Dolla Sapeta Midlife ColourAthenaeum hosts acclaimed New Brighton artists’ first solo in 15 years

DOLLA Sapeta is having a mid-life crisis and it is all about colour. It is not his fault, he maintains, that the monochrome of township life led him to pop art.

Who could resist the allure of streaking bright yellow, tangerine, lapis lazuli blue and neon green across the greys and browns of zones made to keep people locked into earth tones?

At 47, Sapeta has earned the right to contemplate colour and its impact across his bold, socio-political body of art. The opening of Sapeta’s first solo exhibition in his home city of Port Elizabeth in 15 years on Tuesday evening was met with praise and respect by the local arts industry.

“From lying flat on the ground drawing pictures in sand with sticks as a child to producing a collection of thought-provoking and honest works of art, Dolla is standing here today with his feet firmly on the floor and committed, as I have always known him to be, to freedom of expression,” said Louwrens Westraad, fellow artist and collaborator, who opened the exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery in Port Elizabeth.

Nicknamed ‘Dolla’ by his childhood friends after they noticed his musical abilities, after legendary jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, or Dollar Brand as he was known back then, Sapeta has pulled together a part-retrospective of his work from the past 15 years from private collections, including that of the Mandela Bay Development Agency (MBDA), Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Museum (NMMM) and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). 

The collection takes viewers on a journey through a vibrant Red Location that is no longer, which Sapeta painted in the 1990s, all the way through to the stark, but colourful pieces he is currently working on. The exhibition conjures a sense of isolation in its recognisable stylised Afro-pop expression, dealing with topics such as the despair of HIV/Aids, dogma, politics and inner reflection, all captured through vivid, but insulated township scenes.

Sapeta has been dedicated to the arts from a young age, where he drew and sold comic books to his friends and attended drawing classes in a New Brighton garage under the guidance of the legendary George Pemba on Saturdays.

Commenting on the collection, Westraad said: “Whether you decide to remember the Dolla who lectured PE College art students for more than five years, who has exhibited his paintings, drawings and photographs internationally, or created the Fish Bird public artwork on the Donkin Reserve as part of the MBDA’s Route 67 honouring Madiba, or for that matter as the published poet, writer, or the humble, down to earth man whose art hangs around you; it's your choice to make, and in my opinion this is the true value of Dolla’s work, he allows you to decide.”

Sapeta spent the past month working in residence at the Athenaeum finalising his pieces. His comment comes, as it usually does, in the form of prose: “I have found my voice, not in your prejudiced stare, and not in my dry throat. Do not look at me, I am not a businessman, around you stands my colour, where my lush shadow and brush and breath have travelled eagerly with my eyes closed.  I feel my colour, I feel your stare… your sweat.  I am afraid to stand my presence, for you will kill me. I have nightmares when I paint, so don’t ask me why.”

The Midlife Colour solo exhibition runs from December 10 to January 24, 2014 at the Athenaeum in Central, Port Elizabeth.  There is a public walkabout with Sapeta on Saturday, January 11 from 12.30pm to 1:30pm. Booking is essential. Dates for a public lecture will be announced in due course and Sapeta will reflect on his recent trip and residency in New York.