Walls and social messages
Durant Sihlali (1935-2004) was an influential South African artist, teacher and visual recorder of an era of South Africa’s history. He was born in Germiston, but lived most of his adult life in Soweto. From 1983 to 2004 he was the Head of Fine Arts at the Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA).
He was always interested in walls, and the way people use walls to express themselves and leave their messages to the world – whether carefully planned or spontaneously enacted. Many of his later works became “portraits” of wall segments on which people had left their marks – the surface of the artwork itself like a piece of the wall.
Why was he so fascinated with walls? “Walls were the first things I came across as a young man … from the age of four or five, in the rural areas. For me it was a great thing. I recall one day we were sitting at the back of the kraal, sharing coffee with my grandpa and ma. I took a stick and started doing my own design. Both were looking, and then I was suddenly told, ‘Look you should not be doing this. This is a woman’s thing. It’s taboo for men to do wall designs’. I was taken aback and immediately got scared. So I would usually do these things where I couldn’t be seen by others, especially boys of my own age. If they came and found me doing a drawing, I would quickly erase it with my foot. When they asked me what I was doing I would say, ‘Drawing a cow’, and it would end there.”