“I am certain that future research will reveal artists whose work and influence has been overlooked,” wrote Steven Sack in the catalogue for the landmark The Neglected Tradition exhibition, which was held at the Joburg Art Gallery in 1987.

The exhibition was a turning point; it was the first time a large scale exhibition of art by black artists was shown in a public museum. The artists had therefore, as per the title, been “neglected”, though Sack was quick to point out that they were not overlooked by their communities and art lovers locally and abroad – it was simply a skew racist establishment that had failed to pay them attention.

Sack had expected that the work of the more than 50 artists on that exhibition would find their way into museum collections and that further research would uncover more “neglected” artists.  Unfortunately, neither of these realities transpired, well not completely. Museums didn’t have the funds to acquire enough art to fully address the imbalance in their collections and as so many of the “neglected” artists had not been the source of academic and or archival work, only a handful of names were the subject of research and those that were, were already known; Gerard Sekoto, Helen Mmakgoba Sebidi. Durant Sihlali, Ernest Mancoba and Peter Clarke.

In this way a comprehensive history of South African art is yet to be written. This will take some time and will take some will and resources, which appear to be in short supply. Auctions are unearthing the work of artists from that era that have been ‘almost’ forgotten but certainly undervalued.

The upcoming Strauss & Co auction to be held in June is a case in point.  It features a selection of sculptures by a group of artists who first came to prominence on the 1987 Neglected Tradition exhibition - Bonnie Ntshalintshali, David Moteane, Martin Tose, Noria Mabasa and Michael Zondi.

Typically Mabasa’s bronze work called Old Timers, features figures which have been characteristically shortened and condensed. A jug painted by Ntshalintshali had fortunately, made its way into a museum exhibition at the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermartizburg in the early noughties. Sack believed that Zondi’s wooden sculpture was guided by religious themes, but the 1974 Woman with Long Hair, doesn’t overtly confirm this. It is suggested in the auction catalogue that the bold chiseled marks that define this bust were typical of the Cubist style he adopted in the 1970s. It is also noted that his works are held in the country’s most important collections.  Despite this being an historical work, by a well-known artist the lot is estimated at R8000 to R12000. In fact, what unites this collection of sculptures on this Strauss & Co auction is not only the Neglected Tradition link, but they are all valued under the R20 000 mark.

This is extraordinary given that contemporary sculptures are often sold for far more.  Collecting sculpture is often perceived to be beyond the means of the middle-classes.

Sculptures are by their nature more expensive to produce, so they have always come with a high price tag. However, at the time of the large sculpture exhibition, Bronze, Steel, Stone held at the Everard Read and Circa galleries in Joburg in 2015, Mark Read, head of that large art franchise, observed that since the establishment of a few good local casting foundaries, bronze casting had become more within the reach of artists and the by proxy art buyers.  Sales of sculptures had increased incrementally in their galleries, said Read.

Benji Liebmann, founder of the Nirox Sculpture Park in the Cradle of Humankind, says sales of sculptures during their annual Winter Sculpture Fair, which took place last weekend have been erratic, though this art form is popular.

“We have seen a widening interest in sculpture over the past ten years, amongst buyers and the general public.”

This year the sculpture fair presented the work produced by university art students. This would make the show edgier, but would also present some barriers.

“If there are artists unknown to the SA market the sales are slow.  If the work is more experimental or ephemeral then again it is slow. Fortunately, our shows are not concentrated around sales,” says Liebmann.

Ntshalintshali, Moteane, Tose, Mabasa and Zondi may be the “neglected” artists of a bygone era, but they are known names, though seemingly undervalued. Given the appetite for collectable sculpture this won’t remain the case forever.  Or at least one hopes, though the accessibility of these works should also be celebrated.

For a small window period  - from June 2 to 5 -  these sculpture works, alongside with others produced by Paul Sekete and Juluis Mfethe to more contemporary artists such as Norman Catherine to Michael MacGarry, who is the subject of a retrospective at the Wits Art Museum, will be on display. The public are invited to view them at the Wanderers Club, the setting of the June 5 Strauss & Co auction.

Those with a deeper interest in the provenance of these sculptures and more broadly the history of SA sculpture are invited to attend a lecture dubbed ‘A show within a show: 41 Sculptures from Strauss & Co’s June auction’ , delivered by their senior specialist, Alastair Meredith.

A Show within a show takes place on Thursday 18 May 6pm at the Edoardo Villa Museum, University of Pretoria, Hatfield campus, Pretoria. Please RSVP to Susie Goodman at susie@straussart.co.za The June 5 Auction takes place at the Wanderer’s club in Johannesburg. Visit www.straussart.co.za

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