Alienation in the work of Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta

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When investigating art from the sociological point of view it is clear that we deal with several sets of interdependencies simultaneously, there is the interrelationship between the individual artist and his art, the interrelationship between the artist and his society and culture. Since these two sets of interrelationships are not mutually exclusive, they also exist between society (culture) and art. In this triadic relationship art, artist and society act reciprocally to form a network or structure, art and society through the artist that are not only interrelated but interdependent. Art not only reflects the individual creator but also the society and culture in which the artist lives and works (De Jager 1992: 1).

This statement points to the direction I intended to investigate in this essay as I attempt to trace the confines of an artist working from the periphery of South Africa’s major cities which are also the loci of the art production. Through the art he produces I aim to examine his methods of working and how he fits into contemporary art practice. Furthermore, I shall attempt to give a theoretical framework of his work within the ever evolving visual language employed by artist working from and within the South African townships[1] and thus trace a crucial shift in the way the artist has worked and developed from the earlier part of his career to now.

At this point it is crucial to point out that the term “Township Art”[2] refers to a category of paintings and graphics in urban art, which emerged on the South African scene in the late 1950s and 1960s and refers only to work produced by the artists of this time. In the context of this essay the history of Township Art is explored in so far as it provided the platform upon which contemporary black artists from this environment are able to continue to produce work since the label “township” implies a specific “political, social and economic context, one which determines all aspects of its art, its aims, function and formal content” (Verstraete 1989:152).

My research methodology involved reading and citing relevant material, written

communication and telephonic interviews with the artist Mxolisi Douglas Sapeta, of New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, where the painter/sculptor and published poet, lives and works. This work will focus on his paintings as these are his most substantial body of work and that which he is best known for producing.

“ … the essence of man, the very nature of man reveals itself in his emotions … ”

(De Jager 1992:199)


There is no intelligible present in a democratic South Africa that is not always and already haunted by it past, the townships are the most brutal spaces of evidence that remain where people continue to live in conditions not entirely suitable to human development, conditions much the same as in Apartheid South Africa if not worse. This time however, it is not through an implemented policy of separation but through unequal opportunities and economic isolation. This seems to point that South African black artists of necessity must reflect this social dividedness by fulfilling one particular universal characteristic of man, “the need for aesthetic experience and to reflect creatively his environment and living conditions” (De Jager 1992:1).

Apart from its inherent aesthetic qualities, a work of art is also a product of its time, formed and shaped by the artist in interaction with his total environment; the artist reflects not only his own personal feelings and ideas, but also those of his society and culture. There is no contradiction in the statement that a work of art may be “highly individual, expressing the inner feelings on a particular person while being shared socially and culturally at the same time” (De Jager 1992:1). This is true as the artist and his art are rooted in his society and since in South Africa his society has historically been forced into separateness on virtually all fronts, his art is expressive of culture showing “the other” South African, the one that exist in the townships.

As townships remain spaces of estrangement from the rest of the urban centers, existing only as dark shadows on the fringes of the cities and threatening to, overnight, creep into and disrupt “our” well conditioned lives, Sapeta visually captures, objectifies and reflects the values, moods and perceptions of his society through his paintings which possess an arresting sense of alienation and separateness manifested in acidly colored references to bestiality and other social taboos that can exist in a morally decrepit and congested spaces. The reflection these figures cast suggests Sapeta’s insight that ‘the other’ “is a mere reflection of our own selves, our unacknowledged shadows” (Hopwood 2005).

