Cecil Kenneth Baker (1931 – 1995)

An impressionist in style and inclination, Kenneth Baker always filled his work with people he could relate to, and characters he understood intimately. Painted with the utmost compassion, the working class subjects of his paintings became real people with real problems, often unable to extricate themselves from the vicious cycle of poverty, despair and degradation.

Baker was a self-taught artist and found inspiration in the work of Gregoire Boonzaier in terms of style and subject matter. Before commencing a career as a full-time artist, Baker worked as a sign writer in the Cape Town docks, where he immersed himself in the lives of the fisher folk. The accurate and poignant depictions of harbour scenes, and fishermen handling or selling their catches became a consistent theme throughout his oeuvre.

District Six’s vibrancy and its characters provided Baker with the most suitable subject matter in terms of atmosphere and emotional content. Baker’s family was forcibly removed from the Claremont area under the Group Areas Act of the 1960s, and he could intuitively capture and communicate the emotional impact of despair, desperation and grief, that typified life in the fateful history of District Six. In Baker’s paintings, the District Six buildings and houses became much more than just that – they were transformed into harbingers of their fate, and the impending doom and crisis awaiting those who lived their lives in them.

Working as a coloured professional artist, Baker struggled to support his family under the discriminatory laws of Apartheid. His paintings were usually under-priced to ensure a sale, although he also liked the idea that it made his work more accessible to people who would otherwise not be able to afford it. The underlying tragedy in Baker’s compassionate paintings – groups of friends drinking and partying in an effort to find temporary solace and comfort from their pain and problems through alcohol – also became his tragedy, and in the end, subject and artist became one.

Kenneth Baker – A Retrospective Exhibition, Press release: Arts Association of Bellville, 1999

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