Ephraim Ngatane (1938 – 1971)
Ephraim Ngatane was born in Maseru, Lesotho on 22 August 1938, and moved to Orlando West, Soweto, Johannesburg in 1943 with his parents, where he lived and worked until his early death in March 1971, at age 33. Taking artistic inspiration from his daily experience of urban black township life on the Witwaterstrand during the 1950’s and 60’s, his paintings are today regarded as important documents of social realism, authentically depicting township life during this period.
At the Mooki Memorial College in Orlando, Ngatane’s artistic talent was recognised early on by his primary school teacher Mrs E.L. Mooki, who convinced his parents to allow him to pursue an artistic career. The loose, free-flowing watercolour technique taught by Cecil Skotnes at the Polly Street Art Centre appealed to Ngatane during his studies there between 1952 and 1954, resulting in him developing a personal approach which stylistically differed from the tradition of township expressionism. In 1955, Ngatane joined the ‘weekend artist’s group’ of Durant Sihlali, where in contrast to the formal art classes, more naturalistic and documentary subject matter were explored using watercolours. When the group, which included artists like Louis Maqhubela and Sydney Kumalo, broke up in 1960, Sihlali and Ngatane carried on until the mid 1960’s.
Ngatane documented township life in all it forms, from the overcrowded living conditions to the social entertainment, sport and memorable events like the two occasions it snowed in Johannesburg during the 1960’s. As an accomplished jazz alto-saxophonist, he also painted lively music and dance scenes, where his individual style of abstraction managed to successfully capture the energy and movement. Stylistically, his masterful command of the watercolour medium displays a painterly sense of abstraction which distinguishes his work from the descriptive styles of most other township artists.
As a frail child, Ngatane had contracted tuberculosis and was eventually submitted to the Charles Hurwitz South African National Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Soweto in 1964, shortly after his second solo exhibition at the Adler Fielding Galleries in May that year. While receiving treatment at the sanatorium, Ngatane met Dumile Feni who had been admitted the year before. Together they completed a number of murals in the sanatorium, of which only one has been preserved.
Although Ngatane experimented with different techniques, he only started working predominantly in oils in the mid 1960’s. Many of his later oil paintings were composed in a much more abstracted style, where his subject matter became fragmented, often to the point where it disintegrated into purely abstracted shapes and colours, forming its own rhythmic balance. Ngatane’s successful grasp of abstraction and his ability to apply it to his preferred subject matter in watercolour as well as oils, definitely confirms his status as one of the great talents in South African Modernism.
Powell, Ivor and Proud, Hayden (Ed.) (2006), Revisions – Expanding the Narrative of South African Art. Cape Town: SA History Online and UNISA Press, page 154
Miles, Elza (2004), Polly Street – The Story of an Art Centre. Johannesburg: The Ampersand Foundation, pages 42, 94 to 97
Borman, Johans and Siebrits, Warren (2001), Aspects of South African Art 1903 - 1999. Johannesburg. Ref. No’s. 21 and 22
Goodman Gallery, Michal Stevenson, Deon Viljoen (2002), South African Art 1850 – 2002. Johannesburg. Ref. No. 22
© Johans Borman Fine Art