Azaria Mbatha (1941 - )
Mbatha was born at Mhlabatini in Zululand and was the first student of the Lutheran Art and Craft School when it was first based at Mapumulo in 1961 and then at Rorke's Drift from 1962 to 1964. His story is intimately linked with the foundation of the school. In 1965 he was awarded a two year scholarship to Sweden where he studied mural and enamel painting. He returned to teach at Rorke's Drift from 1967 to 1968. However, he left South Africa to live in Sweden from 1969. In 1977 to 1980 he studied social sciences at the University of Lund. In 1965 Mbatha was the first black South African artist to win the prestigious Cambridge Shirt Award for his linocut on paper entitled 'Revelation of St John'. Mbatha again was a trendsetter in April 1967 when two of his linocuts were accepted to the Museum of Modern Art collection in New York, making him the first black African artist to have work accepted by this international institution. Between 1982 and 1992 Mbatha was assistant secretary at the County Council office at Skane in Sweden. In 1993 he enrolled at the University of Lund in Sweden to complete a doctorate of philosophy in African historical symbolism. He returned to South Africa in 1992 and 1995 in order to conduct fieldwork research for his dissertation. Mbatha compiled powerful compositions based on reinterpretations of the Bible. It has often been presumed that the Biblical imagery portrayed in Mbatha's prints was a consequence of his training at an art school started by a Christian group. However, this was not the case. It was Mbatha's father, Matshwele Mfukutheni Mbatha, who brought a strong Christian influence to his son's life; he was so proud of his son's illustrations of Biblical testaments that he hosted his son's first exhibition at his Zululand homestead in 1962. His father's favourite linocut was one of Mbatha's first entitled 'Jonah'. Mbatha's international success was to have a long term influence on the Rorke's Drift art school and its students. Mbatha was a graphic artist creating linocuts, silk screen, etchings and serigraphs, but the linocut was his medium of choice. He was more comfortable working in black and white, although he experimented with the use of colour as early as 1962. He held his first solo exhibition in South Africa in1968 and exhibited his work in England, Sweden, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. He was nominated the 1981 Standard Bank artist of the year. In 1998 the Durban Art Gallery held an 'Azaria Mbatha Retrospective Exhibition' and produced a catalogue to accompany the exhibition. Mbatha's work can be seen in many South African and international collections.
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