Ezrom Legae is best known for his powerful visual commentaries on the pathos and degradation of apartheid – a critique he extended to the persistence of poverty and racism in the post-apartheid years. He studied under Cecil Skotnes and Sydney Kumalo at the Polly Street Art Centre from 1959 to 1964. The training Legae received from Kumalo, and the stylistic influences gleaned from fellow students at Polly Street, such as Ben Arnold, Ephraim Ngatane, and Louis Maqhubela, resulted in his fusion of classical African and modernistic styles. Working in a neo-African idiom, as Elza Miles terms it, he applied these influences in his sculpture, to shape and interpret observations from life.
As with Skotnes and Kumalo, the African art collector and gallerist, Egon Guenther, had a seminal influence on Legae’s stylistic development and career. Guenther introduced these artists to German Expressionism and the sculptural traditions of West, and Central Africa, and familiarised them with the work of artists like Baumeister, Barlach, Kollwitz and Sharf. Elza Miles writes: According to Guenther, Legae, being exceptionally intense and sensitive, absorbed the spirit of the African pieces without copying them.
The Death of Steve Biko
Male Nude with Goat
Ivor Powell further adds: Perhaps more than any other artist associated with the Polly Street milieu, Legae’s practice as an artist is absolutely convincingly located at a cusp between African sensibility and reference on one hand, and the transcendent and universalist preoccupations of international modernism on the other. In this regard, many of his sculptures register equally the kind of abstractionist simplification of European and American figurative sculpture of the mid 20th century and the hieratic and animist charge and proportion of African traditional woodcarving.
In the Scupture ‘Young man’ Legae presents us with the male form stylized to the essence, his features angular and chiselled. Although passive, with hands behind his back, the sculpture beams with pride and confidence – virtually shouting: Black is beautiful! (text JohansBorman Gallery)