Trustee Tom Baxter on South African artist

By Tom Baxter
June 28, 2018

The best parts of any trip are serendipitous. Toward the end of a recent visit to South Africa, my wife and I stopped by the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town, and discovered a special exhibition of works by the South African artist Lionel Davis.

Neither of us were familiar with Davis, who isn’t well known in this country. We marveled at the tremendous energy and breadth of his work. Every corner we turned as we strolled through the gallery revealed some new and fully realized genre: biting political posters and lush abstracts, intricate line drawings and vivid collages. It had about it both a restlessness and a patient command of many techniques.

Around another corner, there was a short, stout fellow with a gray ponytail, who turned out to be the artist himself, chatting with a group of admirers before beginning a “walkabout” through his collection.

Photos in South Africa including Lili Baxter and Lionel Davis, bottom left, photo credit Tom Baxter

Davis’ improbable career as an artist should be an antidote for any of us who think we’ve grown too old to indulge our creative urges. Although he showed a talent for drawing as a child in Cape Town’s District Six neighborhood, he was past 40 when he took his first art class, while under house arrest.

He’d been an anti-apartheid activist as a young man, and was imprisoned on Robben Island in 1964, the same year Nelson Mandela arrived at that infamous prison, a grey and turbulent boat ride from one of the most beautiful cities on the globe. After seven years on Robben Island, Davis was placed under house arrest for five more years. It was during that time that he became involved in Cape Town’s Community Arts Project, which combined the arts with activism.

Davis went on to get an art degree, and turned his hand to using art in any way that was handy. He taught, created calendars, posters and children’s books. He became a mentor to a new generation of South African artists, but although late in life his works are celebrated in exhibitions like this one, he never pursued a living as a gallery artist. For a number of years, he worked as a tour guide on Robben Island, when the former prison was turned into a museum.

When a group had assembled for the walkabout, Davis led us through the collection, explaining how he started many paintings and put them aside, then took them up again and transformed them years later.

“Because I don’t do my art for money, I don’t have to do it this-that way or the other,” Davis explained.

That feeling, that you don’t have to do things this-that way or the other, is something most of us long for, but find hard to achieve. Many of us associate that wish with reaching a stage in life when you’re financially secure, when the kids are grown and the mortgage is paid.

But a lot of it is about figuring what you want to do, and how to do it as much as possible. It’s a life-long project which involves a lot of thought about how you want to be rewarded for the time you spend.

Lionel Davis isn’t a wealthy man by American standards, but he has lived a spectacularly wealthy life. And in the fullness of his years, he stands within a treasure house of his own creation.

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One Response to “Trustee Tom Baxter on South African artist”
  1. Maureen Kelly says:

    Thank you, Tom, for sharing this beautiful story of someone pursuing his dream, regardless of age or storied past. His time seems very well spent!

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