The thinker, poet, and painter, Lefifi Tladi, was born in 1949 in the culturally vibrant township of Lady Selborne in Pretoria, Transvaal Province (now Gauteng). The township fell victim to apartheid’s forced removals as a so-called Black spot. A Black spot was an area that Black people bought legally in what the government considered as White South Africa. People who lived in Black spots were told to leave their places and later removed forcefully to make way for White people.

Owing to his goatee beard, Tladi was nicknamed Jomo after Kenya’s post-independence hero, Jomo Kenyatta, who had a similar goatee. His involvement in the cultural world started in 1966 when he co-founded a youth club known as De-Olympia in the township of Ga-Rankuwa, north-west of Pretoria. Other members of this group were childhood friends like Sir Isaac Nkoana (who would later influence him into becoming a sculptor), Anthony Mologwane Makou, as well as Matsobane Legoabe. They hosted workshops and recited works by established poets like Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Amiri Baraka, James Matthews, and Don Mattera. They also got involved in recreational pastimes such as dance, indoor games like table tennis, and music, which included listening sessions where songs by Black musicians like Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and John Coltrane were played.

The club kept them off the streets and encouraged them to engage in activities for their personal development. Through the help of his father, in 1969, Tladi and the other club members bought a few instruments including African drums, a guitar, and a piccolo. The group subsequently formed a jazz band, Malombo Jazz Messengers (as a mark of respect to their jazz elders, the Malombo Jazzmen of Mamelodi), which was later called Dashiki. Members included Gilbert ‘Gilly’ Mabale (flute and saxophone), Oupa Rantobeng Mokou (vibraphone), Laurence Moloisi (guitar), and Tladi on drums and vocals. The band composed its own music (the trance-inducing music of the Bapedi influencing their compositions) and moved away from reciting other poets’ works by writing their own poetry.

Consequently, Tladi burst onto the national South African political scene during the 1970s through participation in the Black Consciousness Movement’s (BCM) cultural events. The BCM strived to reawaken the oppressed Black majority from a decade of a political and cultural lull since apartheid’s heavy-handed response to unarmed marchers in Sharpeville on 21 March 1960. Since most political and cultural leaders were either jailed or exiled from that time, the BCM filled the vacuum that was left behind.

Dashiki’s live performances across South African townships merged music with poetry that was heavily influenced by the socio-political situation in the country. The performances were part of the Black Consciousness’ contribution towards what they regarded as the reassertion of the oppressed Black majority’s sense of humanness. Their poetry, in particular, became an important tool in conscientising their audience with regard to political awareness. Thus, their politically-conscious repertoire attracted the attention of Steve Biko and the leadership of the BCM. As a result, the group performed in numerous university campuses and community halls all over the country.

Besides their involvement with the BCM’s cultural events (which included other groups like MDALI, Batsumi, Malapanetharo, and Black Arts Studios), the band also became regulars at the United States Embassy’s jazz appreciation sessions under the guidance and management of Geoff Matlherane Mphakathi. A key figure in the Pretoria art scene, Mphakathi served as a mentor and introduced Tladi to African literature.

In 1970*, Tladi and his colleagues in the arts fraternity transformed the four-roomed house in Ga-Rankuwa that hosted the activities of the youth club into an art studio, gallery, and museum of contemporary Black art. The aim was to exhibit art, stimulate research, and encourage the documentation of African arts. Among others, Tladi worked with Nkoana, Mphakathi, Victor Mkhumbuza, Fikile Magadlela, Harry Moyaga, Motlhabane Mashiangwako, and Legoabe, who photographed and documented the artists and their works.

An impressive collection of newspaper reports and slides on everyone who was involved was built. Concurrently, through the BCM’s cultural wing – CUL-COM (Cultural Committee) – they organised numerous Black art exhibitions and workshops at some of the major Black universities and schools. This was in response to the Bantu Education system and an attempt to undo its side effect of discouraging Black people’s creative genius. Unfortunately, after just three years of running, the apartheid authorities put a stop to these programmes and forced the museum to close down in 1974.

In 1976, Tladi skipped bail after he and other artists within the BCM were arrested and detained by the security police for participating in the students’ insurrection that begun in Soweto. Tladi was forced into exile, going to Botswana where he and fellow artists established Tuka Cultural Unit, a cultural formation meant for organising group exhibitions as well as sustaining working relations with artists in South Africa. In 1977, they took part in the month-long event, Festac ’77 – the pan-African international festival of arts and culture in Lagos, Nigeria. Some of the other participants in this historic event included Miriam Makeba, Stevie Wonder, Louis Moholo, Dudu Pukwana, and the band, Osibisa. On their way back to Botswana, the group also performed in countries like Tanzania and Zambia.

Tladi participated in cultural programmes with groups such as the Medu Art Ensemble and Dashiki. These cultural groupings hosted workshops that involved some of the Batswana as well as South Africans in and outside the country. A Swedish diplomat spotted him during an exhibition of his work at the Botswana National Museum. This chance meeting in 1980 allowed Tladi the opportunity to receive a scholarship to study fine arts and art history (what he calls European art history) at the Gerlesborg School of Fine Art in Stockholm, Sweden. While there, he realised the importance of what he and Dashiki had been doing during the seventies in South Africa.

As he travelled across Europe, Tladi took part in various events that highlighted the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. These included Art Against Apartheid in Holland, the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA)-sponsored End White Rule in Black South Africa, and the 1986 Wole Soyinka Nobel Prize tribute exhibition at Puck Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden.

In 1983, Tladi recorded a live album called Tribute to Nomazizi, which was a huge success. One of the songs on the album serves as a homage to fellow painter, Winston Masakeng Saoli. He then recorded a poetry project in 1988, which he named Poetry for Artvanced Listeners, before collaborating with Gilbert Mathews Brus Trio in 1990. Tladi was also featured on the jazz album, Ingoma (1999), with fellow jazz musician Zim Ngqawana, and worked with Tlokwe Sehume, resulting in the release of the album, Naga ya Fya in 2001.

Tladi returned to South Africa in 1997. Currently, his paintings are exhibited in museums and galleries across the globe and he continues to work with several renowned artists, such as Kgafela oa Magogodi, Joe Malinga, Moss Mohale, Louis Moholo, Solly Mokolobate, Gibo Pheto, Mohau Kekana, and Abbey Cindi, just to mention a few. He also co-wrote the music score on Giant Steps, a 2005 documentary film about his life. In the same year, he released another CD – a recording of the Jazz and Poetry performance with Malombo Jazzmen at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Great Hall in 1973.

Tladi lives in Stockholm, Sweden, but continues to exhibit and host poetry and art workshops in South Africa. Passionate about education, he is involved with various art education projects throughout the country.

*Or 1971


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