Albert Adams' paintings recall Expressionism and apartheid-era South Africa in Oldham

By Megan Plumstead | 09 December 2013

Albert Adams' paintings recall German Expressionism, Francis Bacon and apartheid-era South Africa in a wide-ranging show at Gallery Oldham


a painting of a young woman
Portrait of Miss Rhoda Samuels (1958)© University of Salford
The work of Albert Adams, one of the 20th century’s most important South African artists, is being showcased in an exhibition of intensity and variety at Gallery Oldham.

Born in Johannesburg in 1929 and raised by his grandmother, Adams’ work reflects his struggles growing up as a mixed-race child in apartheid South Africa and as an émigré artist in London.

Adams’ talents as an artist were recognised early on but he had to constantly battle the apartheid regime to become a painter.

His 'mixed race' meant he was denied entrance to the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Capetown but fortune smiled on him when, working as a shop sign writer, he met two German Refugees from Nazi Germany who encouraged him to pursue his talents, and in 1953 he won a scholarship to the Slade School of Art in London.

It was during his time at the Slade that he won another scholarship to the University of Munich and worked with the Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka, who admired and influenced his work.

a woodcut of a young man
Self portrait (1958). Woodcut© University of Salford
Kokoschka became a friend and remained an influence, as can be seen in many of the paintings on display here. But Adams’ palette was varied and the trace influence of Francis Bacon, Otto Dix and even Francisco de Goya can be discerned in many of his works.

The shadow of government repression in South Africa was also a theme in pieces such as the etching The Prisoner (2002), which recalls the torture drawings of another German emigre, George Grosz. Two relatives of Adams were imprisoned in South Africa for their opposition to the government, one of them spending some time on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.

As an established voice in contemporary painting, Adams returned to South Africa briefly after finishing at Slade. In later life he visited India, the birthplace of his father.

He felt a connection with the country, which also influenced the work on show at Gallery Oldham, with many of his paintings and prints revolving around the image of the Ape and a collection of Indian Monkey masks.

In 2005 Adams said: “I discovered I had an enormous relationship with the land – mostly visual.”

The exhibition includes a number of oil paintings from his early years and sculptures exploring his Indian and African heritage such as Mende masks from Sierra Leone and Indian embroidered textiles from his personal collection.

After losing his battle to lung cancer at the age of 77 in December 2006, the University of Salford was gifted the collection by his partner, Edward Glennon, through the Art Fund.

  • Albert Adams is at Gallery Oldham until April 19 2014.

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a drawing of an upside down figure in a cell
The Prisoner (2002)© University of Salford
an abstract view of a animal in against a purple and blue background
Wild animal (1980)© University of Salford
a panting of a large man lying down
Seigbert Eick (1958)© University of Salford
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