The upcoming April Cape Town virtual live auction (April 11-13) includes an artwork by renowned abstract painter Larry Scully, The Madonna and Child of Soweto (1976), also known as the Black Madonna. The painting references Larry Scully’s most famous painting, also titled The Madonna and Child of Soweto (1973), which is installed in the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Rockville, Soweto.
Over the years the painting in the church, installed in the 1970s, has become an icon of the Regina Mundi church, the image referenced in the church’s artefacts and memorabilia. It has also attracted global attention and governments from across the world have gifted the church items that reference the black Madonna. The church is South Africa's largest Catholic church with a seating capacity of 2000. Of course it has seen bigger crowds, with more than 5000 having filled the church for political funerals during the apartheid era.
On April 1 we organised a visit to the church and accompanied the Strauss & Co team to reunite the two paintings and place them in a most special context. The experience was extraordinary. Working with a local Soweto guide we found our way to Dan Dube, who has worked at the church for around 30 years, who knows the Scully family and had met Larry Scully over the years. ‘Bra Dan’, as he is known, has also met many of the world’s most famous people, having been on hand to welcome visitors to the church, the likes of Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel and Michelle Obama, who he was on first name terms with and fondly refers to as "Mich". The man is a national treasure. From 1995 to 1998 hearings for South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission presided over by Bishop Desmond Tutu were held here.
The Madonna and Child of Soweto hanging in the church was commissioned by the then liberal The Star newspaper to raise funds for education, and bought and donated to the church by business mogul Harry Oppenheimer. It has had pride of place since and in all this time has hung in the front of this 2000 capacity church, Soweto’s biggest Catholic church.
The church is a highly symbolic site in South Africa’s history. A place where the youth of Soweto sought shelter on the fateful day in June 1976 when a peaceful protest against second-rate education designed to subjugate, exploded into riots that rocked the country and the world, setting the course for the battle against apartheid and its eventual overthrowing.
With paintings placed within view of each other as the videographer set up for art specialist Dr Alistair Meredith to film a short piece on their history, we were guided by Dan Dube through the church’s history, back to that day in June 1976, through seeing the bullet holes that still mark the building and the Viva Cosas! (Congress of South African students) graffiti that is now just a whisper on the exterior walls.
All the extraordinary sadness of the past was brought back by this and the devastating images by Jurgen Schadeberg and Bongani Mnguni in the permanent photo exhibition of Soweto 1976 and the Sophiatown forced removals. But we were also showed the beauty of the space, especially the immense stained glass windows donated by the German government that tell the story of South Africa from the 1976 uprising through to the first truly democratic president Nelson Mandela, and beyond.
It was an incredible privilege to see the works together in the space.
HOW TO VISIT REGINA MUNDI CHURCH: The church is located at 1149 Khumalo St (off Elias Motsoaledi Rd), Rockville, Soweto and is open daily from 09:00-17:00. Bra Dan is usually on-site and always willing to tell the church's unique story. Dramatically reduced capacity at services and the effects of Covid-19 on tourism have greatly impacted the church's finance and any donations are greatly appreciated.
The Strauss & Co April Virtual Live auction is happening online via the Strauss & Co website. Browse the catalogue, register to bid and watch the auction live at straussart.co.za.