Shadows are dark things; the paintings of Sapeta are darker. This of cause is not a reference to his palette but rather to his subject matter which contains inclinations towards social resistance based on an assertion of a universal humanism in the face of dehumanizing urbanization and the resultant alienation. On his canvas he highlights this estrangement in bizarre ways, one of which is by placing the human in binary relation to the animal, where the human is reduced to below the human level such that copulation and “bestiality becomes possible and become events offering an alternative to humanities self-regarding concern with individuality”( Brits 2005:27). These humans are diminished from being the supreme and employ a non-speciesist approach that makes them belong to the same ethical camp as the animal. The Mastubator (figure 1) depicts a smiling woman nursing a goat at her breasts against an acid yellow backdrop, the resultant and reoccurring cross bred manifestations found in other of his paintings reveal total sexual and political corruption and a morality degraded beyond repair. While animal imagery in contemporary art may be seen to reflect the “limits of human understanding” (Brits 2005:27) where the animal embodies “the other” and how the “human has an added responsibility with regards to the representation of the animal” (Brits 2005:27). Since what was once lived experience, contact with animals, is now increasingly transferred into the secondary existence of simulation since the urban environment is not designed to contain them.

In the Adult World Pedestal (figure 2) we are shown a donkey with an erection standing on a pink foam base watching x-rated content on an old aerial television. The donkey, in turn is being watched by a man who wears television goggles and reveals the tensile relationship between watching and being watched. Thus the animals in Sapeta’s paintings seem to be in as much trauma as the humans themselves by reflecting and embodying humanistic emotions this seems to point to an interchangeability from man to animal and vice versa as “in modern day society man acknowledges [his own ] law beyond truth, reality and nature” (Cohn, 2009).

As the compartmentalized nature of urban existence breeds a desperate loneliness in a global society that strives towards individualism at the expense of collective identity,

Sapeta’s minimalistic paintings do not try to describe any known object or theme but aim to establish its own urban reality through independent objects tripped of all irrelevant detail. Superficially, his canvases seem to over simplify complex concepts by drawing attention to his use of bright colors which provide very little allusion to the content or meaning which lies in the human islands in these acid seas of paint, whom are all anonymous and float on the canvas with no individual aspirations much like the urban dispossessed who roam the dark underbelly of the cities.

His heavily outlined figures appear plastered onto the foreground of the canvas as if cut, or even forcibly removed, from some other place while his flat backdrops create isolating abstract environments that condense the equally abstract and illusive themes of sentiments and emotions by bringing into sharp contrast man and urban architectural elements such that the interplay between image and “meaning remains expressive of a broader contemporary consciousness particularly the concern with the human condition” (Berman 1993:382). In this way, Sapeta’s creative expression is dynamic and immediate in responding to local conditions without converting to “popular Africanism”[3] and each canvas appears as a broken puzzle pieces to some much greater meta-narrative of nostalgia and yearning for self affirmation and personal realization as the characters reoccur in different guises, having no fixed identity, over multiple canvases.

Elalini. Oil on Canvas (figure 3)


Mxolisi Douglas Sapeta was born the third child of four children in New Brighton, a township outside Port Elizabeth, on January 26 1967. At the age of six he would, after school as he waited for his older siblings to arrive and grant him access to the family home, draw on the gravel outside the house and this over time became his favorite past time. Predominantly he drew stick figures and sees this as the time that he developed what would later be his present relationship with the arts and a love for drawing. In the preceding years Sap eta creatively drew and composed comic strips on folio paper that he then sold to his friends, he also made pocket money by drawing the illustrations for his schoolmates on their school projects. This led to the formation of a group of students also interested in drawing of which Sapeta was the leader. One of the members of this group lived along with some of the other children in Thembalethu Ville, a small suburb on the outskirts of New Brighton where George Pemba also lived. When playing in this neighborhood they were always welcome to pop into Pemba’s studio and see what was on the easel and after a while, Pemba opened classes in a local businessman’s garage in Thembalethu. Three of Sapeta’s friends from the artistic group and himself went for the classes.

