The woes and wonder of Wopko Jensma

Although he is not as well-known as peers such as Breyten Breytenbach or Walter Battiss, Jensma is reckoned to be one of South Africa’s multifaceted creative forces.

“i hope to live to the age of sixty

i hope to leave some evidence

that I inhabited this world

that I sensed my situation

that I created something

out of my situation

out of my life

that i lived

as human


Excerpt from “Spanner in the What? Works” – Wopko Jensma 

In 1993, artist, writer, and poet Wopko Jensma left his home, then the Salvation Army Men’s Home in downtown Johannesburg and never returned. It was also the last time he was seen; no remains or body was ever found. 

Jensma was 54 years old, six years shy of his “goal” of sixty years he mentions in the poem “Spanner in the What? Works”. His disappearance remains one of South Africa’s most baffling mysteries, who at the end of his life lost his creative identity and his ability to write, or create art.

Although he is not as well-known as peers such as Breyten Breytenbach or Walter Battiss, Jensma is reckoned to be one of South Africa’s multifaceted creative forces. He worked in several visual mediums and creative disciplines – he was a poet, sculptor, graphic artist, translator and “vernacular conceptualist.”

Wilhelm van Rensburg, senior art specialist at auction house Strauss & Co says although Jensma is better known as an avant-garde resistance poet of the 1970s than as a fine artist, the monstrosities of Apartheid that features so vividly in his poetry, also transcends to the fiendish shadows he depicts in his graphic print work. 

“We are thrilled to offer three of his works in the upcoming November online auction.” 

The works all encompass Jensma’s organic, primitivist style, with its amorphous subject matter and abstract forms. All three lots are reasonably priced and offer budding collectors the opportunity to own one of South Africa’s most enigmatic and multifaceted creators.

Not to be pigeonholed

Lionel Abrahams, in the Rand Daily Mail, observed: “At a time when people are more than ever aware of their colour, even in the arts, Jensma is the only South African artist in any medium who has transcended the barriers. His work is neither English nor Afrikaans, Black nor White.”

Jensma’s visual and poetic language was as inscrutable as his identity, scholars and critics recalled their surprise on meeting the artist or seeing his photo for the first time, only to discover that he is white, from Afrikaner and Dutch descent. 

“Before seeing his photograph, one could picture him as Cape Malay, or a Tswana from a township where everyone speaks Afro-American slang, or an Afrikaner who has broken with Afrikanerdom, or an English-speaking South African who has spent his childhood among black people. Yet he is white!”  French writer Jacques Alvarez-Pereyre recalls.

Poet and writer Peter Wilhelm proclaimed him to be “The first South African”

 “Some have displayed uncertainty about his racial/religio/political background: after all, in the land of separate development, to have no official identity, to slot into no orthodox groove, is a very strange, disturbing thing. He is a terrifying, new sort of human.”

Art historian and critic Sean O’ Toole writes that Jensma’s work easily rivals Battiss’s popular faux primitivist work from the same period. O’ Toole is of the opinion that Jensma’s work shows him as someone ecstatically immersed in the spirit of his time,  

“His print multiples, many featuring his strangely proportioned human and animal figures, come in both small and large, deadpan black and Battiss-rivalling ­primary colours.”

Visual myths

The creatures in his printworks are feral, phantasmagorical creatures that range from the comic to the chimeral.

“I feel that my graphic work proclaims the myth of animal, bird and human. I draw inspiration from the extinct art of Africa and South America,” Jensma explained. 

“My work, however, isn’t an imitation of these types of work, but rather in interpretation thereof seen through the lens of our times, angst and neurosis. It’s embodied through the abstract representation of the above figures.”

His linocuts echo the monochromatic planes of Russian constructivism, but the mythical creatures and amorphous shapes are also a nod to Dadaist Jean Arp and pre-Columbian art – his prints recall the Nazca Lines in southern Peru, a group of pre-Columbian geoglyphs etched into desert sands.

Unfortunately, the artist was plagued by mental health issues throughout his whole life, he was a certified schizophrenic, a long-term mental disorder of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behaviour, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions, and withdrawal from reality. 

In his Afrikaans poem, “Klop en vir julle sal toegemaak” word, he claims a defiant kingship with creative forces such as South African journalist Nat Nakasa, French symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire and Paul Gauguin, who also suffered from the mental illness. 
In his work he displays both an acute awareness to those whom he shares this illness with, and through his work one detects a subconscious pride of sharing a pathology with literary and artistic giants.

Yet the illness would rob him from his ability to create and write and render him homeless and in poverty, his last days spent at The Salvation Army’s homeless shelter, before disappearing into the ether, leaving only his art and words behind.

The upcoming Strauss & Co 3 part online sale opens for bidding on Monday 22nd November and can be viewed on


Part I – closes 8pm Sunday 28th November

Session 1: Works on Paper

Session 2: Prints and Multiples

Session 3: Books, Portfolios and Sculpture


Part II – closes 8pm Monday 29th November

Session 4: Guest Curator: Sam Nhlengethwa

Session 5: The Fabulous Picture Show

Session 6: For Generations to Come: Andile Dyalvane

Session 7: The Rose Korber Collection 

Session 8: Landscape Paintings 

Session 9: Wine: Italy and Spain 


Part III – closes 8pm Tuesday 30th November

Session 10: Strauss & Co Staff Picks

Session 11: Paintings

Session 12: Decorative Arts

Session 13: Birds, Butterflies and Botanicals

Gareth Drawbridge

Digital content producer
Back to top button