Internationally renowned South African artist Paul Stopforth has persistently borne witness to man’s inhumanity to man. His highly political art attests to the dehumanizing effects of apartheid including his Biko series and the Deaths in Detention series. Under intense pressure because of his outspokenness Mr. Stopforth emigrated to the United States in 1988, but he still returns to South Africa. Working in sculpture, drawing, painting and printmaking, his work continues to explore political issues while developing an expansive space beyond a specific historical context, engaging with memory and loss. Paul Stopforth will reflect on various periods of his career as an artist and activist and discuss his artworks that have recently been added to the BSU permanent art collection.

Collection Focus

Paul Stopforth is a painter and graphic artist who works in oil, gouache, ink, charcoal, encaustic and lithography. He was born in 1945 in Johannesburg, South Africa. From the age of 19 he studied at the NATD, Johannesburg College of Art, where he graduated in 1967.

Inspired by the death of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko in 1978, the artist created one of his most recognized works of art: The Interrogators. This renowned triptych details the portraits of the security officers who interrogated Biko. Stopforth intended to portray "terribly ordinary-looking" people as the tortures of Biko to represent the commonality in these happenings - what he called the "banality of evil". He reflects that “there was a real line drawn between those who thought my work was very powerful and relevant, and those who thought I was corrupting art by engaging with specific political and social issues.”

The Interrogators was continued by a series of 20 drawings based on the death of Biko. His works around this time give evidence to a kind of witnessing and testimony in relation to apartheid-era interrogation and torture, and to the deaths in detention to which these practices led. They constitute one of the great works of art produced in protest to the apartheid regime. In relation to the struggle, Stopforth remarked, " I want to bring the facts home to those willing to look. My figures parallel something that we can't be witness to. We can't refuse to accept that these things happen". These works and the impact they had led to Stopforth going into exile.

The works that are now part of the Bridgewater State University collection are paintings on canvas or birch that come from the longing of an exile missing his homeland. The stylistic dot patterns are memories that evoke the “luminosity of African beadwork.” With his words and gestures, Stopforth engenders an experience of his art that both illuminates the South African history with which he is engaging and enriches the aesthetic quality of the work itself. The paint he used in this work is made from curdled milk, which serves to reference both the importance of cattle in African culture and the texture of the South African landscape. Stopforth’s work is filled with this sort of synthesis—combining beautifully crafted pieces with deeply provocative political ideas.

These paintings are currently on display at the Moakley Center Atrium.

For further reading on the work of Paul Stopforth; the Anderson gallery has published a catalogue that is a great overview of this artist life-time work. Titled Bethesda, Breakwater, Bridgewater; written by Jonathan Shirland, Associate Professor of Art History.