In March 1978 George Pemba in a diary wrote of his intentions to “open an art class and teach painting and sign writing to children in the Eastern Cape Township of New Brighton” (Hurdleston 1996:63). After a false start nothing seems to have truly come out of this. This is confirmed by Sapeta who lists the reasons for leaving Pemba’s classes as pre-mature and in retrospect realizes that he “left the great opportunity of being taught by one of South Africa’s great masters”. Much earlier to this, Sapeta was apprenticed under Mike Ngxokolo who was a painter, teacher, a local jazz band trombonist and a choral music writer. “I still have Mike’s work at home where my father commissioned him to do a portrait of his. Mike lived very close to our house; the time I spent in his studio was not with a lot of memories also being young as I was and the fact that I yet did not discover my arty group. So it was me listening to him all the time in his studio and it sometimes could get lonely. Mike could not get any form of recognition since he died during the apartheid era he also was George’s [Pemba] friend” (Sapeta 2010).

This time with Ngxokolo developed a quiet, sensitive and always observant experiencing of life in Sapeta especially during the 1980’s when his family life was disintegrating amidst the country’s political upheaval while “chaos reigned in the townships” (Sapeta 2010). At this time, understandably, he did very little drawing and while he hated the police invasions of the township, Sapeta considered and still considers himself to be apolitical even though his elder brother and father were actively involved in the resistance struggle, his father being the president of the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organization at that time. He aligns his personal politics with those of the black conscious movement. In April 1987, in the house Sapeta had grown up in and stood to inherit, he and his family mourned the death of his father. The following year, 1988, Sapeta started painting after he received a gift of acrylic and oil paints and some brushes from a friend. The medium of paint was very different from the manner he was used to but “1 really started to work with paints in solitude at home and managed to paint my first picture” and went on to take part in his first group exhibition in 1989.

Sapeta is a bachelor and prefers to be alone, “1 used to be very much about myself and decided when I wanted to see people, I tried to create an alienated atmospheric character in my work” (Buchanan 2005) and this, it will be demonstrated, he does exceptionally well. Sapeta paints abstractedly and has developed an identifiable iconography in his use of the primary colors to create confrontational and controversial paintings that criticize urban life and its related social problems while also revealing his sensitive attunement towards human emotions and his understanding of color to effect these emotions. In the course of his everyday life he has adopted the passive role of observer and this is evident in both his earlier works and current production. Sap eta’s earlier works circa 1994/1995 reveal an exploration of paint as substance and color above form and show a deft application of both. This is the period that this essay starts from and marks the time Sapeta joined art school in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University formerly Port Elizabeth Technikon, a point at which Sapeta achieves greater confidence as a painter and no longer works from a “naive” perspective but rather from a calculated and informed angle. The sharp calculations are satirically employed in his current production as he vividly captures the daily struggle for survival revealing in essence that urban existence is as strange and foreign as it is desirable.


The poor and oppressed are “generally excluded from or confined to the margins of dominant historical [and social] narratives” (Baines 2003:1) but it is hard to ignore visualized memory when it is based on a community’s or individual’s lived experience. Sapeta’s content is largely drawn from lived experience and in reaction to disseminated information while his work is unlike that of some artists who are “pre-occupied with the search for an African idiom whose concern to some extent was an African style” (Manaka 1987:16), Sapeta seems more concerned with the content of his work rather than the mere achievement of imitating natural appearances. Growing up in New Brighton[4], a township that has become typified as “a site of struggle’” (Baines 2003:1), Sapeta experienced police raids, school boycotts, riots and burning along with a disintegrating family life and ensuing embarrassment first hand.

The “Black Consciousness movement in South Africa appears to have played a major role in the conceptual developments of African art” (Manaka 1987:16). Sapeta’s early exposure to its ideologies and related experiences contributed to his development as a sympathetic human being sensitive to the suffering of others not just locally but continentally and be able to relate more to the “sociopolitical situation with a certain degree of political awareness” (Manaka 1987:16).

