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FOTAG Focus Articles

For a number of years the Natal Witness ran articles by FOTAG members. These articles called the FOTAG Focus discussed artworks from the collection on display.

Home > Articles > Fotag Focus > The Dancer, Gerald Festus Kelly


watercolour on paper

Gerard Bhengu

Landscape, Gerard Bhengu

The Tatham Art Gallery has an outstanding collection of artworks by the earliest black South African painters. Art reflects our society and its attitudes: it shows us how people think and what experiences they have. The early pioneers of black art were working at a time when black people were being forced off the land and into urban areas as labour. Many lived in misery; some turned to art to make a living and to express themselves.

Gerard Bhengu was born in 1910 in Centecow, in southern KwaZulu-Natal. His earliest artworks were small clay models and charcoal drawings on the walls of his mother's hut - much to her displeasure! As a boy Bhengu was cured of tuberculosis by Dr Kohler, the Centecow mission doctor. Bhengu gave him a picture of a football game as a present. Kohler recognized that he had talent. He gave him pictures of European masters to copy and ordered paints for him from Germany. Soon Kohler encouraged Bhengu to paint his own surroundings instead. This led to his love for depicting the rural countryside in which he grew up, a love that never left him but one that he was seldom able to indulge in. This watercolour, is an example of Bhengu's favourite subject.

Kohler studied ethnology in his spare time. He hired Bhengu to illustrate his articles on the Kuze and Baca tribes. What Kohler wanted from Bhengu were illustrations that were accurate, exact records of tribal traditions that were also romanticised visions of a lost paradise where mankind lived in harmony with nature. At that time many European intellectuals saw African cultures as close to nature, pure and unchanging.

This was in positive contrast to the industrialized, modern and decadent Europeans.

In the 1930s Kohler tried to encourage Bhengu to sell his art to white buyers to earn more money.

Realising that that whites in the 1920s might not want to buy art made by a black man, Kohler persuaded him to sign his name "Benger" which sounded more European!

More FOTAG Focus Articles


Johansson collectionThe Tatham Art Gallery holds an Art Collection that contains significant British and French artworks dating back to the 18th century. Its South-African art collection is focused on, but not exclusive to, the art of KwaZulu-Natal.


ImageThe Tatham Art Gallery hosts a range of Art Exhibitions. These include traveling and researched exhibitions as well as exhibitions initiated by the Gallery and compiled from the collection.


A selection of current and archival articles from the Tatham Art Gallery. These articles provide a historical and contemporary perspective on the Gallery and the visual arts in KwaZulu-Natal.

Art Gallery Shop

ImageThe Tatham Art Gallery shop stocks high quality works by local crafters. It is an ideal place to find unique presents and original collectables.