Too frequently the artists who worked together within the Johannesburg-Pretoria nexus of the 1970s have been labeled surrealists, an ill-fitting label since it prizes the subconscious, the stuff of dreams. Although the artists featured in this article—Fikile Magadlela, Motlhabane Mashiangwako, Thami Mnyele, and Lefifi Tladi—personified black consciousness (BC) and cited its importance to their art making, historians still largely translate their work through the comfort of surrealism’s familiar frame. This article focuses on the professional lives of four men who were pointedly conscious in their politics and gave voice and vision to it. It accesses the black consciousness of each artist within select works by carefully analyzing and historicizing each one. It also records the lives of all four artists within BC’s parent body, the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO). Each one had a different relationship with SASO, which commissioned artists to perform, read, and display their work at cultural events it sponsored. SASO and BC’s other parent organization, the Black Peoples’ Convention, both financed artist-directed projects and critically reviewed and reproduced works in their newsletters, and some of these artists benefited directly. The artists of this study met one another through SASO in 1972, shared creative space, and built new programs aligned with black consciousness over subsequent years. This article dislodges surrealist readings ascribed to these artists’ works, since their political origins register more meaningfully.

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