Sapeta’s early work “emphasized subject matter that was deemed permissible for township artists’” (Hopwood 2005) and since all works of art classified as township art have specific iconographic content: representations of a specific environment- “the corrugated shanty towns, dirty streets of the township, women washing at a communal tap, donkey carts for delivering coal, young men gambling on street corners commuters waiting for transport at a bus stop without shelter, young men with torn trousers, people sitting around the fire” (Manaka. 1987:15). Which are all, in varying degrees, “elements of daily life in the township, its people, their activities and the township landscape”. (Verstraete 1989:156)

Inevitably, Sapeta painted scenes of New Brighton where he has lived and worked for most of his life. Except for isolated examples, the paintings produced in this early period are devoid of any particular significant content as they operate within a particular superficial idiom that exploits “exhausted issues for the sale of the tourist influx” (Bentley 2004). The images of shacks and semi idyllic ‘Ubuntu’ scenes and their quasi authentic celebration of life in unsympathetic conditions reveal a profound loneliness expressed in Sapeta’s paintings’ through distortion and the stylized portrayal of figures. Where figures are present, they dominate the foreground, and the background becomes secondary but remains very evident and recognizable as it frames and contextualizes the setting for the figures. In other paintings, however, the background (landscape) becomes a brooding and menacing subject where the conventional use of perspective the linear and geometric elements emphasized the eerie desolation of the landscape. His brush strokes are bold and expressive without any inclinations towards realism or naturalism especially evident in his color consideration, which above all else convey the feel of things and his consistent emphasis upon the human situation.

The elements that make up Sapeta’s current practice are clearly identifiable in his early paintings which also demonstrate his skill as an imaginative painter and affinity with bright colors in describing urban landscapes that oppress and deprive. In Elalini (figure 3), the landscape is known, it is the perspective oil painting on canvas of the Red Location in New Brighton described almost exclusively in color as the structure of the buildings are only suggested and nothing seems to take concrete form except perhaps for the telephone poles. The brush strokes are sweeping, expressive and bold, the shadows are ominous against the bright reds and oranges of the foreground and as the painting recedes, the mountainous backdrop and sky are indistinguishable as they merge into each other in a stormy upset of dark blues and greens. The description of light and its source in the painting is not entirely clear nor is the focal point, making the painting seem agitated as the eye searches the eerily empty scene for a spot to settle on.

The canvases are bright and busy in both Elalini (figure 3) and Seated Women (figure 4) with the latter’s palette being comparatively somber, but whereas Elalini is a townshiplandscape, Seated Women is a typical “township scene” and is perhaps the evidence of theanimal and human dynamic found in his later work. Conventional perspective is employedas the body of the dog in the foreground leads our eyes into the picture and vacant stare inthe second woman’s eyes is not dissimilar to that of the dog. The figures in this painting,like figures in all Sapeta’s paintings, are heavily outlined; the heavy outlines isolate thefigures from each other and their environment making them appear coli aged onto thepainted surface, furthermore, the figures are always strangely described appearing more ascardboard cutouts than human beings in any respect.As he starts to paint without any pictorial references, Sapeta’s paintings migrate from thefrozen moment of the photograph to the imaginative freezing of movement in his paintings.

In Nation of the Earth (Figure 5) Sapeta no longer describes the landscape of the township iconography but moves his figures, still heavily outlined, to a harsher alien and constructed landscape. As the title of the painting suggests the, figures emerge from the depths of the earth and being thus birthed their painful realization and shadowy vulnerability is captured in the form and movement of the figures. This perhaps also marks the birth of the characters he employs in his current production and his discourse around the perversions of the human condition.


Sapeta confesses to being a deep and introverted person but the period from the year 2000 until around 2004 marks a great change in the work of Sapeta and marks an especially “dark period in my life”. Of this time Sapeta also say’s “I used to be very much about myself and decided when I wanted to see people, I tried to create an alienated atmospheric character in my work” (Buchanan 2005). His canvas takes on a more esoteric and ethereal subject matter which derives in some form or other from “urban awareness and urban consciousness” (Dejager 1993:206) with an extensive use of a somber and subdued palette. For most of the work is this series the canvas is very dark and the image plane almost divided into two parts forming the figure eight, with the light emitting from an indiscriminate source.

