MULTI-TALENTED MASTER OF fiercely bright colours and the unequivocal backbone of the Durban arts community, Andrew Verster was known for his magnificent fine art and theatre design, as well as his contribution to the National Arts Festival. He wrote, mentored and allowed the audacity of art to run through his veins. He passed away in his sleep on 16 February 2020. He was 82.
Born into a three-generational household on 15 June 1937, in the Johannesburg suburb of Kensington, Verster was the elder of two boys to John and Leslie Verster.
He attended Leicester Road Primary School and Jeppe High School for Boys where he matriculated in 1954. Never big on sports, his priority even as a youngster was with the arts. After school, he went to the United Kingdom to study, graduating in 1959 with a National Diploma in Design from London’s Camberwell College of Art, and an Art Teacher’s Diploma from Reading University in Berkshire, a year later.
He returned to settle in South Africa in 1963, as a 25-year-old armed with a passion and interest in the culture of South Africa’s Indian community. He took up a lectureship at the then University of Durban-Westville, before moving to the then Natal Technikon, where he worked until 1976. By the time he had turned 39, Verster was confident with having made the big decision to ditch academia and paint, full time. It was through his contribution from this time to the Durban arts community that he became celebrated as its backbone.
Verster did not only limit himself to one medium, but rather involved himself in a wide variety of opportunities in the art world, from writing plays, articles and short stories to designing theatre sets and costumes. Indeed, leaping from costume to fashion, in 2002, he presented a range of eight outfits for the Durban Designer Collection.
He was prolifically lauded with industry awards for his work, throughout his immensely productive career. In 2004, for instance, his theatre design achievements included Opera Africa’s Faust, which was staged at The South African State Theatre in Pretoria; Mzilikazi Khumalo’s Princess Magogo, directed by Themi Venturas which showcased in the open-air United States Ravinia Festival; and the Rocky Horror Show, staged at the Spier Amphitheatre in Stellenbosch.
The Fools Awards, a Durban-based theatre initiative to acknowledge top arts achievers in the province, granted Verster an award for set designs in 2003 for his work on Greg King’s production of Private Lives and the adult pantomime Sinderella Comes Again, and for visual art in 2005 and 2006.
Putting aside his paintbrush to pick up his writing tools, Verster was equally celebrated as a writer. In 1992, he won the BBC World Service playwriting competition, with his work You May Leave, the Show is Over. Another celebrated radio play of his was Future Past, which features the voice of veteran South African performer, Janet Suzman. In addition, his short story Aileen, Marjorie, Arthur and Me was adapted for radio and broadcast by the BBC.
Verster was a popular presence in Durban’s The Daily News: for four years, he wrote a weekly arts column, From the backwater and for 12 years, he served as that newspaper’s art critic. Over the years, Verster was an important voice for such national institutions as the Film and Publications Review Board, the Durban Art Gallery, the Arts Work Trust and the African Arts Centre, among others. He was bestowed an honorary doctorate from the Durban University of Technology (DUT) in April of 2009, and was the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award winner for the 15th annual Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) Awards.
In addition to his public art, Verster still found the energy to indulge often and deeply in his love for design that evoked an Eastern quality. He had a command of unsaturated bright colours that was distinctive as it was bold and often outrageous. Over the years, he had numerous public and private commissions, including sculpture and tapestry works for the Reserve Bank in Durban, pieces for the Durban Hilton hotel, and a tapestry in the ICC Durban offices. During his career, he mounted more than 50 solo exhibitions, including two retrospective shows at the Durban Art Gallery, in 1997 and 2019.
Immersed in the art component of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown for many years, Verster was a member of the festival committee between 2002 and 2012; in 2007 he hosted a ten-year retrospective exhibition there, to commemorate his 70th birthday. It was an enormous affair offering rich insight into his unprecious and magnificent forays into different mediums, experimenting with concepts such as transparency and staining.
An impeccably direct individual, and an itinerant traveller, Verster was like a centrifugal force. He was always willing to give credit when it was due and to ask for help when he needed it. He was well-loved by his peers and a deeply kind person in his demeanour, with an easy smile.
While former students have described his teaching talents and energising spirit, they also remember how he veered them away from making echoes of his work, and encouraged them to find their own voices.
An empath to his fingertips, Verster didn’t have the ability to mask his feelings. When he experienced an emotion, it would radiate out of him. In July of 2009, Verster’s life partner, Aidan Walsh, died from a heart attack after a long battle with cancer. The loss broke Verster and his lust for life became diluted. Several years later, Verster sold his house and went to live in a flat, owned by artist Clive van den Berg in Durban.
Verster leaves his brother, Stephen, nieces, Linda Harris and Hannah Louise Smith, and grand nieces and nephews, Liam and Kenna Harris and Kayleigh and Daniel Smith, not to forget many loving friends, former students and loyal fans.