South African prints

Introduction | Gallery | Listing


image:A B Webb Shags 1921-22 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1987

Lucky SIBIYA 1942
'(Sunfigure and tree)' 1973
linocut, printed in black ink, from one block 17/30
Purchased 1991
© Lucky Sibiya

more detail


In 1991–1992 the National Gallery of Australia acquired a series of prints by key African artists producing work during a turbulent time in South Africa’s history. Although the artists were not well known at this time, the Gallery considered that such prints be included in the collection as they expressed such strong emotional and artistic merit as well as reflecting the traditions and historical events in South Africa.

James Serole Mphahlele, John Muafangejo and Lucky Sibiya were gifted artists who made prints and their works are well represented in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection.

Further information on the African artists held in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection will be added to this site over time.


James Serole Mphahlele

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image:A B Webb Shags 1921-22 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1987

James MPHAHLELE 1954
'Dialoga (Part 11)' 1987
linocut, printed in black ink, from one block Impression: 60/75
Purchased 1991
© James Mphahlele

more detail

The first group was a series of 25 linocuts by the artist James Serole Mphahlele, which he entitled Dialoga. Born in 1954 in Transvaal, Mphahlele created a series of black and white images of the closing ceremony of the initiation of the Pedi tribes in Lebowa in the Northern Transvaal. The artist created this series because, in his words, ‘[W]e are on the brink of losing all that was best in African art and African tradition … Traditions have to be passed on to future generations.’[1]

In a series of powerful images full of ritual, a remarkable depiction of figures in motion, a sense of occasion and of tradition, Mphahlele has created a sequence of compositions which outlined the ceremony. Accompanying each image he provided a description of the each stage of the event.  As the artist explained in his notes, ‘Background’ to Dialoga

The chief and the men of the kraal … gather in secret and elect the following:

  1. Master of the lodge and deputy master
    They are the men who know the details of initiation and who are related to the Chief’s kraal or capital. They will spend days and nights with the initiation until the closing ceremony:
  2. The surgeon or village doctor;
  3. Their elders who have taken part in and witnessed other initiations. They act as instructors or shepherds[2]    
The artist continued in his description of the closing ceremony:

The head of each kraal carries a stick with red dyed sheep skins (Hlaba) from the chief’s kraal to the initiation lodge.

The body of each initiate is smeared with red-ochre, called ‘Letsoku’. The young men are now called ‘Dialoga’. They put on the ‘Hlaba’ and their elders five them each a stick called ‘Lekgai’.

As  soon as the initiation lodge starts burning, set on fire by the medicine man, the young men start running to the village, not being allowed to look back (Mpahatho/Moroto).

Upon arriving at the village, the chief’s son leads the procession, holding the rod of honour (Sefoka), all singing songs of victory.

All fathers and the elders carry wood to make a fire in the chief’s kraal.[3]  

The compositions in the Dialoga series remain a remarkable group of figure studies. Combined with the artist’s description of the events, they remain an important account provided by James Mphahlele of traditions from Transvaal.

Ifa Lethu Foundation

In 2005 the Ifa Lethu Foundation (‘our heritage’ in Xhosa) was established in South Africa to actively ‘locate, protect and promote’ works of art from South Africa of this period to inspire artists of a new generation. See

Jane Kinsman May 2010

  1. [1] James Mphahlele , ‘Introduction’, Dialoga,  I February 1989 
  2. [2] James Mphahlele, op. cit. p. [3]
  3. [3] loc. cit.