This painting, one of Tretchikoff’s best known, is also among his most historically important ones.
Tretchikoff may be credited with introducing the African theme in popular prints of the post-war Britain — and, possibly, the entire Western Europe. If we examine the issues of the Art Bulletin, the official publication of the Fine Art Trade Guild, the leading association of British makers, distributors and framers of art reproductions, we will notice a total absence of African portraits until the 1960s.
In 1960, David Shepherd’s studies of African elephants, executed with an almost photographic realism, first became available as prints to the general public. His ‘jumbo pictures’ sold very well, and yet those were depictions of wildlife, not of people.
Tretchikoff had revolutionised the British market of art prints in 1956 with the bold bright colours and orientalism of his Chinese Girl. According to the Art Bulletin, that reproduction had ‘shaken the slumbering art lovers of Britain as they have not been shaken before’.
|Photos of Robert Sithole and Isaac Ngoma taken by Tretchikoff while working on the Penny Whistlers. |
Tretchikoff Archive, Cape Town.
Then, Tretchikoff presented to the print-buying public of the United Kingdom his Zulu Girl, Basuto Girl and Zulu Maiden. Some of the original paintings were displayed at his record-breaking show in London, with over 200,000 visitors.
In 1965, his British publisher launched the Penny Whistlers. This reproduction was one of the ten best-selling prints of the year in the United Kingdom. It was also the first instance when a picture of African people found its way into the British best-seller list.
The success of the Penny Whistlers demonstrated a progressive shift in the tastes of the British public and resulted in many imitations by less talented artists. All of a sudden, portraits of Black men and women started to adorn the pages of the Art Bulletin, and the art departments of Boots, where prints were sold in those years.
One of the features that those artists tried to emulate was the remarkable bluish tint on the faces of Tretchikoff’s musicians. He often used it when portraying African people. ‘If you look at a so-called “Black” face, you will see it looks bluish’, he expounded. ‘I just exaggerate that a little. Not that I need any excuse for painting that way. I just do it.’
The Penny Whistlers was first exhibited in Cape Town in 1959. That show revealed Tretchikoff’s development as a socially conscious artist. For the first time in his career, instead of ‘exotic’ portraits of Black people in traditional clothing, without any reference to the time and context in which they were painted, he showed portraits of urbanised Africans of his time. The most controversial of these works at the time was the Black and White, his poignant commentary on the divisive apartheid policies that were being staunchly implemented in his country.
In the Penny Whistlers, he celebrated the cheerful spirit of the people. This picture of three black boys busking in the streets of Cape Town reflects the rise of kwela, a light and jazzy street music with a skifﬂe-like beat. Residents of black townships performed it on cheap tin ﬂutes and guitars, trying to express the rough-and-tumble of the city. The new style became known even outside the country. Around the time when Tretchikoff produced his Penny Whistlers, a song by a local kwela band, ‘Tom Hark’, topped the pop charts in Britain.
The teenage combo we see in the Penny Whistlers is the Kwela Kids, comprising Isaac Ngoma, Joshua and Robert Sithole of District Six and Gugulethu. Every Saturday, they played the latest kwela hits on the Grand Parade square in Cape Town. It is said that policemen used to give them trouble because the crowds they drew blocked the traffic.
The boys were only starting out when Tretchikoff painted them for his Penny Whistlers. Years later, they became some of the best-loved jazz musicians in Cape Town.
Tretchikoff took the painting on his second tour of Canada, in 1965. When the show arrived in Toronto, the Penny Whistlers caught the eye of Paul Kaufman, a medical doctor from the nearby town of Kitchener, Ontario. It remained in his family for decades.
|Robert Sithole, 1958. By Günther Komnick|