Cecily Sash with a Zimbabwean stone head in her Welsh garden; one of her works, ‘Pulse’. Picture: Sunday Times
Cecily Sash with a Zimbabwean stone head in her Welsh garden; one of her works, ‘Pulse’. Picture: Sunday Times

SA artist Cecily Sash has died aged 94 in the UK, where she had been living and working since the 1970s.

In her seminal book Painting in South Africa, art historian Esmé Berman notes that during the 1960s few SA artists exercised more influence than Sash. While her influence might have dipped in the intervening years, there has been a renewed interest in her work in recent years.

Sash was an artist and a dedicated teacher. In an essay in Art and Articles, a compilation of essays and artworks by former colleagues and students made to commemorate the retirement of Sash’s friend and colleague Heather Martienssen, head of fine arts at Wits University, where Sash taught design for almost 20 years from 1955, Berman calls her “a painter of profound intelligence and a teacher of incomparable ability”.

Sash was born in Delmas, in what was then the Transvaal, in 1925. She studied initially under Maurice van Essche at Wits Tech art school in the 1940s, and went on to study in London in the 1950s, where she was taught by Victor Pasmore and Henry Moore, pioneers of abstract art in the UK.

Cecily Sash: Diagonal Drama. Picture: SUPPLIED
Cecily Sash: Diagonal Drama. Picture: SUPPLIED

She began working as a teacher at Jeppe Girls’ High School, then studied toward a fine arts degree at Wits. She went back to the UK in 1955 to study mosaic and mural design, Berman says, and her first commissions tended to be murals, including a huge mosaic in the Transvaal Provincial Administration building in Pretoria (from where another large mural by Alexis Preller was recently removed and relocated to the Javett Art Centre, which opens this month; it is being restored).

She also contributed a mosaic to the base of the spiral staircase in the John Moffat Building at Wits, and a butterfly mosaic made for the concourse at the then Jan Smuts Airport. A few years ago, art critic Sean O’Toole came upon one in a hairdresser’s shop in Germiston!

Sash’s profound intellectual influence as a teacher, Berman argues, means “it is virtually impossible to identify a single painter whose works resemble hers in any appreciable measure”. Nevertheless, her artworks have always been important in the history of SA art.

In the 1960s, Sash was a founder member of the Amadlozi Group, an influential group of artists including Cecil Skotnes, Guiseppe Cattaneo, Sydney Kumalo and Edoardo Villa, brought together by art dealer and printmaker Egon Guenther, mostly for exhibition purposes.

The group’s main concern was a quest for a modern SA artistic identity connected with the spirit of Africa. Amadlozi means “spirit of our ancestors”.

The group is perhaps best known for the ways in which its members negotiated the international influences of modernism and even reacted to international movements such as Pop Art by searching instead for some kind of local identity and pursuing regional concerns.

Despite the association lasting only a year, the group went on to have a significant influence on the course of black modernism, another movement which has recently been drawn into the spotlight in exhibitions such A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists (1970-1990) at the Standard Bank Gallery this year.

Cicily Sash's Target Composition I. Picture: Supplied
Cicily Sash's Target Composition I. Picture: Supplied

Like Skotnes and some of the others, Sash also collaborated with the famous Stephens Tapestry Studio to create large-scale tapestries.

Soon after the dissolution of the Amadlozi Group in 1965, Sash was awarded an Oppenheimer grant and spent a year in the UK and US studying art education. She returned highly inspired by the Op Art movement, a kind of abstraction that plays with visual and perceptual distortions and tricks created by pattern and colour. Even in these works, however, her colleagues noted the ancient influences, particularly early Cretan pottery.

Sash continued to drift between pure, hard-edged abstraction and more figurative works, often including bright colours and bold graphics with influences from the landscape, such as grasses, thorn trees and particularly birds. (One anecdote traces the recurring bird motif in her work to an incident at Jeppe, when a bird flew into her classroom and panicked.)

In the catalogue of her 1974 retrospective exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum just before she emigrated, Martienssen noted: “The fine singing precision in drawing that has been building up all these years, the finesse of paint, the fearlessness of colour, the birds who are personages, trapped, vulnerable, heartbreaking, struggling with the vain rosettes of targets from which they cannot escape, the mocking frivolous ribbons that almost, but not quite, conceal the anguish – what is all this to be called if not surrealism?”

Art in flight

Undoubtedly the bird motif represents a crossover between metaphysical and personal concerns. Berman described Sash as primarily an intellectual rather than an emotional artist, writing that “painterly devices and surface effects are, for the most part, secondary to design and order in her work”, but it became clear that the recurring symbols also indicated “emotional conflict”.

Though some accounts discount a political motivation for Sash’s emigration, she told the Hereford Times in the UK: “I left SA because I couldn’t stand apartheid anymore. I had the police coming in and taking books, thinking I might have been a communist. The university I taught at was one of the only ones to stand against the government, and people who taught at Wits were always under suspicion.

“One lived in fear of doing something wrong. I was quite afraid that I might be stopped before I left.”

Sash continued to teach and to produce art. She exhibited in the UK, France and SA. In 1999, when she turned 75, she held a series of three exhibitions at universities in SA. Her recent art continued to reference places and features of SA origin, with titles like Cape Vine.

One seminal painting, Target Composition I, which was part of a series she did in 1973/1974, and which featured in her retrospective exhibition at the time, broke all previous records for her work and fetched nearly half a million rand on auction in 2015. Her works continue to prove popular and increase in value.

Sash is survived by her brother, Leonard — who, like their father, is a doctor, and specialised in sports medicine, working for Arsenal Football Club for many years — and her nephew.