Jo Thorpe and a generation of African Artists

Jo Thorpe was associated with the African Art Centre in Durban for some thirty years. She joined the staff of the Natal Region of the South African Institute of Race Relations in 1959. While working for the Institute, she came across a box of beautifully crafted beadwork from Nongoma, Zululand, which had been left over from a fete held the previous year. This was to be the small beginning of what became the African Art Centre in 1963. In 1984 the Centre split from the Institute of Race Relations to become an autonomous, self-supporting development project.
The stated aims of this project were:

To encourage and promote the traditional skills of African people and to help the transition from traditional to contemporary expression; to provide incentives for artists and craftsmen; to assist self-help projects financially by promoting and marketing art and craft; and to help artists and craftsmen by sponsoring training in skills and by holding exhibitions.1

Jo Thorpe was singularly successful in the accomplishment of these aims. Even after her retirement in 1991 she remained committed to the Centre as a consultant while also compiling a history of the Centre called It's never too early: African Art and Craft in KwaZulu-Natal 1960-1990, published by the Centre for Social and Development Studies of the University of Natal in 1994. Thorpe died on 18 February 1995 at the age of 74.

The Jo Thorpe Collection is now housed at the Campbell Collections. Thorpe was of a generation younger than Dr Killie Campbell so the two women did not know each other, yet their support of African art and craft in KwaZulu-Natal has linked them and certainly there was a long association between Thorpe and the staff of the Campbell Collections. Thorpe would keep the Collections in mind when she came across new artists and she recognized a difference between her own and the museum's bias, as often her recommended acquisitions came with the qualifier, "I really think this is a somewhat historical piece, more your collection, don't you think?" nevertheless her eye for the unique in art would bring an accompanying plea, "if you do take it, will you let me have a photo of it. It really is so special."2 Thorpe had debated donating her precious collection to the Campbell Collections, however the final decision to do so was taken in 1996 by the African Art Centre's Advisory Board, with the proviso that the collection retain its integrity and be named The Jo Thorpe Collection. The documentation of the African Art Centre, which includes valuable information on exhibitions, artists, art schools and self-help groups, is accessible for research in the Killie Campbell Africana Library.

The Jo Thorpe Collection spans the period 1965 until 1995 during which Jo was involved with the Centre. As such, the collection affords an overview of art and craft made specifically for sale to collectors, galleries and museums by mainly Zulu artists and craftsmen during this time. Many works show a romance with modern urban life, such as carved wooden radios or tea-sets, yet they still refer to existing African traditional aesthetics in their carving techniques or design-motifs. The potential for turning this vibrant artistic tradition into a sustainable income generator, which could benefit relatively poor communities, was recognized by church and mission based art/craft and self-help projects. Such concern groups became the backbone to the Centre's activities as the latter acted as their sales outlet, and thus the collection contains works from the Rorke's Drift pottery and textile studios and the Vukani Association's basketry and mat-making co-operative.

Persons of African decent who desired an art training had little choice but to attend mission art schools in the then apartheid South Africa. This is one reason that Rorke's Drift can claim as ex-students such internationally recognized artists as John Muafangejo and Azaria Mbatha.

Jo and MaHlambisa Thorpe would set aside art pieces, which she felt had intrinsic interest and originality, purchasing them directly from the artists, the cost being borne by the Centre's trading operations. It is also true that some pieces found their way into the collection because they remained unsold but Thorpe would regret the fact that she could not afford works on exhibition consignment.3

Thorpe herself played an integral role in the development and promotion of self-taught artists associated with the Centre, such as Tito Zungu (known for his intricately decorated envelopes) and the group of doll/soft sculpture makers from the Inanda/Ndwedwe district. In this role, Professor Eleanor-Preston Whyte of the University of KwaZulu-Natal has dubbed Jo Thorpe in her role as go-between, 'the culture broker'. See Indigenous tableaux of Zulu life for more on the doll-makers.

As an interested and caring person, Thorpe was to develop personal and warm relationships with many of the artists and craftsmen who consequently remained loyal toward the Centre. This fact is evinced in both Thorpe's own paintings, such as The Zungu Flight (depicting herself, Tito Zungu and his wife, on the artist's first aeroplane trip to his Johannesburg exhibition in 1982) and Busaphi's wedding (showing one of the doll makers dressed in her traditional wedding regalia), and in works by the artists themselves, such as a soft sculpture chicken by MaHlambisa which greets Thorpe with the beaded words, "Sawubona Inkosazana"(Hallo Ma'am), and Trevor Makhoba's portrait of Thorpe in the Crown of the AAC (African Art Centre) along with award's of cup and scroll to coincide with her nomination for "Woman of the Year" in 1992.4

Y. Winters

Extract from: Emergence: 25 years of South African art and artists Johannesburg : Witwatersrand University and Standard Bank Galleries, 1998


  1. African Art Centre 1984 African Art Centre Constitution.
  2. Thorpe, J. 1992 Personal conversation J F Duggan and Y Winters regarding the acquisition of Timothy Magojo "Map/drawing of Umzimkhulu/Kokstad" (WCP2916)
  3. Winters, Y. 1992 Personal conversation with Jo Thorpe. And Mthethwa, D. and Winters, Y. 1999 Interview with doll-makers from Ndwedwe, Durban. While the women were pleased to see the dolls preserved in a museum there were exclamations, "Oh Jo, is that where MaHlambisa's doll ended up, it could'nt be found, she never knew where it went to!"
  4. Unfortunately Jo Thorpe was not selected but a subsequent dedicated African Art Centre worker, Hengiwe Dube was selected in the Arts category for 2000 for her work with beadmakers co-operatives.