The Early Pioneer Artists of South Africa

Gerard Bhengu ( 1910 - 1990 ) 

4 March 2001  by Andries Loots
Gerard Bhengu was born in 1910 at a mission station in  Centocow,  KwaZulu Natal.

Gerard  started drawing as a boy and during his formative years often scribbled on his school books instead of taking notes. He was often reprimanded for this until in 1920, during a school inspection,  the inspector told his teachers that they should rather encourage him as his talent was evident in these drawings. It was during this time that the young Bhengu was presented with his first real art materials.

Bhengu,  born from devoted Christian parents was deeply religious himself and did various paintings with a religious content for the church.  Bhengu contracted tuberculosis and was treated by  Dr. Max Kohler  and since he couldn't pay for his treatment he paid the doctor with two paintings. For the next five years 1926 - 31, Kohler assisted Bhengu in developing his artistic skills. The doctor gave him works by European masters to copy but soon realized that this was not what the artist was comfortable with and encouraged him to draw from his surroundings. Bhengu did watercolours of the surrounding landscapes and scenes of the Valley of a Thousand Hills,  a bush fire or other rural scenes were his favourite initial subjects, these were later used as backdrops for his figures. He progressed to painting portraits. 

He worked in watercolour, sepia and did drawings of children, old men and women,  young boys and girls mostly expressing feelings of content. He executed most of his paintings from live models which he drew vigorously and then finished the paintings at home at leisure. He worked for about four days on one of these portraits and would sell them for a mere R 30. During 1940 - 59 he worked as an artist for Payne Brothers Department Store in Durban.  

Although he never received formal art training, he was greatly inspired by people like Dr. Max Kohler and later Dr. D.M. Malcolm,  Mr. S.R. Dent and  Killie Campbell. Gerard did attend the Edenvale Training School in KwaZulu Natal for a short period of time and produced illustrations for various story books.

Bhengu's work is characterized by near photographic realism. He accurately portrayed the dress and other ethnic details of the Zulu tribe. His work is unique in the sense that it was essentially naturalistic and his works were never influenced by any fellow contemporary artists and yet there are strong similarities with British watercolourists.

Zulu Portrait 
Natal Landscape 

Exhibitions :
1936 - Fist Exhibition
1948 - Solo-Exhibition,  Gallery Beaux-Arts,  Johannesburg
1979 - Contemporary African Art Exhibition, toured South Africa 
1986 - Historical Perspectives of Black Art in South Africa, Pretoria
1988 - Neglected Tradition Exhibition,  Johannesburg Art Gallery

Africana Museum, Johannesburg ,  Tatham Art Gallery,  Pietermaritsburg,  Johannesburg Art Gallery,  Albany Museum,   Grahamstown,  Killie Campbell Collection, University of Natal,  University of Fort Hare and private collections world wide.

Images of Man,  Contemporary South African Black Art and Artists,  Fort Hare University Press,  E.J. De Jager,  ISBN. 1-86810-015-4

Land and Lives,  The story of early black artists, Human & Rossouw,  Elza Mils,  ISBN 0798136588

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