The shadowy suggestion of figures evokes discourses around armed conflict, xenophobic violence, starvation and a range of emotions that haunt the despondent such as acrimony, sorrow, anxiety, disappointment, resignation, desperation and rejection. These emotions were not that much different from what Sapeta seemed to be experiencing in his life, when it seemed he had no access to economic support to continue his work after graduation and still recovering from a bad case of tuberculosis amidst other social concerns locally, continently and globally.

This body of work is in part a response to the inhuman process of ethnic cleansing that took part in Rwanda in the early 1990s. In The Burden (figure 6) the fiery conclaves of deep reds, yellows and earthy tones hold in their center the unstructured organic suggestions of pregnant female forms whose skeletal frames pierce through the translucent flesh. These alien figures give birth to disturbing monsters, which after their birth are consumed by the flaming colors that enclose them. The only thing that perhaps gives any indication as to what the amorphous shapes are is their titles, which are poetically elusive and evoke disturbing images. In The Desert Dance (figure 7), both the painting and title allude to the wrangling form of a figure on fire as he struggles against the flames that consume him. The flesh melts from his bones as he dizzyingly dart about in a mad frenzy trying to extinguish the flames and Sapeta captures this sense of pain and pathos expertly.

As South Africans this image is not one that is foreign to us, every few years there are surges in xenophobic violence and we are exposed through direct involvement and via news agencies to gross human right violations as refugees and immigrants are burned to death in our backyards. The Security Guards [figure 8) are mix media on Fabriano and title is a visual pun on the roles that most refugees occupying when coming to our country, mainly car guards and security guards. The guards in this painting however are far from being realistically represented; the triptych reveals the incomplete vital organs, twiggy spine and broken rib cages of some indistinguishable black shapes. The fluidity of the structures suggests figures that are vulnerable to manipulation and misappropriation when pressure is applied to the soft spots.

When Sapeta went to represent South Africa at the Pan African Biennale in Nigeria in 2002 The Security Guards was one of the works exhibited. The concern of this biennale was about the creation of another fertile cultural center away from the hegemony of Europe in order to address world issues from other points of view, these concerns are also echoed in Sapeta’s 2005 exhibition “Shifting Centers” which explored the development of alternative centers’ where the American domination of the world economy would be challenged. This challenge also extends to those South Africans who are still waiting for and relying upon government handouts and are thus being economically dominated by their white counterparts.

While directly political representations are not seen to be coming from black South African artists but rather from their white counterparts who criticize and chastise the government openly. Sapeta subversively and satirically questions the social and political dynamics between policy and individual with his canvases. Besides the apparent contradictions between his palette and subject matter (using bold concrete areas of color in representing the suffering and the broken) Sapeta refuses to settle on a particular painting style. On his use of color, Sapeta says it is not directly or decidedly symbolic but rather colors that he finds aesthetically pleasing to the eye that he exploits to his own ends. In the Bombardment Series [figure 9) Sapeta return to a brighter palette and to the subject of urban reality in the form of telephone poles, ladders, billboards and tall buildings and strong blocks are organized into a palatable urban language. The represented figure Bombardment (figure 10) is now more realistically painted and through his bodily gestures we read his desperate frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed by both the environment and what is contains. The billboards confront the individual about what he lacks and his inability to acquire and accumulate and their products; of this the individual is “rightly” ashamed. Sapeta’s billboards contain images of foodstuff necessary for basic sustenance as well as wants pushed by big co-operates. The block like structures of buildings appears hostile empty and abandoned further echoing the abandonment feelings of the individual. A destabilizing feeling is created by the way each item is placed on the canvas where the multiple vanish points apparently flouting traditional conventions.


