Paul Stopforth is originally from South Africa where he studied at the Johannesburg School of Art, and was awarded a British Council Scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in London.
Stopforth is most well known for the controversial work he produced during the apartheid era in South Africa; he is one of the first visual artists to confront the injustices of the apartheid system through his work. An important series of drawings based on the death of the Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko, offers an intense witnessing and testimony in relation to apartheid-era interrogation and torture.
In Johannesburg, Stopforth established the alternative Market Theatre Gallery in 1977 and co-directed the gallery until 1984. In 1988, Stopforth left South Africa with his wife Carol due to the imposition of a number of 'States of Emergency' in the 1980s and as the South African government increased its reign of terror.
Working in sculpture, drawing, painting, and printmaking, his work continues to explore political issues while developing an expansive space beyond a specific historical context, engaging with memory and loss.
Stopforth has exhibited in galleries and museums in South Africa, the United States and Europe. His work included in numerous collections such as the Harvard Film Archive; the Constitutional Court of South Africa; Tufts University Gallery; the National Gallery, Cape Town; the Johannesburg Art Gallery; Durban Art Museum; the Pretoria Art Gallery; and University of the Witwatersrand Art Galleries.
He taught in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department at Harvard University for 10 years and is currently Full Time Visiting Faculty at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.
In 2004, while teaching in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department at Harvard University, I spent 2 weeks in the summer as the artist-in-residence on Robben Island. The island is a low-lying outcrop of rock barely 8 miles from the South African mainland and the city of Cape Town. It may be the most significant historical site in South Africa as it paradoxically symbolizes the repressiveness of the apartheid state and the strength of those who opposed it. The role of the island is well known as the political prison in which Nelson Mandela was held along with others who were considered to be dangerous to the social order.
Robben Island was put to many uses over the last 500 years; it functioned as a pantry, a hospital, a leper colony, a mental asylum, a military camp and a prison. Ambiguous and contested histories continue to fascinate me, and various relics that I came across during my residency have become icons that I turn to as triggers of meaning in my work.
After many years, I have begun in my most recent paintings to sense a tentative connection that bridges the southernmost tip of Africa with the East Coast of America. From the tidal pool called ‘Bethesda’ situated at the rock strewn sea edge of Robben Island, to the ‘Breakwater’ in Provincetown I have begun to paint a fragmentary thread.