Art and Storytelling

Johannesburg Art Gallery


Stories are our constant companions – they enchant, explain, educate, intrigue and entertain.

The works on the Storytelling exhibition were all from the Johannesburg Art Gallery permanent collection. Through their art Sekoto, Delacroix, Géricault, Dürer, Hlungwani, Chagall and others are our storytellers. Biblical tales from the Holy Land, mythical characters and legends from ancient Greece and Rome, narratives of war from France and moral tales from China and England are all on display. One of the first novels written by a black South African, as well as tales of lions, cannibals and heroes are all part of South Africa’s visual stories. These stories may be about the past, but they are also the inspiration for the future.

Each work on exhibition was accompanied by a summary of its story. Some extended stories, as well as a selection of books for young people to read, were available at a reading table.

Some selected works from the exhibition and their stories

Title: Mine Boy (1944-47)

Artist: Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993)

Medium: oil on canvas

Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams was one of the first novels written by a black man. 

The hero of comes to the slums of Johannesburg as an innocent fresh from the countryside.

Mine Boy makes black people’s desperate poverty clear - even electricity is ‘white man’s light’. Yet this is not a miserable book. In the middle of pain, joy is always bursting out ….The simplicity of Abrahams’ language manages to suggest a suppressed passion and a desperation in the face of a system already extremely efficient at keeping the races - and the races’ standard of living - securely apart…. This is, after all, a prophetic book which predated the declaration of apartheid by just two years.

Yet unlike many later black writers, Abrahams is cautiously kind on the subject of the white baas. Of the three in command at the mine, two are liberals…In the end, though, it is impossible for even liberal whites to comprehend the way black people are forced to live amid a dreadful tension, always on a knife’s edge. How far can anyone understand an experience they don’t share? the book keeps asking. 

Adapted from a review by Carol Fewster


Sekoto painted this work showing the book Mine Boy resting  on a chair with other books and a candle with a box of matches. These suggest that the artist has read the book most likely by candlelight, unable to afford electrical light .


'Title: Ubu Tells the Truth. Act III, Scene 9 (1996-7)

Artist: William Kentridge (b. 1955 )

Medium: etching

Collection: Johannesburg Art Gallery

The drawings from the series Ubu Roi by  William Kentridge were based on the play by Alfred Jarry 's play of the same name. Jarry's play  was premiered in 1896, and is widely acknowledged as a theatrical precursor to the Absurdist, Dada and Surrealist art movements. It is the first of three plays written throughout Jarry's life that satirize European philosophies, and their sometimes ludicrous practices.

Kentridge, working with Jane Taylor, presented an adaptation titled  Ubu Roi and the Truth Commission in 1996, a play that many believe criticized the South African Truth and Reconcilliation Commission, which was created in 1996 in response the atrocities committed during Apartheid.





This work is from an exhibition by the artist called GRIME. The inspiration for the exhibition was a novel called A Seductive Offer written by Kathryn Smith (not the same person as the artist).

 Kathryn Smith (the artist) picked up the novel at an airport. She said ‘When I saw my name on the spine, my stomach churned. My first thought was: ‘Christ, I hope no one I know has seen this here and thought I wrote this filth.’ But then I thought: ‘How very appropriate’. I bought the book and read it cover to cover. I think I even enjoyed it .... I have since contacted the author, who I like to think of as my body double – or rather, the Mr Hyde to my Dr Jekell – and we’re in communication.”

 “I have literally turned the book on its head by reworking selected text into an opposite kind of narrative from the original one. This new scenario is generated in scrolling text on an LED screen.”



Adapted from an interview with the artist

Sean O’Toole (ed.) (2002) Clean and Grime Catalogue. Cape Town: Bell-Roberts

“There was nowhere to go: the small of her back was pressed up against a writing desk” (with apologies to Kathryn Smith)

Artist: Kathryn Smith (b. 1975)

Medium: 5 circular framed lambda prints and 1 LED screen with brackets, power cable and infra-red keypad

This roof tile depicts the Monkey Xuanzang. It was accompanied by the Pilgrim, Tripitaka, the Monk, Sandy and ‘Pigsy’ the Pig, a horse carrying clothes and a horse carrying books. They are all characters from the Chinese legends of the Monkey King that blend of folklore, allegory, religion, history and satire together.  The legends are contained in the sixteenth century book Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en and arestories have delighted millions of Chinese children and adults for over four hundred years.

Journey To the West is  one of the four great classic novels written during the Ming Dynasty. Wu Chen-en was an elder statesman who witnessed much in his life, both good and bad, yet ultimately came away with great faith in human nature to face hardships and survive with good humor and compassion.

The story may be read on different levels such as; a quest and an adventure, a fantasy, a personal search (on the Monkey’s part) for self-cultivation, or a political/social satire. The story tells about how Monkey (Xuanzang) went to India in the seventh century to seek Buddhist scriptures to bring back to China. The principle story consists of eighty-one calamities suffered by Xuanzang, Tripitaka, Sandy and Pigsy.

Chinese roof tile from the Ming Dynasty depicting the ‘Monkey’ called Xuanzang (c.1368-1644). Artist: unrecorded. Medium: glazed ceramic. Collection: Johannesburg Art Gallery