Cartoonistemerges from a life lived in shadows

By Time of article published Dec 27, 2012

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Janet Heard

After life in black and white, Bloemfontein cartoonist Mogorosi Motshumi found colour in Cape Town.

The 55-year-old underground artist began drawing at the age of five or six. He risked “being lashed” by teachers for doodling in his exercise books.

In the 1980s, this self-taught artist was the first black cartoonist in the country to pen a regular black and white strip, Stroppy, for the monthly struggle publication Learn and Teach.

Now, this unassuming cartoonist, who survives on a monthly government grant of R1 200, has broken his colour phobia during a three-month residency at the Greatmore art studio in Woodstock.

“I came to Greatmore to get out of my comfort zone. I have a colour phobia, but can face it now,” Motshumi said in a rare interview the day he left Cape Town earlier this month.

Motshumi has returned to Batho in the Free State with acrylic paints and colour paintings in his baggage.

But his newfound colour phase is likely to fade. Motshumi is a gritty, no-frills artist who believes that colour distracts.

On his return to his reclusive life, he has picked up his Indian-ink pen to complete a painstaking project he started five years ago – a three-part autobiographical comic book, 360 Degrees, which will hopefully get published one day.

Motshumi’s story makes for graphic reading. A life filled with adventure and hardship, he retells his story with light strokes from his comic pen.

Brought up in poverty by his principled and staunch Methodist “oumama”, he would sometimes sell his granny’s coal on the quiet to make a few cents to buy sweets.

A bright, quiet kid, he began drawing “because I needed to say something”.

Introduced to Archie, Harvey Comics, Marvel and Rover, he began to experiment with cartooning.

He remembers school as a place to be beaten and whipped. A “quiet rebel”, he turned his back on apartheid education after matric.

Later, in his mid-twenties in 1980, he was detained and held in solitary for two weeks after being arrested with banned literature.

At the time, he had a strip, Selatsa, at the newspaper The Friend, but after his release, the paper refused to keep him on. He then moved to Joburg, where he spent the next 25 years.

A rolling stone, Motshumi freelanced before a collaboration with Andy Mason at Learn and Teach led to the birth of Sloppy, a typical dude from Soweto – with a comical protruding nose like Jughead – trying to navigate life under apartheid.

Paying tribute, Mason writes in his book on the history of local cartooning, What’s So Funny?: “Motshumi’s strip was the most sustained piece of graphic storytelling (to emerge from the townships) in the 1980s and deserves to be recognised as such.”

The iconic strip ran for a decade, but didn’t survive after Learn and Teach’s demise.

A gentle spirit, Motshumi was not driven by success, his life full of distractions. “Back then I was even declared an alcoholic by my friends,” he says.

He discovered he was HIV-positive in 1996. “The title 360 Degrees is because of this struggle,” he said, explaining that after the euphoria of liberation in 1994, he and the country had come full circle with the Aids epidemic.

After Learn and Teach, Motshumi struggled on. His work appeared sporadically via the Mamba Comix network and a few mainstream papers such as the Daily Sun and City Press.

In many ways, Motshumi is a typical struggling artist with an indefatigable spirit. He had three children with his ex-wife, who died 10 years ago. On anti-retrovirals with full-blown Aids, Motshumi goes about life virtually invisible other than the odd piece of art he sells when he ventures to an exhibition or festival.

He lives alone in Batho and works on his graphic book every day “for more than eight hours, till the sun sets. The only time I get out is to go for a game of pool at the tavern a street away. I draw with music on an old system, a CD player.”

Although Motshumi hopes his book is published, neither fame nor money drive him. “If people can see what I have done, then I am happy. If one person understands what I am trying to say, that is good. That is rewarding.”

At Greatmore he sold about four pieces on exhibition, asking about R900 each.

“Artists were selling their work for five figures. They were amazed at my price. But why should I up the price? Money means nothing. I eat, I have shelter. I get to say what I want to say. That’s what motivates me.”

Motshumi’s gonzo cartoons track everyday life and are deeply political.

A Pan-Africanist who would never join any political party, he is concerned that the government is “chipping away at freedom, taking away a little bit at a time. If there is no resistance, they will take it away.”

At Greatmore, he lived in an Observatory digs with four artists from Germany, Mexico, Spain and Botswana.

“Cartoonists are like lepers, not very social,” he said, adding that he is adaptable.

He seemed surprised at the positive influence he had on other artists, said the gallery’s director Mark O’Donovan.

“Mogorosi is amazingly humble but incredibly knowledgeable, and a man of principle who will not be bought.

“The visiting artists found him so informative. And Mogorosi felt honoured to find that people recognise him that way.”

The experience has energised Motshumi and made him think beyond Batho. He is now considering applying for a residency at the Bag Factory artists’ studios in Newtown, Joburg.

But right now he has his epic life story to complete, a project which Mason said put him on the “bounce-back trail”.

Over halfway through, Motshumi hopes to have all three parts inked and ready by November 2014.

Perhaps then this loner will finally be discovered.

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