Every class has at least one child who is constantly being reprimanded for drawing instead of paying attention. John Koenakeefe Motlhakanga, otherwise known as ‘Mohl’, was one such child. With the young boy constantly being scolded, Mohl’s father became convinced that books were a waste of time and pulled his son out of school to herd the goats. However, a Reverend based at the local Mission School took an interest in the young artist and convinced his father to allow him to continue his drawing at the Tigerskloof Training School.
Mohl painted both rural and urban landscapes; his work portrayed an important time in South African history during the 20th Century. The plight of black mineworkers, as seen in On the Reef by Moonlight, depicts a mass of workers moving in the night, their outlines illuminated by the moon as they make their way to the mines. None are recognizable, the dehumanized mine workers are face-less, mere shadows in the night, their masculine shapes multiplied by the diminishing lines that lead from the electricity poles overhead, to the large mining dump in the distance. Miners at night is another example of this subject matter.
Sherwell Street Bridge Scene is another piece portraying an urban environment. It depicts the daily movement of people entering and leaving the Doornfontein train station in Johannesburg, making their way to and from work. Other than the colour of their clothes there are no defining characteristics of the individual, the building on the left towers above them, shadowed in the light of dusk or dawn it appears dark and menacing. The angle of the stairway, which runs in the centre of the canvas, is purposefully amiss and thus discomforting to the eye.
Mohl’s preferred medium was oil, using fine brush detail and monochromatic hues, depth in his landscape compositions and strong lines to depict movement. A Cloud Burst Show is one such example, with figures crouching beneath an umbrella with long streaks illustrating the overpowering wind and rain.
Mohl drew inspiration from the rural and urban areas he was exposed to throughout his life. The Tone of Dawn in Lesotho is an example of his rural landscape. He was born in September 1903, in Zeerust. His father was a carpenter, who sculpted a variety of objects including chairs and mealie stampers. After attaining a teacher’s diploma he moved to Namibia and studied art under Mary du Pont, a French artist who taught him how to prepare canvases and work with a variety of art materials. He continued his training in Düsseldorf, West Germany, before returning to South Africa at the age of 41 to establish an art school in Sophiatown called White Studio.
The Group Areas Act of 1950 saw the mass removal of families and the demolition of entire communities around the country. Sophiatown was bulldozed and Mohl was forced to move to Soweto where he taught art at Madiban and Orlando High School.
He is one of the first black artists to be involved in art education, and established Artists Under The Sun in 1960, a group of artists who, to this day, gather in Joubert Park, Johannesburg, to sell their art to passer-byers while soaking up the warm rays.