Robert Slingsby comes from an old Yorkshire family renowned for its involvement with the world famous Slingsby glider which dates back to pre Second World War aviation. Perhaps Robert inherited this physic energy which led him on a path that eventually gave him the universal fame for his paintings which he now enjoys.

There is nothing more inspiring than flying in an engineless aeroplane with only the whistle of the wind breaking up the pure silence known only by eagles and gliders slicing through the atmosphere chasing thermals for lift. For some reason artists and writers who are involved with flight become greatly inspired and perhaps Robert inherited this abstract appreciation of flight in his DNA. 

Robert started painting and collecting things from the age of three and has never looked back. Now internationally accepted as a great artist he has reached fifty an age when every artist takes a step backwards and takes a good hard look of what went before and what might be for the future. I had the honour of meeting Robert during his exhibition at the Square 1 Gallery and for an hour I listened to his fascinating ideas for the creative role of the artist.    

“I don’t think art and expressing oneself is a choice. If you have a choice you wouldn’t do it although once you have embarked on the holy grail of the artist if there is a choice factor involved, then the choice is not to make it easy. The choice is to be stimulated by life. The choice is to be a thinking human being. I don’t want to get stuck in an old paradigm; I don’t want to be someone subservient to any one or regime that might elect themselves to make the rules according to the ego of the individual. I want to be someone who expands his consciousness as much as he can whilst I am on this planet.  I do that and I find it is selfish but so be it. I believe that for me as an artist and painter this is perhaps the necessary way forward. Now at fifty I am entering a chapter where I feel that I must adopt a lighter attitude towards aspects of my life although this doesn’t mean I have to spend less time in my studio…..”                                 

Appropriate words with which Robert Slingsby gave a vision of his serious role as an internationally acclaimed South African painter who started his life with a philosophy and perspective that differed from the South African Establishment. He found apartheid a monstrous and horrific nightmare but due to the repression of the prevalent political regime he was only able to express his disapproval through politically didactic paintings. Any overheard conversations that denigrated apartheid was likely to put the speaker in prison and in the fifties the police had eyes and ears everywhere. This ethnic fascism was a style of politics which Robert abhorred and as soon as he could he left South Africa to take up residence in Holland where he stayed for many years. 

Robert is not only an artist but an artist who has certain humanitarian qualities that extend far beyond the requirements of an ordinary painter. But then real artists have two responsibilities and Robert is a real artist. The first is for the expression of their art form and the second (related to the first) is a comment on the society in which he lives via his personal technique, paint brush chisel or whatever. Artists who use words as their form of censure have a comparatively easy format. More difficult is the comment via the paint brush or chisel.

Before Robert left South Africa he matured as a human being and like the true artist, reacted to the dark days of the seventies until in 1976, the streets of Cape Town reverberated with the mob noise created by the education riots. This was the catalyst that decided Robert to leave his native land and in 1977 he left South Africa to study at the Vrije Akademie in Den Haag Holland. There he developed as a painter in oils producing a more classical style of pictures with images easily recognised as distinct from the abstract techniques of the latter half of the twentieth century. 

After Holland he returned to post apartheid Africa and lived among the people who were the victims of this iniquitous political structure. He learned of their deserved but denied humanity by becoming part of their sub culture when he visited the blacks in their own environment and shanty town homes. He began to understand their tragedy and their past by walking the deserts and studying their thrown away detritus which Robert found during his “walkabouts” in the sands of “Table Bay” and the desert lands close to their places of work. It was this detritus which gave Robert the inspiration for remarkable exhibition which filled the walls at the Square 1 Gallery Chelsea. Efficiently organised by Sandie Lowry, the Square 1 Gallery is a relatively new, stylish, elegant and fashionable gallery at the Fulham end of the Kings Road where Robert made an indelible impression and a powerful statement about the dark days of South African apartheid and the heartless use of what was basically slave labour and the employment of human beings as animals and beasts of burden for which they were paid just enough for basic existence survival.  Whereas the ordinary member of the establishment waited for the abolishment of apartheid before adopting the now fashionable politically correct modern status quo attitude of South Africa. Robert Slingsby was a pathfinder for a minority which, with the help of Nelson Mandela, was to grow into a large majority of people whose sense of humanity raised strong objections to an iniquitous way of life that some white settlers fought to maintain.  Robert’s incredible creations hanging on the walls at the Square1 Gallery were a powerful, retrospective statement of the evil of apartheid and the kind of life the blacks were condemned to. He used ordinary artifacts and detritus which had been abandoned since the early days of industrial apartheid and thrown away by the black workers from the diamond mines and other industries where they worked more like prisoners in a chain gang than people with the rights of a human being. Many years later Robert had wandered these lands and found them buried and hidden in the sands of South Africa. He took them home and added them to his collection and finally converted them to an art form with intrinsic beauty.

At first glance, without being told, one simply does not recognise what Robert has used to make up his creation but, on closer inspection, it suddenly dawns upon one that they are an eclectic selection of jugs, bowls, cans, utensils, all of which once had a use and were the owned by the black workers who had suffered so much. There was even an ancient (40 years plus) stolen money box, (with indications that it had been forced opened) a string instrument constructed out of a large tin with attachments for the strings, a bike carrier still with some of its original wire and many other things which could be recognised only with difficulty as the original object when first manufactured. As well as such commonplace objects there were constructions made out of brass and representing the shanty town shacks and even a small village which had candles fired inside, glowing with a life of their own. Whatever Robert Slingsby created he transformed them by what can only be described as magical transmogrification of the true artist. He took the discarded artifacts and detritus of apartheid and made them via acrylic on canvas or mixed media into a magic that few people can create.

Copyright Dorian van Braam. The Renaissance Press March / April 2006.

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  UPDATED 2nd July 2016