Winston Churchill Masakeng Saoli was born on 3 January 1950 in the town of Acornhoek, Eastern Transvaal, now known as Mpumalanga Province. He was the second of six children, the son of the Reverend Russell Saoli. As a child, he attended the Arthurseat Lower Primary School, where his father was headmaster. When his family moved to Soweto in 1963, Saoli enrolled at the Morris Isaacson School in Moroka.
Saoli cultivated an interest in art inspired by the drawings of his older brother, Chamberlain, and the carvings his grandfather made in wood and stone. He began attending classes at the Jubilee Art Centre, where artists such as Ephraim Ngatane, Ezrom Legae, Cecil Skotnes and Bill Hart encouraged his work. A year after first meeting Hart and Legae at the art centre in July 1968, when they commented on his potential, Saoli had his first solo exhibition. Held at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery, the show sold out, and was soon followed by the appearance of Saoli’s work at the Contemporary African Art exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre in London.
In 1971, Hart described and praised Saoli’s ‘creative spontaneity’ and ‘sensitivity of touch’. The same year, Saoli exhibited with Leonard Matsoso and Cyprian Shilakoe at Preston in the United Kingdom (UK). He was one of four artists selected to design for the Graphic Club of South Africa, and was asked to design the cover of the music album, Peace, by jazz musician Dollar Brand. In June 1972, Rand Daily Mail art writer H.E. Winder called Saoli’s fifth Goodman Gallery show ‘one of the most important exhibitions by African artists’, and commented on the artist’s use of religious symbolism and literary style.
Shortly after, in late 1972, Saoli was arrested for his alleged involvement in secret ANC meetings at the University of the Witwatersrand. Authorities imprisoned him in solitary confinement at John Vorster Square for nine months without trial. While in prison, he continued creating art, using his finger nails, tea leaves and egg shells to draw on the prison walls. Once released, nine months later, he struggled to readjust to life outside of prison, suffering from alcoholism and periodic homelessness.
However, Saoli managed success with exhibitions of his paintings and sculptures in South Africa and abroad, and completed a diploma course in commercial art from 1973 to 1974. The course pushed his style further from the influences of the Jubilee artists and into the commercial realm, resulting predominantly in brightly coloured, multi-layered abstract works, typically in mixed media.
In 1993, the year he was diagnosed with cancer, Saoli started collaboration with Peter Sibeko at the Soweto Art Gallery and practically lived at the gallery. He worked prolifically in this period, producing works that some critics have called his best and others have bemoaned for their commercialised qualities. Saoli continued producing work until his death on the night of 20 May 1995.
Saoli’s works can be found at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the William Humphreys Art Gallery, the De Beers Centenary Art Gallery, the UNISA Art Gallery, the University of Fort Hare and University of the Witwatersrand.
Proud, H. (2006) ‘Winston Saoli’ in Proud, H., ed. Revisions: Expanding the Narrative of South African. UNISA and SA History Online, Cape Town, pp. 204-205. Available at www.revisions.co.za. [Accessed 17 February 2015]| De Jager, E.J. (1992) Images of Man: Contemporary South African Black Art and Artists, Fort Hare University Press, Alice.|Sack, S. (1988) The Neglected Tradition: Towards a New History of South African Art (1930-1988). Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg.| Ifa Lethu, ‘Winston Saoli’ from Ifa Lethu.Available at www.ifalethu.org.za. [Accessed 17 February 2015]| Black Art (2009) ‘Winston Saoli’ Available at www.blackart.co.za. [Accessed 17 February 2015]|Winder, H.E. (1972) ‘Emergent Literary Style’, Rand Daily Mail, 6 October 1972.| Nicholas, L. (2006) ‘Winston Saoli, 1950-1995’ in Introduction to Psychology, p. iii.UCT Press, Cape Town. Available at www.books.google.co.za. [Accessed 17 February 2015]