Kenneth Baker (1931 - 1988)
Musicians, 1967

acrylic on board, 60 x 46cm

signed and dated bottom right ‘Baker 67’

Kenny Baker was a self-taught painter who worked for a while as a signwriter on the Cape Town docks. He was close friends with Peter Clarke, who recalls that he was very hard-working. He painted in the early morning before setting out for work and tried to sell his paintings immediately that day. Shy and reticent, he underestimated himself and resisted efforts to recognise his ability as an artist; as a result he is not listed in any of the art dictionaries.

He was married to Joan Baker, a well-known storyteller and one of the founding members of the black women’s writing collective Weave, who died in 2000. In an interview with the couple in the sound archives of the District Six Museum, Joan speaks of the formative influence of the Baker family’s forced removal from Harfield, Claremont – a place to which Kenny returned repeatedly for his character studies. He also regularly painted scenes depicting community life in District Six, where he used to play dominoes every Sunday, as well as the fishermen he observed returning with the day’s catch on the docks.

Joan describes the constant tension between the financial pressures of raising a family and Kenny’s longing to paint full-time: ‘it was a choice between an income that was not going to be sufficient, or a man that was never going to be complete.’ Despite a steady stream of private buyers from overseas, Baker charged little for his work, due to the necessity of earning an income and, as his wife recalled, ‘so people who live in District Six could afford to hang a District Six painting. He did our people a service by making the work accessible to them.’

This painting is a characteristic study of close-knit community life in Cape Town, a sense of vibrant life experienced to the full despite the depredations of apartheid.

© 2005 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.