Amita Makan Phillip Tobias: After John Liebenberg 2013 | | Art in South Africa
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Phillip Tobias: After John Liebenberg 2013

Phillip Tobias: After John Liebenberg 2013
Commissioned by University of KwaZulu Natal

Artist Statement

It was an honor and privilege to do a portrait of the late Professor Phillip Valentine Tobias, a South African and a global icon. The portrait, commissioned by Professor MR Haffajee of the University of KwaZulu Natal, is an interpretation a photograph. I would have liked to acknowledge the photographer.

The 7th June 2013 will mark the first anniversary of Professor Tobias's passing. Phillip Tobias was described, as, 'a man with a twinkle in his eye'[1], as well as 'the master, curator and biographer of our humanity'[2]. He was recognized as 'one of the most respected experts on human evolution' and 'is legendary for unearthing man’s ancient ancestry'[3].

I paint and embroider to express my Self. I thank Professor Haffajee for allowing me the artistic freedom to interpret the late Professor Tobias in my own language, embroidery in a contemporary style. The portrait is hand embroidered with silk and viscose thread on silk organza. From a conceptual point of view, since the late Professor Tobias was South Africa's first geneticist, I thought it apt to capture him in thread as the two strands in an embroidery thread mimic the double helix strands of DNA. In April 2012, I embroidered the fossil, Australopithecus Sediba, to commemorate World Art Day celebrated on the birth date of Leonardo Da Vinci. The artwork, titled 'Australopithecus Sediba, The First Mona Lisa' as the species had facial muscles and were capable of smiling.

In this work, entitled 'Phillip Valentine Tobias, 2013' I tried to capture Tobias, the visionary. I was moved by his memoir, Into The Past, detailing his deep dedication and contribution to freedom, knowledge and equality in South Africa.

I was struck and humbled by the late Professor's deep sense of humanity. During Apartheid he courageously and scientifically disproved the government ideology that f0f1ed South Africans were inferior. Phillip Tobias was instrumental in the repatriation of Saartjie Baartman’s remains from Paris. In doing so, not only did he restore her dignity as a f0f1ed South African woman and human being but also ours, as South Africans.

In his memoir, Into the Past (2006, 214) he writes:

How quickly the past can be forgotten if we do not acknowledge our debt to the pioneers who came before us and on whose efforts our own are frequently built.

In encasing the work in perspex and suspending it, the portrait becomes interactive. When looking at his portrait, it also reflects the viewer and silhouettes of passers by. 'Future generations of Greatness' will be beholden to Phillip Tobias, a true pioneer. The late Professor's greatness will reflect in them and they, in him.


[1] Mandy de Waal , Daily Maverick 'Phillip Tobias, SA's great scientist and human being, has gone back to earth' online 8 June, 2012

[2] Business Day Essence of life Phillip Tobias, master, curator and biographer of our humanity, is gone, Friday 8 June 2012.

[3] Mandy de Waal , Daily Maverick ‘Phillip Tobias, SA's great scientist and human being, has gone back to earth' online 8 June, 2012

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