One Brick at a Time: Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa

The value of a mother to a new entity cannot be understated. When you look at the contribution that Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa has made to South African art, you cannot but see it as maternal. This essay offers insight into her career and influences which have characterised several key projects in the development of young artists, including the Visiting Artist Residency, the Funded Studio Programme, and the Female Youth Residency that have shaped South African art since the 1980s. Dhlomo-Mautloa’s reach touches the work ethic and inspiration of the Bag Factory’s contemporary artists, including, amongst others, Miatta Kawinzi, Bronwyn Katz and Alka Dass.

Born in 1956 in Vryheid, KwaZulu-Natal, Dhlomo-Mautloa was raised in the small town of Bergville, on the foot of the Drakensberg mountains. “The only careers available to black female students at the time of my matriculation in 1974”, she explains, “were nursing and teaching. I wasn’t interested in that”.

The only daughter of a Christian missionary, and the second youngest of five children, her career options were narrowed even further: secretarial college or a social work degree. The opted for the former. Her love for the smell of ink was nurtured by the stencils she would cut. She fell in love with the privilege of assembling documents that would later communicate with many.

Then fate turned. A Tongaat sugar mill ran an advertisement in a local newspaper, Ilanga, for a secretarial position. Dhlomo-Mautloa applied. She got the job as a typist and clerk. She worked there for two years, but it was never her dream vocation. It was by sheer chance that she one day noticed a hand-written advertisement on a notice board. The advert was for a place at Rorke’s Drift.

She’d not yet made art, but it was like a call from the universe. It was 1978; out of the 52 young people who qualified for a two-year study at Rorke’s Drift, only 11 were women, and Dhlomo-Mautloa was on that list.

It was at Rorke’s Drift that she met the man who was to become her husband: Kagiso Patrick Mautloa, who, like everyone else there – with the exception of Dhlomo-Mautloa herself – was from the townships.

The transition from typing in an office to making art felt easy for Dhlomo-Mautloa. She never felt intimidated by the fact that she was from a rural area where art centres where unheard of. Her years at Rorke’s Drift saw her develop as an artist and an art administer.

“Our generation dug the trenches and laid the foundation”, she says of the challenge of starting to make art in a work that was hostile to her. “We eve laid the first two rows of bricks. Today’s generation has little excuse.”

By the early 1980s, things were heating up in apartheid South Africa. The government maintained white domination while extending racial separation. The National Party had a strong hold on the economic and social system, but this didn’t irk art entrepreneurs at the time. Already well known as a mobile artist in Britain, Anthony Carlo visited South Africa in 1982. It was here that he met Robert Loder as well as the Johannesburg Art Foundation’s Bill Ainslie. He was introduced to the Katlehong Art Centre and the Federated Union of Black Arts (FUBA), which had been established in 1979 in Orlando by Sipho Siphamla as director.

In 1982, the culture and Resistance Conference in Botswana had an exhibition with a focus towards art towards social development. Dhlomo-Mautloa was part of that first generation of South African artists and while Ainslie, Caro and Loder, were brokering a new understanding of art in South Africa, she was cutting her teeth as a printmaker. Seeing Dhlomo-Mautloa’s work, Thami Mnyele and Siphamla where so impressed, they offered her a curator position upon her arrival in Johannesburg.

Dhlomo-Mautloa came to Johannesburg in 1984 to manage the FUBA Gallery. The making and teaching of art by black artists was burgeoning all over South Africa, in far-flung areas, despite the

constant presence of apartheid legislation. One such place was on the outskirts of Rustenburg in South Africa’s North-West Province. Known as the Thupelo Workshop, it was two-week workshop founded by David Koloane and Ainslie in 1985 and its aim was to provide artists from different cultural, national and social spaces with unique opportunity to collaborate in one intense yet supportive environment.

A year later, Dhlomo-Mautloa and Mautloa could see the writing on the wall: FUBA gallery had begun to dwindle due to lack of support, and it merged with Thupelo Artists Gallery. Thupelo developed the momentum of a movement, and more and more similar workshops became fashionable in the artworld in the 1990s, in places as diverse as the Johannesburg Art Foundation and the Market Theatre. They were hampered by a lack of funding, but represented a strong sense of belonging for hundreds of South African artists.

The Alexandra Arts Centre was introduced in 1986 to absorb the children from the streets. Classes were run from the Alexandra Clinic and at Nokuthula School for the Disabled. Dhlomo-Mautloa helped run fine art, theatre and dance classes. Later, they moved to the suburb of Marlboro, near Alexandra, and practiced creative writing, architectural drafting, music, fine art, photography and pottery. However, this was fated to enjoy only brief success. Owing to some youngsters developing a taste for political art and including portrayals of the Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe in their artwork, Dhlomo-Mautloa was fingered by South African security, who questioned her classes’ integrity, and accused her of teaching politics.

In consequence, the Alexandra Arts Centre was constantly intimidated by the presence of law enforcers. Dhlomo-Mautloa was summoned to the police station and was pressured to leave the establishment in 1988, by apartheid police.

According Chabane Manganye, a contemporary artist based in Soweto, one of the patrons working alongside Koloane and Mautloa, it was roughly at the time when the realisation dawned for a need for artists studios in the city. It was in 1991. Artist and teacher, Ricky Burnett, was approached by Loder with the assignment to find the ideal space for such a residency. “Burnett brought a couple of choices to the table but one stood out beyond reasonable doubt”, says Manganye, “everyone loved it”.

The Bag Factory at the bottom of what was then called Jeppe Street, just in front of the Oriental Plaza, was a place that warmed the cockles of many an artist’s heart. Manganye says he can smell a type of baking flour which was used during the production of the bags, when the Bag Factory still held the identity that its name describes.

Loder bought the building, and the bag manufacturers move out in 1991. The opening was marked by the occupation of the studios. All occupants were Thupelo artists. Dhlomo-Mautloa, alongside Anthousa Sotiriades and Anna Varney-Wong were the only female Bag Factory artists at the time.

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