Gerard Bhengu’s life began on the 6th day of September, in the year 1910, in the Southern region of Natal. His Christian parents gave him the European name of Gerard, although it is by his Bantu surname (or isibongo) of Bhengu, that he is more widely known in his homeland, today.
He lived the normal early life of most small Zulu children, except that from the time that he could toddle, he was constantly in trouble with Mangwababane, his tidy-minded mother, for the drawings that he made upon the clean, well-plastered walls of her hut.
No pens or pencils were to be found in Mangwababane’s dwelling, because neither she nor her husband Xhalakadayimane had learned to use them; but charcoal from the fire upon which his mother cooked the family food, provided the baby artist with an excellent medium for making his exciting outlines. Therefore, in spite of many spankings, little Gerard drew, and drew, and drew; and as he drew, so the little Zulu boy grew, putting the lines of beauty that he saw around him, onto any surface that would receive them.
While Gerard was still at a very tender age, his father was drawn to Durban by a thirst for knowledge, and it was not long before Xhalakadayimane could both read and write. So that his son should also benefit by learning, Xhalakadayimane instructed his wife to send young Gerard as a day scholar to the little Roman Catholic Mission school of Esibomvwini at Centecow in the Creighton area of Natal, so named after the redness of the earth thereabouts, and which was not far from his home. At the age of eight years the child became a full-time boarder, but unfortunately his father died shortly after this, and was unable to watch over Gerard’s progress.
From the time when his earliest school days started, and a pencil was put into his hand, the child Gerard incessantly scribbled and drew sketches upon the pages of his books, instead of attending to his lessons, and consequently he was always in trouble. Apart from Mr A. Duma who delighted the small boy by giving him a box of crayons, this born genius received [little] encouragement or understanding.
It was not until 1920 that any notice was taken of Gerard’s work – and then only as a complaint. It was in this year, during the annual school inspection, that the attention of the late Mr Jowett was drawn to the child’s misdoings; the books were called for and the wise Inspector, instantly sensing the boy’s latent talent, gave instructions that he should no longer be punished for his random scribbling, but rather be encouraged. This kindly man backed up his advice by presenting young Gerard with his first box of watercolours and a drawing book. This was putting a match to tinder, and in no time the lad began to display outstanding artistic ability.
At this period the child became very ill and was treated by the Mission physician, Dr Max Joseph Köhler. On his recovery, as a little token of gratitude, Gerard presented the doctor with one of his classroom drawings. The doctor found so much action in this picture, that he at once recognised a potential artist in his young patient.
Not long after this Dr Köhler required some coloured charts for use in his lectures. He suggested that Gerard should help him, and the result was so satisfactory that the good doctor sent to Bavaria for a supply of the best obtainable paints, brushes and paper. He also gave the youth a number of prints by the Old Masters to copy.
The fact that these masterpieces had been executed in oils caused Gerard’s pictures to give the impression that they, too, had been painted in oils. It was on this account that – as soon as he realised what was happening – Dr Köhler ceased to supply the boy with pictures to copy. Instead, as Gerard gained proficiency the doctor encouraged him to seek his models from life in the villages of his own people, and also in the countryside around him.
Gradually, under the doctor’s encouragement, the young artist developed his own style. The perfection of detail that he absorbed from his study of the Old Masters stood him in good stead, and has strongly influenced his work – as can be seen in the detail with which his pictures are carried out.
His progress during the five years that he was under Dr Köhler’s patronage was amazing, but unfortunately the doctor then moved from Centecow and Gerard, sadly missing the guidance and encouragement of his good friend, lost much of his enthusiasm and for a time painted spasmodically.
Fortunately, some years later his paintings came to the notice of the late Dr D. MCK. Malcolm (then Chief Inspector of Native Education), who in turn showed them to the Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Natal, with the recommendation that Gerard should be properly trained. The Professor, however, advised most strongly against this, suggesting rather that he be encouraged to work in his own way and develop his own technique. This course was strictly adhered to and, pursuing his own methods, his distinctive style was not spoiled.
In 1936 the Department of Native Affairs commissioned this artist to paint a frieze in their building at the famous Johannesburg Exhibition, depicting the progress of the effects of Bantu Education. The figures required for it were very much larger than anything that he had hitherto undertaken, added to which Gerard seemed unable to settle to serious work amidst the bustle, hurry and attractions of the Golden City. The result was that his work did not come up to its previous high standard, and it was not until his return to Natal [that] he worked seriously once more.
As well as illustrating several Zulu school books, Gerard painted a number of good tribal pictures for Dr Max Köhler’s ethnological works “Marriage Customs in Southern Natal” and “The Isangoma Diviner”, printed by the Government Printer in 1941. He [also illustrated] a publication of the Folk Tales of his own Bantu people.
This extract from Phyllis Savory’s text was written in collaboration with the artist. The text focuses on Bhungu’s early life, as it was written 25 years before his death, and illustrates how “Benghu [was] singularly fortunate in his advisors, for all [appreciated] his incredible natural ability and [encouraged] the development of genius along its own lines.” (Campbell, 1965)
Gerard Bhengu worked largely in watercolour and sepia, and his work often borders on the photo-real, portraying the landscape and people of his country in fine detail. From 1936, he took part in various group exhibitions, such as the 1979 Contemporary African Art in SA touring exhibition and the Historical Perspective of Black Art in SA Exhibition at the Alliance Française, Pretoria in 1986. He held a solo exhibition at the Gallery Beaux-Arts in Johannesburg in 1948, and his work forms part of the collections of the Africana Museum in Johannesburg, the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, and the University of Fort Hare.
Bhengu died at the age of 80 at Umlazi, Durban, having made a significant contribution to South Africa’s art world as one of the earliest self-taught black artists.