Cecil Skotnes – A Living Legend

Cecil Skotnes is not only heralded as one of the main pioneers of modern art in South Africa, but is seen as a sort of anti-apartheid hero that gave a few fortunate black artists the chance to express themselves and develop their talents. Born in the small British-based town of East London on the coast of South Africa in 1926, Skotnes overcame his poverty-stricken origins to become one of the country’s great artists of the 20th century.

Though it is highly likely that Skotnes enjoyed drawing and painting as a child, his career as an artist only truly began after the Second World War. During that war he was sent to fight in Italy where he remained after the war had ended to study painting in Florence under Heinrich Steiner. In 1946 he returned to South Africa where he matriculated in free art at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Now, educated and skilled, Skotnes was prepared to face the challenges of adult life. During the course of his career, Skotnes produced brilliant graphic works as a draughtsman but in his personal time he used his skill as an artists to oppose the cruelty of apartheid.

In 1952 the colonial government saw fit to appoint him as a cultural officer and this position afforded him certain leverage which he used to the advantage of the oppressed. One notable way he used his power was in the establishment of the Polly Street Adult Center – an establishment where both blacks and whites could go to learn trades and other skills. This was one of the few places during this time that actually accepted black students. After some time funding waned and Skotnes decided to change the center’s focus to art. The center was changed to the Polly Street Art Center and it later played an important role in the lives of other great South African artists such as Sydney Kumalo and Lucas Sithole.

Skotnes himself was a master of his art. He started by practicing lyrical abstraction but later his work turned more and more towards a mixture of abstraction and realism. There was a lot of representation in his artworks and despite his stylistic rendering of characters some of his works, such as those from ‘The Assassination of Shaka Zulu’ series, look quite realistic. His works were truly inspirational and he always drew on the various elements of his own culture and often made use of his art to comment on the harsh political elements which surrounded him. Today his works can be seen in numerous exhibitions around the world and he has been awarded numerous prizes and awards. He has also experimented with various mediums such as drawings, paintings, frescoes and wood inlays, carpet weaving and stamps. He has been living and working in Cape Town since 1979 and he continues to produce some of the most moving pieces in art today.