Sydney Kumalo (1935 - 1988)

Sydney Alex Kumalo was born on 13 April 1935 in Johannesburg, and educated at Madibane High School, in Diepkloof, Soweto. Kumalo enrolled at Polly Street Art Centre in 1953, and became a member of Cecil Skotnes’ group of serious artists who were encouraged to acquire professional skills. Skotnes introduced a basic training programme with modelling as a component, which marked the introduction of sculpting (in brick-clay) at Polly Street.

Kumalo was Skotnes’ assistant at Polly Street from 1957 to 1964, and having recognised his great talent as a sculptor, Skotnes encouraged him to become a professional artist.

After Kumalo’s very successful assistance with a commission to decorate the St Peter Claver church at Seeisoville near Kroonstad, with painting designs, sculpture and relief panels in 1957, Skotnes arranged for Kumalo to continue his art training by working in Edoardo Villa’s studio from 1958 to 1960. Working with Villa, he received professional guidance and began to familiarise himself with the technical aspects of sculpting and bronze casting. In 1960 he became an instructor at the Polly Street Art Centre.

Kumalo started exhibiting his work with some of the leading commercial Johannesburg galleries in 1958, and had his first solo exhibition with the Egon Guenther Gallery in 1962. After participating with Skotnes and other artists in several successful commissions - usually to decorate churches with sculptures and relief panels (often depicting Christian themes) - Kumalo resigned as Skotnes’ assistant in 1964 to work full-time as a professional artist.

Together with Skotnes, Villa, Cattaneo and Sash, Kumalo became part of the Amadlozi group in 1963. This was a group of artists promoted by the African art collector and gallery director Egon Guenther, and characterised by their exploration of an African idiom in their art. Elza Miles writes that Cecil Skotnes’ friendship with Egon Guenther had a seminal influence on the aspirant artists of Polly Street: “Guenther broadened their experience by introducing them to German Expressionism as well as the sculptural traditions of West and Central Africa. He familiarised them with the work of Ernst Barlach, Käthe Kollwitz, Gustav Seitz, Willi Baumeister and Rudolf Sharf.” It is therefore not surprising that some of Kumalo’s sculptures show an affinity with Barlach’s powerful expressionist works. Guenther organised for the Amadlozi group to hold exhibitions around Italy, in Rome, Venice, Milan and Florence, in both 1963 and 1964.

Kumalo’s career took off in the mid 1960s, with his regular participation in exhibitions in Johannesburg, London, New York and Europe. He also represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale in 1966, and in 1967 participated in the São Paulo Biennale.

EJ De Jager (1992) describes Kumalo’s sculpture as retaining much of the “canon and formal aesthetic qualities of classical African sculpture […] His work contains the same monumentality and simplicity of form.” His main medium for modelling was terra cotta, which was then cast in bronze, always paying careful attention to the finish of both the model as well as the final cast. De Jager further writes that Kumalo’s distinctive texturing of the bronze or terra cotta is reminiscent of traditional carving techniques of various African cultures. “In many respects Kumalo thus innovated a genuine contemporary or modern indigenous South African sculpture” (De Jager, 1992:110).

Sydney Kumalo received a number of awards throughout his career; he was invited to the ‘Artists of Fame and Promise Exhibition’ in 1960, and in 1967 he won a travel bursary from the Transvaal Academy, travelling to Europe in 1967 and to the USA in 1985. His work was included in the Cape Town Triennial in 1985, and in a number of significant South African exhibitions, such as ‘The Neglected Tradition Exhibition’, held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1988.

Regarding the impact Kumalo had on the South African art scene, De Jager writes:

Kumalo is held in high esteem by all his fellow South African artists and the art community of South Africa. He was in many ways the doyen of South African Black art. As such he was an important influence especially on younger African sculptors, by whom he is greatly revered. Through his teaching at Polly Street and at the Jubilee Centre, as well as through his personal example of integrity, dedication and ability, he inspired and guided students who in their own right became outstanding artists, for example, Ezrom Legae, Leonard Matsoso and Louis Maqhubela (1992:109).

Kumalo died on 11 February 1988 at the age of 52, in Soweto, Johannesburg, after a brief illness.


De Jager, E.J.(1992). Images of Man: Contemporary South African Black Art and Artists, Fort Hare University Press: Alice, 107-114.

Miles, E. (2004). Polly Street: The Story of an Art Centre, The Ampersand Foundation: Johannesburg, pp. 42, 47, 49, 58 to 60, and 92

Nel, K. (2005). “Edoardo Villa: Creating an African Presence” in Nel, E., Burroughs, E. and Von Maltitz, A. (Eds.), Villa at 90, Jonathan Ball Publishing: Johannesburg and Cape Town, 121-147.

Sack, S. (1988). The Neglected Tradition: Towards a New History of South African Art (1930-1988), Johannesburg Art Gallery: Johannesburg, 107.

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