Kenneth Baker

Born – 1921, Cape Town, South Africa

Died – 1996, Lansdowne, Cape Town

Baker painted cityscapes, landscapes, figurative works and flower pieces. A popular “Voice” he dramatizes in a highly subjective manner the daily discourse of life in the Cape Flats, District Six and the Bo-Kaap. Kenneth Baker’s paintings speak to us. The emotive and somewhat primitive simplification of the figurative work recalls the paintings of the German expressionists so do his sombre tones off set by luminous colour. No attempt is made to embellish his subject – he tells it as it is. Lacking the opportunities of an extensive formal education Kenneth Baker speaks to us through his paintwork, by dramatizing in his own highly subjective manner that daily course of events. In this rich, interactive theatre the painted characters will occasionally refer to the viewer, seeking his opinion with a glance, revealing a covert transaction. There is also a certain degree of automatic painting in the background – figures appear behind flower pieces and on the walls of the room in interior scenes.

Baker’s landscapes are, in some instances, rooted in the same milieu as those of Pranas Domisaitis. Domisaitis was attracted, as he was, to the highly subjective styles then flourishing in European painting. Influenced by peasant cultures, sombre tones, intense luminosity and heavily drawn borders – light radiates from within the scene, often intensely concentrated in the moon.

Gregoire Boonzaaier was also a mentor, willing to share his knowledge of impressionist colour mixes.

“Cape Town is littered with shebeens. I like to go there and sketch and have a drink. I wish I were a writer. There are so many stories I could tell – just in my raw way. I like going there most in summer when the sun is fading and filters through the spaces in between the fence and catches the profile of the chaps and their girlfriends, sitting in the corner or maybe in a broken down car in the yard. Sometimes we all join in a “Cazat” – a communal meal. Often, on Fridays, mothers and children come and fetch their men who have gone straight from work “to square with the shebeen” before going home with the rest of the money for the weekly housekeeping.

The people there are a mixed bunch; some white; some hippies, some nice girls; some lost and others saying ” Moenie my vrou sê nie”. Many sit about four or five hours until check out time. Sunday is usually a busy day. Sometimes they serve wine that is hard to get down but I have learned to drink all types now.”

When the District Six Foundation convened an exhibition in The Forum Gallery in Cavendish Square, Kenneth Baker, then an octogenarian, relived in his paintings the gaiety and joy of life experienced in District Six before it was destroyed. He died in November 1996.

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