Sydney Kumalo

Article Bio Works Projects
apartheid, modernity, tradition
Visual Arts (sculpture)
Africa, Southern
South Africa
created on:
June 21, 2003
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The spirits of the ancestors in times of apartheid

The sculptor and painter Sydney Kumalo, who was born 1935 in Johannesburg and died there in 1988, is not only one of South Africa’s best-known artists. He was one of the very few blacks who were able to graduate from art school during Apartheid. His work was inspired by that of sculptors such as Henry Moore and Marino Marini. In the course of his career he increasingly drew upon long-standing African artistic traditions as well – not in a search for his roots, but in the form of modern Western appropriation, to lend time-transcending depth to his contemporary work.
The immense damage which the policy of Apartheid inflicted upon South African society had its effect on art and cultural policy as well. As in all other spheres, blacks who aspired to become artists had only very restricted access to schooling. One can only guess at the amount of artistic potential lost due to these policies. The sculptor and painter Sydney Kumalo belongs to the tiny minority of those who were able to study art in the fifties nonetheless – thanks to the commitment of several whites who persistently sought to break down racial barriers and ameliorate their destructive effects.

Sydney Kumalo, internationally known above all for his work as a sculptor, was born in 1935 in Johannesburg. From 1952 to 1959 he attended the sculpture classes of the London-born Cecil Skotnes, probably South Africa’s most famous artist, and of Eduardo Villa in the Polly Art Centre in Johannesburg. The Polly Art Centre was originally founded as an adult education institution; in 1952 it was converted into an art and exhibition centre. Until its closure in 1960, the year in which the ANC was banned, it was the only place – apart from a few private galleries – where black artists in Johannesburg could pursue their art and show their works. In 1958 Kumalo, who had begun teaching himself at the Polly Art Centre during his last few semesters as a student, became its “Official Art Organiser”, which provided him with a certain financial security at the beginning of his career, as well as creative opportunities.

In 1961, along with Cecil Skotnes, Eduardo Villa, Cecily Sash and Guiseppe Cattaneo, Kumalo founded the artist group “Amadlozi” – a name from the Bantu meaning “spirit of the ancestors”. This group brought together five very different artistic temperaments with one thing in common: the conscious appropriation of African sculptural traditions. However, especially in Kumalo’s case, this should not be misunderstood as a kind of search for his roots. For Kumalo, the use of traditional sculptural techniques, restrained at first and becoming increasingly evident over the course of his career, was part of an entirely modern conception of art that constantly oscillates between abstraction and figuration while searching for mystical depth.

If one chooses, one can find a wide spectrum of artistic influences in Kumalo’s sculptures, both in motifs and in styles, ranging from the expressionists to Marino Marini and Henry Moore. Flowing lines and elongated volumes dominate, as in the piece “Mother with Child”. Kumalo distributes masses with great elegance and compositional sophistication, and figures often dissolve into pure forms, geometric building blocks such as spheres, trapezoids or cuboids.

For all his elegance, Kumalo has always retained his sense of the absurd and existential, as in his sculpture of a horse lying on its back, its legs stretched out (“Killed Horse”, 1962). Or in paintings such as “Antelope Hunt”, from 1979, in which masked tribal beauties swathed in billowing, strangely dynamized veils perform a ritual dance.

In the course of his artistic career Sydney Kumalo took on a number of commissions for art in public spaces, for example at the Catholic Church in Kroonstad (“Stations of the Cross”, 1958 with Cecil Skotnes), the State Pavilion in Millner Park in Johannesburg (“Praying Woman”, 1960), at the Kitwe Hotel in Zambia (“Adler”, 1963) and at the Civic Centre in Cape Town(“The Blessing”, 1980). Kumalo’s works are also displayed in many public and private collections in South Africa, Europe and the USA. Sydney Kumalo was equally, if not more important in his function as a teacher; he, more than anyone else in South Africa, has influenced the generation born between 1950 and 1965.
Author: Ulrich Clewing


1935 born in Johannesburg
1952-1959 studied painting and sculpture with Cecil Skotnes and Eduardo Villa at the Polly Art Centre in Johannesburg
1958 Appointed “Official Art Organiser” at the Polly Art Centre
1988 died in Johannesburg


Goup Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2005 “South African Art: 1948 Till Now”, Michael Stevenson Contemporary Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa 2003 “Faces and Figures“, Elga Wimmer PCC, New York, USA 2001 “The Short Century”, Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany “The Short Century“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany “The Short Century”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, USA 1989 Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa 1985 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa 1979 “Art from South Africa/Art from Soweto“, Bonn, Germany 1977 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa 1975 Musée Royal de L’Afrique Centrale, Tervuren, Netherlands 1969 Camden Arts Centre, London, Great Britain 1967 Egon Günther Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa São Paulo Biennial, São Paulo, Brazil 1966 Biennial Venice, Venice, Italy


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)