South African artist Mary Sibande (2009).


“My interest is not in looking at the negatives of being a domestic worker, specifically in current post-apartheid South Africa, but rather in the humanity and commonalities of people despite the boxes we find ourselves in.”
– Mary Sibande, speaking about her art installation, The Sophie Project (Gallery MOMO, 2009)



BIDOUZO-COUDRAY, J. 2014. Mary Sibande – poking at power relations in post-apartheid South Africa. The Guardian [Online], 07 January 2014. Available:

OBRIST, H. U. 2010. An interview with Ernest Mancoba, Third Text, 24 (3), 373-384.

PEFFER, J. 2009. Art and the end of apartheid, Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press.

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