Mid 20th-Century African Art

Killie Campbell as patron of the arts

"neglected tradition", p38
African graphic artists and painters have been accepted into mainstream art only since the 1988 exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery:

The neglected tradition: towards a new history of South African art (1930-1988)

Curator Steven Sack says of his attempt to find representative early works: "A significant amount of the work dating from this period is found in various cultural history museums or in private collections... (like) the Africana Museum in Johannesburg (and) the Killie Campbell Africana Library... Almost all the major public art collections, on the other hand, include nothing by black artists prior to the work of Gerard Sekoto." 1

Current holdings of contemporary African art held by the Campbell Collections derive from Dr Killie Campbell's patronage of the earlier generation of artists, notably Gerard Bhengu, Simon Mnguni and Jabulani Ntuli. Campbell was eager to obtain works which would illustrate traditional costume, custom and history in order to expand her collection of africana.

Sangoma  self-portrait
Gerard Bhengu - WCP3074, Self-portrait, WCP0373

In 1942 she commissioned Gerard Bhengu to produce portraits of the Zulu kings and a series illustrating the Zulu first fruit ceremony. She supplied board and lodging, art equipment and reference books from her library. For reference to his study of Shaka, the artist used the illustration in Nathaniel Isaacs, Travels and adventures in Eastern Africa (London: Edward Churton 1836), 2 and he copied Mpande from George Angas, The Kafirs illustrated (London: Hogarth Press 1849). However, the three works on the first fruits combine his own knowledge of Zulu ceremony and custom with written descriptions supplied by Campbell. Bhengu produced stunning images of classically proportioned figures in heroic postures against atmospheric landscapes, elements that he learnt by copying Neoclassical and Romantic styles.3



Campbell purchased all Jabulani Ntuli's pencil and wash sketches produced between 1944 and 1950. The artist illustrated scenes described by his grandfather, an induna under Dubulamanzi (King Cetshwayo 's brother), depicting life in Zululand before the country was subjugated by the British in 1879. He portrayed military gatherings, armed attacks, hunting parties and weddings. His works contain hundreds of figures no more than 17mm high, yet despite their size it is possible to recognise their sex, age and social status.

Campbell was possessive of her Ntuli works. Ethnologist Katesa Schlosser describes an occasion in 1959 when she borrowed the works on a visit to the artist to furbish additional information,

Killie delivered much personal information on Ntuli and was happy about my interest...on the other hand she was a little perplexed that I studied these pictures so thoroughly... she did not have time for such work... (as she was) ceaselessly busy collecting... and inspiring... artists and researchers.

WCP1035 Ntuli, Jabulani, Zuluhomestead
WCP1035 - Jabulani Ntuli, Zulu homestead
When Campbell found that Schlosser was travelling with the elderly Father Ignaz Jutz she voiced her concern: "He's quite old... I hope there will not be an accident with his car, for I don't want Jabulani's pictures to get lost or spoilt!" Schlosser concludes: "Killie was more concerned with the pictures than the other occupants of Father Ignaz's car."4 It appears that Campbell actively sought to help Ntuli when she found him, "working (as an) ordinary manual labourer - and very hard too - his hands all rough and stiff... (un)til he said he could scarcely move them... I got him a job... light work in the garden and looking after the fowls...(as) a sort of caretaker."5

Simon Mnguni settled at Verulum, Inanda in 1919 and started painting in his forties. From around 1940 Campbell commissioned works from Mnguni which depicted his rural surroundings but also included historical personalities copied from photographs. The artist's favoured subjects were traditional medicine men practising their trade, and wonderful scenes of elderly Zulu men surveying their herds of cattle grazing on verdant green hills.

Mnguni - Herbalist
WCP634 - Simon Mnguni, Herbalist
Campbell refused some works described by Mnguni's contact, Miss Harris, in her introductory letter: "He has also done lovely seascapes of Umhloti and Nonoti Beaches, besides different Falls... and Inanda views..."6 Campbell may have thought that this European landscape genre detracted from the artist as a traditionalist Zulu, which is unfortunate as the artist's individualism is therefore not fully reflected in the holdings of the Campbell Collections. When Mnguni went blind his sight was partially restored as a result of surgery facilitated by the Bantu Blind Society; unfortunately his work deteriorated in spite of this and Schlosser records that Campbell bought no more of his paintings.7

However one assesses Killie Campbell's patronage of these artists there is on doubt that she did impact upon their lives. Her dictate on their subject-matter can be seen as giving direction to the work of the various artists and thus by default she influenced South Africa's early African graphic art. By collecting and by lending the works of these artists for exhibitions, there is no denying that she supplied them with much needed income and exposure. Her own reputation as a collector of africana helped stimulate acceptance and interest in the value of their work.8 Author Phyllis Savory dedicated her book Gerard Bhengu: Zulu artist (Cape Town: Timmins 1965) to Campbell, "in appreciation of all she has done to preserve the records of Zulu tribal culture."

Finally it is difficult to assess the effect Campbell's own appreciation had on the artists themselves, Schlosser comments that Mnguni was taken aback to see his own works framed and hung on the walls of Muckleneuk, "along with real artists' works."9 There is no knowing what encouragement this recognition may have given to self-taught artists who were often isolated in the expression of their artistic passion.


Y. Winters

Extract from contribution to the Gerard Bhengu Art Centre: Centecow Mission, Creighton district 2003




  1. Sacks, S 1988 The Neglected Tradition Johannesburg Art Gallery p. 9
  2. Isaacs thanks Lieutenant James Saunders King for, "able assistance in drawings." However King's description of Shaka plus the neoclassical features used indicate that the original "Chaka King of the Zoolus" is probably a construct of the lithographer W Bagg. Isaacs, N. 1836 Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa London: Hogarth Press. Intro xxii Plate II and p. 61
  3. The artist was lent such works by a former patron, Dr Max Kohler during the 1920s. The collection has examples. WCP 2936, 2879
  4. Schlosser, K 1977 Reminiscences Kiel: 14. Februry
  5. Campbell, K 1947 Correspondence 11 August. KCM 4712
  6. Campbell, K 1942 Correspondence 16 November. KCM 9694
  7. Schlosser, K 1975 Bantu Kunstler Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie p.p. 51-3. This is not born out by either the holdings or correspondence with Miss Harris.
  8. Exhibitions in 1945, 1947 and 1952 Newscuttings Book 8 and 9
  9. Schlosser, K Bantu Kunstler Zeitschrift fur Etnologie p.p.51-3