In an Art South Africa review Jeanne Wright fittingly describes Sapeta’s truncated and distorted iconic caricatured characters in their saturated blocks of color on board as such:

The stereotypical head and shoulders images of capitalistic policemen of globalization who run international industries that subject the locals to unfair conditions rare crammed claustrophobically into one corner of the color field and then masked in various devices like goggles, gags (redolent of the political prisoners) and opaque lenses so that the heads acquire an impotent denatured status. The loosely worked heads, mostly tilted upwards in supplication, often bleed with runs of thin green paint, which makes them sinister and strangely vulnerable.

They also appear to be on the verge of disintegrating, an insidious and pungent comment on the gradual putrefaction of baaskap. The telephone lines are a ubiquities feature of urban and rural life, are endemic in most of these images. They lean rakishly from poles at unstable angles and are connected to the heads with obvious reference to communication, in general and a lateral connotation of “head sense”“. (Wright 2004 74)

Although provocative, Sapeta embraces the concept of pluralism his audience and accepts the relativity of the audience’s perception and the context dependency of his work. “The artist directs the audience’s attention towards a given view and provides means to examine it in a particular way but does not prescribe specific menacing that should be brought to bear on it” (Willats 2000:14). Instead the audience experiences the work and searches for new meaning from within the realm of what is already meaningful. The reason he gives for this is that he does not want to take full responsibility for the meaning of the work and wants to allow space for the work to develop new meanings for different audiences. However, his cynicism adds another strength and dimension to his work in presenting social issues visually and opening them up for debate.

Since “black contemporary art did not find a black market” (Young 1988:34), the South African township art scenario is a more shallow and commercial one based on the need of the tourist influx (Bentley 2004). So while the artist expresses the social conditions of his existence, on the one hand, he “depends entirely on the white controlled art market and its ramifications”, on the other hand (Koloane 1989:223). Sapeta represents some of the more increasingly sophisticated black voices to come out of the townships and works against a culture that always seeks to package everyone and everything into small ever constricting boxes. With his painting Sapeta reveals that it is possible to be black and critical in South Africa by reacting out of the narrow social confines and projecting his work to a larger audience. In addition he is no longer a passive participant but a crucial participant who can make a personal contribution. Like artists all over the world he can become involved in the social, political contribution of his day. The contemporary black artists’ creative actions are no longer what “in traditional society amounted to prescribed, secluded and consecrated acts” (De Jager, 1992:3), the merits of his art are now determined by the personal and intrinsic qualities of his work and it is judged by ore objective and universal aesthetic criteria.

Through placing his own judgments and values and translated them into his work as visual references Sapeta creates relations to the past in an innovative way while at the same time forging continuity and the making of new African modernity’s. While at the same time defining himself not an artist working form the margin nor is he a man defined by his circumstances but as a global citizen whose concerns are universal and whose contribution to the meta-narrative of South African painting is and will be great.


[1] The township is the result of the implementation of apartheid policy and legislation: it [was] a political solution to the problems of African urbanization which has been an ongoing process since labour was required for industries in the cities (Verstraete 1989:152)

[2] The label Township Art, was coined in reference to the movement that blossomed in the townships of Johannesburg during the 1960’s. Correctly, therefore it applies only to that historical phenomenon and works that issued from it (Bemam 1993:257).

[3] The term “Popular Africanism” (Davison 1989:351) is used by Davison in the paper “Ways of seeing African Art” and refers to the appropriation of African cultural artifacts and elements fashionably in black art.

[4] New Brighton has been represented as a ‘model township’ by the apartheid government and after the 1952 riots considered a site of resistance and now celebrated as a hotbed of political activity in the struggle against apartheid

(Baines 2003:1) . “In my own personal experience New Brighton – especially the Red location – is a place of poverty. This perception, as much as the tropes of official discourse and public memory, has undoubtedly framed my own history of New Brighton.” (Baines 2003:5)

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