Unsung History - South Africa’s forgotten artists and the Neglected Tradition

05 Nov 2018
created 31 Oct 2018
Thirty years after a South African state art institution held the country's first art exhibition devoted to black African art, works by some of South Africa's most talented but least known artists of the 20th Century are going on sale at a groundbreaking fine art auction led by auction house Strauss & Co. For anybody interested in South African art history, the pre-auction exhibition preview on November 9-11 is a must-see.

In 1988, under the leadership of then new director Christopher Till (who is now leading the foundation of South Africa’s newest art museum, the Javett Centre in Pretoria), the Johannesburg Art Gallery presented The Neglected Tradition, the first exhibition in South Africa devoted to black African art. Writing in the 1988 exhibition catalogue, the curator Steven Sack stated that he hoped that the exhibition would “serve as a catalyst for re-examining prevailing notions about the nature of ‘black art’ and indeed the very definitions of art which have in many cases been adopted unquestioningly from Western art traditions”.

Sack explains in his preface to the November 2018 Strauss & Co auction catalogue that the title of the exhibition was specifically chosen to highlight the neglect that the South African art world had shown to black art, particularly during the Apartheid era. "The idea of a neglected tradition involved the very specific usage of the words 'neglected' and 'tradition'. Museums and public collections in South Africa had established a visual tradition based on an almost entirely Eurocentric pictorial account of our history. There was little or no interest shown in black art..." 

The Neglected Tradition was a groundbreaking event that sought to finally redirect the spotlight onto the unsung black artists of the 20th Century who had been disregarded at home in favour of white artists, and to remind the South African art establishment that it was a mistake to have ignored the contribution of black artists to the country’s art history.

Marking the thirtieth anniversary of the exhibition South Africa’s leading fine art auction house Strauss & Co have brought together an incredible collection of works by artists that were featured in The Neglected Tradition. The more than 100 lots included in Strauss & Co's Unsung History session go under the hammer at the live auction in Johannesburg on November 12. 

Demand for works by some of the artists featured in the Unsung History auction, most notably Gerard Sekoto and Peter Clarke, has increased dramatically in the past three decades. The most valuable painting by Sekoto included in the sale, the 1946-7 Women and Baby in the Street (pictured top right), carries a top estimate of R1.2 million. By contrast in 1986 a 1947 portrait by Sekoto is reported to have sold at auction for just R7,000.  

Other featured artists who were little known at the time of The Neglected Tradition exhibition and who have only recently begun to gain more recognition among art lovers and collectors include: the remarkable self-taught landscape painter Moses Tladi (pictured middle,1903–1959), who was recently honoured with a retrospective exhibition at Wits Art Museum, sculptor Sydney Kumalo (1935–1988) a contemporary of the perhaps better known (or at least more prominently visible) white sculptors Cecil Skotnes and Edoardo Villa, the young painter Lucky Sibiya (pictured top left, 1942–1999), African modernist Ernest Mancoba (1904–2002) and painter Ephraim Ngatane (1938–1971).

For any collector interested in buying historical black African art, this latest auction is an outstanding opportunity to discover and invest in lesser-known talents whose work is steadily growing in popularity. Meanwhile for the wider South African art world Unsung History marks another potentially pivotal moment in changing the way in which the work of the country's groundbreaking 20th Century black artists is perceived and preserved.

All the artworks from the Unsung History session go on display for public view at the Wanderers Club in Illovo alongside more than 200 other historic and contemporary South African artworks from November 9-11 ahead of the live auction on November 12. 

Find out more about the November 12 auction here and view the catalogue online at


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