Tretchikoff's Penny Whistlers

"Penny Whistlers": A Glimpse into South African Musical Heritage

Originally created with oil on canvas and measuring 61 x 122cm, "Penny Whistlers" bears Tretchikoff's unmistakable style and signature use of colour. The painting's journey through time can be traced back to its acquisition in Toronto in 1965, acquired directly from the artist. From there, it was passed down through generations and was then put on auction at Bonhams in 2016, selling for 50 000 Euros. 

Penny Whistlers was reproduced and printed in Britain in 1965, becoming one of the ten best-selling prints that year. This work stands out as one of Tretchikoff’s most renowned and historically significant paintings. With its rich history, bold colours, and social commentary, this artwork provides a fascinating window into both the artist's evolution, and South Africa's cultural landscape. 

"Penny Whistlers" made its debut on the public stage in an exhibition at Garlicks department store in Cape Town on August 20, 1959. This particular painting marked a pivotal juncture in Tretchikoff's career, signaling a shift from his earlier portrayals of black South Africans as generalized and exotic figures to a more socially conscious and specific representation. The painting offers a unique glimpse into the lives of young black South Africans, playfully named "penny whistlers," who exude an unwavering spirit of joy and resilience in the face of racial discrimination during the years of Apartheid.

Tretchikoff's ability to capture the essence of his subjects is particularly evident in "Penny Whistlers." The painting beautifully captures the energy and vibrancy of the young musicians known for their performances of "kwela," a genre of music that held a skiffle-like beat and was performed with inexpensive tin flutes and guitars. This musical genre communicated the rhythm and dynamism of the city, and its popularity was such that even a British pop chart was topped by a song from a local kwela band around the time Tretchikoff was creating this masterpiece. It is suggested that the inspiration for Tretchikoff's "Penny Whistlers" may have come from the Kwela Kids, a band formed by Isaac Ngoma, Joshua and Robert Sithole, hailing from District Six and Gugulethu. These young musicians would gather every Saturday at Cape Town's Grand Parade square, enthralling audiences with their performances. So immense was their popularity that local authorities had to manage crowds to prevent disruptions to traffic.

In a broader context, "Penny Whistlers" aligns with Tretchikoff's trajectory as an artist with a social conscience. While his earlier works may have embraced stereotypes, this painting reveals a nuanced understanding of the times, placing the subjects within a specific historical and cultural context. This shift also corresponds with Tretchikoff's engagement with the broader sociopolitical issues of South Africa, particularly the apartheid policies that were dividing the nation. 

As the print continues to grace the homes of many across the globe, it serves as a bridge between the past and the present, inviting contemplation on the enduring relevance of its themes. Tretchikoff's ability to capture the vivacity and spirit of the penny whistlers resonates not only with the historical context in which it was created but also with the universal human desire to celebrate life and culture despite challenges. This masterpiece stands as a reminder that art has the power to transcend time, to tell stories, and to inspire reflection on the shared threads that connect us all, regardless of the era or the circumstances we find ourselves in. 

"Penny Whistlers" is more than just a visually captivating artwork; it's a profound commentary on a moment in time, an exploration of South African music and culture, and a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Through its vivid colours, lively composition, and social commentary, this painting continues to resonate with audiences, offering insights into the artist's evolution and the broader cultural landscape of South Africa.

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