Serving Msunduzi through the Visual Arts
Gerard Bhengu on Edendale Excels - 7 February to 22 June 2008
Gerard Bhengu, the eldest amongst the Edendale group, represents the beginnings of black art that developed into mainstream art and art appreciation. His watercolour or ink paintings and drawings were initially made as illustrations for ethnographic and sociological recordings. These illustrated the differences in cultural practices between certain Nguni language groups found in Kwazulu-Natal. Bhengu studied at the Edendale Vocational College (later called Technical High School) during the thirties. His talents were later recognized and used for private and public commissions.
Gerard Bhengu (1910 - 1990)
Gerard Bhengu was born on 6 September 1910 to Eugenia and Timothy Bhengu, who lived in southern KwaZulu-Natal at Centecow, a Roman Catholic mission station.
As a child, Bhengu first showed signs of creativity by drawing with charcoal from the fire on the walls of his homestead. He received his early education at Centecow and his teacher, Albert Duma, who spotted his talent, gave him a set of crayons. He was further encouraged by Mr. Jowett, the schools inspector, who presented him with a watercolour set.
In 1925 Bhengu was treated for tuberculosis by Dr Max Kohler in the Centecow mission hospital. He payed for his treatment with his artworks. Kohler introduced him to works by the old masters and his informal art training included making copies of these. In his spare time Kohler was doing sociological and ethnographic research on the local Nguni language tribes, such as the Bhaca, found in southern KwaZulu-Natal. Bhengu started working with Kohler as an illustrator for records on the differences and similarities found amongst these people. These images were later published in Marriage Customs in Southern Natal (1933) and The Izangoma Diviners(1941), both written by Kohler.
Bhengu's talent was also noticed and encouraged by inspectors of education D.M Malcolm and S.R.Dent, who devised programmes to assist and develop him as an artist. These included plans for Bhengu to study at the Natal Technical College in Durban. This was rejected by the head of that institution, Prof. O.J.P. Oxley, who recommended that Bhengu develop 'independently of institutional training', a phrase that was often used when black artists were denied formal art training.
Subsequently Rev. Nichols from the Lutheran Church in Georgetown arranged for Bhengu to attend English and Art classes at Edendale Vocational College from 1934 to 1937, where his mentor was John Nixon.
In 1940 Bhengu was noticed by Payne Brothers, a large department store in Durban, which sold paintings and also held art exhibitions. His work was sold here and he sometimes painted in the store 'to convince those Europeans who refused to believe that the works was really his'. He also exhibited at the African Art centre in Durban.
Dr Killie Campbell, whose Africana collection included many of his works, also commissioned him from 1942 onwards.
Bhengu painted exclusively in watercolour and sepia ink on paper. His works were seldom inscribed with a date, but almost always signed. He spelt his name Bengu before 1940, and these works are the most sought after.
Bhengu's subject matter was mostly prescribed for him by his patrons, and he sometimes repeated these themes with slight variations, probably as a result of market demands. Although Bhengu's works were often done as illustrations for books, they became a comment on the changing lifestyles of urban blacks in their continuous search for identity. These included adoption of Western cultures and religion. This acculturation is expressed in different themes, which leading black academics such as the Dhlomo brothers praised in Bhengu's work.
From 1936 onwards , Bhengu's works could be seen on exhibitions such as the Empire Exhibition, Johannesburg (1936), the Non-European Exhibition at the International Club, Durban (1945), with Barbara Tyrrell and others at the Durban Art Gallery (1947), Solo Exhibition at Gallery des Beaux Arts, Johannesburg (1948), The Neglected Tradition at Johannesburg Art Gallery(1988) (which showed the development of black art into mainstream art under the title of Township Art), Spiritual Art of Natal at Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg (1995) and Retrospective Exhibition at Tatham Art Gallery (1996).
Miles, Elza (1997): Land and Lives - A story of early black artists
Proud, Haden (Ed)(2006): Revisions - Expanding the narratives of SA Art 2006
TAG Catalogue (1996): Gerard Bhengu (1910 - 1990) - A retrospective exhibition
Tatham Art Gallery History Files