BY CHRIS BARRON
MADI Phala, who was fatally stabbed a week ago outside his home in Langa, Cape Town, was 52 and established as one of South Africa’s most talented artists, but as far as he was concerned he had just reached his prime and was looking forward to big things, including forthcoming exhibitions in the US and Germany.
His devotion to art began as a child in KwaThema township in Springs on the East Rand. When other boys were playing in the dusty streets, Phala would be paging through any book on art he could find and experimenting with collages. For hours he would sit putting different shapes and colours together on boards and bits of cardboard.
His portfolio, at last count, includes at least 70 collages as well as many paintings in oil, acrylic and gel on canvas; lithographs and ink and pencil sketches.
Shortly after matriculating at Tlakula High School he and his close school friend and fellow artist Sam Nhlengethwa formed the Bayajula Arts Group to encourage the development and appreciation of literary, musical and pictorial art in townships.
They toured Soweto, Mamelodi, Atteridgeville and many other townships performing poetry readings, playing music (Phala was an enthusiastic drummer) and showing off their paintings.
They were constantly harassed and pulled in for interrogation by the police who were convinced that they had some sort of hidden revolutionary agenda.
Phala, who had a diploma from Batswana Teachers’ Training College in Mafikeng, sustained himself financially with a teaching job at Fred Habedi Primary School in KwaThema.
After seven years of this he joined the SABC in 1981 as a model builder, scenic painter and effects maker, and was there for 11 years.
Meanwhile, the most important thing in his life was art. He taught art to township children in his garage in Kwa Thema and produced a steady stream of his own work.
He participated in his first exhibition in 1979, hosted by the Germiston Town Council, and in 1982 he was part of group exhibitions at the Goodman and Shell House galleries in Johannesburg.
He featured in the important Tributaries exhibition in 1985 and was written about in books on black South African art that began appearing in the ’80s, such as Matsemela Manaka’s Echoes of African Art, Gavin Younge’s Art of the South African Townships and EJ de Jager’s Images of Man.
He was commissioned by the Sunday Times Centenary Heritage Project last year to create a sculpture commemorating the sinking of the SS Mendi in the English Channel during World War 1.
Although he had done very little sculpting before, he was, typically, up for the challenge. His sculpture, depicting the broken prow of a ship with replicas of World War 1 helmets to symbolise the 647 men who drowned, is set on a grassy embankment on the middle campus of the University of Cape Town.
In 2004 Phala was invited to be a resident artist, with use of a studio and materials, at Greatmore Studios in Woodstock for three months, a rare honour accorded to South African artists of outstanding achievement.
He enjoyed himself so much that when his three-month period expired he asked if he could stay. It was a further measure of his worth as an artist that his request was granted.
Such was his commitment that he often, contrary to the rules, worked through the night in his studio and had to be woken in the morning. When gently chided he would joke that he was 50 now and needed his sleep.
Phala was recently appointed to Cape Town’s Iziko Museum as an educator and guide. His enthusiasm and ability to bring works of art alive made him a great hit with children.
Phala, who became a full-time artist in 1998, sometimes won commissions as much through the force of his personality as the intrinsic quality of his work.
A colleague tells ruefully of going for an interview, taking Phala along for support, only to see the artist, who seldom went anywhere without his portfolio, landing the job.
Phala, nicknamed "the original herd boy" because of his frequent symbolic use of herd boys in his art, has work in the private collections of Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan, art historian Barbara Lindop, the French embassy in South Africa, Renault South Africa and De Beers in London.
He was married and divorced twice and is survived by six children.