Parent Category: Saffron Catalogue
Category: Saffron African Art & Society Series
The dilemma of artists from township communities in South Africa is not only confined to the lack of resources such as studio space equipment and academic training inter alia, writes David Koloane in his contribution to Divisions and Diversions: The Visual Arts in post-Apartheid South Africa (ISBN 9781872843124, Picton et al).
More fundamentally, it also extends to a limiting market structure and the lack of any significant support mechanisms within communities. Needless to say, any infrastructure in the form of commercial galleries, art museums, collectors and general clientele are predominantly situated in white residential areas. The objective of this paper will be to examine how this situation continues to affect and determine the relationship between the artist and the community in post-apartheid South Africa.
Politics have played a pervasive role in the history of South African township communities to the extent that much of their existence has been spent in the trenches of combat and resistance against the dehumanising apartheid machinery. Collective initiatives aimed at mobilising communities to formulate solidarity structures in all sectors of civil society, inspired by the liberation and trade union movements in the eighties, instilled a sense of national consciousness and responsibility seldom otherwise experienced. The structures ranged from the intimacy of a street committee to a national civic association; and the creative sphere was not exempt from such changing forces. The historic Art towards social development: cultural and resistance conference, convened in Botswana in 1982, infused a radical shift in the perception of artists and their role within the community. Now, as a result of this history of struggle for democracy, will the artist in a post-apartheid South Africa finally be capable of addressing the community through an indigenous market base? Is there, indeed, a post-apartheid art to speak of?
Gaborone and After
In 1982, exiled members of the African National Congress based in Gaborone convened a major cultural forum. The organisers also belonged to the Medu Cultural Group. This conference was a watershed event in the history of southern Africa, and it brought together the largest number of artists yet assembled from within and outside South Africa. There were also representatives of varied local and international organisations. Some of the resolutions which emerged included the formation of national structures in various disciplines as a united front or bulwark against the apartheid machinery, and the recognition that creative expression in whatever form should be perceived and utilised as a weapon in the struggle. There emerged from this a vigorous debate over the relative merits of this viewpoint, in which Albie Sachs’ discussion paper ‘Preparing Ourselves for Freedom’ (Sachs 1990), presented in Stockholm at an ANC in-house seminar on culture in 1989 and subsequently excerpted in February 1990 in the Johannesburg Weekly Mail, became the most notable catalyst. Despite the critiques launched against the potentially propagandistic ?propagandist uses of overtly politicised art, it is nevertheless important to note with hindsight that the positive aspects of the concept of art as a weapon in the struggle brought about radical changes within the visual and performing disciplines. Many artists realised for the first time the basic truth that you cannot feel liberated in the isolation of your studio or rehearsal room, that until the system under which artists operate is a liberated system, no artist can pretend to be functioning adequately.
The decade of the eighties, under the presidency of P W Botha, was a period notorious for the total onslaught of the military might of the South African defence forces against neighbouring countries which harboured African National Congress cells. It was, as such, one of the most repressive periods after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. It became evident, therefore, following the Gaborone conference that the creative disciplines were expected to transform themselves into organs of resistance aligned to the liberation and labour movements; whereas prior to the Gaborone declaration artists gave scant if any attention to their role within the community. Previously, most artists had been individually motivated and did not think they required any form of intervention between themselves and the ramifications of a Western-oriented art market.
The very idea of political association was an anathema which conjured in their minds images of AK47 assault rifles, crunching boots, the hammer and sickle, and the general corrosion of creative freedom. I must admit that, at the time, I was also one of those who were opposed to the concept of art as a weapon of the struggle. I thought art and politics were like oil and water. I did not believe that artists should have their feet firmly planted on the ground. Instead, I believed in an airy-fairy theory-balloon which, once pierced by the reality and experience of the communities’ collective existence under the apartheid system, brought me spiralling down to earth. A few artists and cultural formations dared to challenge the system. One of these was the late Dumile Mxgcaji1 , whose work brazenly expressed the anguish and desolation created by the repressive system. He paid the ultimate price of life and death in exile: his corpse was flown to South Africa for burial in 1994.
Insofar as the easel painting tradition has encouraged creative expression, as an isolated specialisation it has also succeeded in alienating artists from the community. Historical disadvantages have thereby reduced the status of the artists to those who are perceived as shirking responsibility under the guise of an incomprehensible recreational activity. As a result, the most generous and often-emphasised advice the artist receives from the community is invariably that of, “Why don’t you get a job and do that ‘thing’ part time?” In these circumstances, the underlining perception which informs the community is that the visual arts are a plaything for individual amusement, and do not serve a social function. The paradox is that the artist, whilst expressing the social conditions under which the community exists on the one hand, depends entirely on the white-controlled art market on the other.
The advent of work by township-based artists in the 1960s became a novelty in white suburban households. Art reviewers coined the term ‘township art’ to distinguish it from mainstream expression by white artists. A new sub-market developed, which catered specifically for sentimental renditions of the genre. The market, though initially confined to commercial galleries and art museums, soon developed sub-structures which attracted a host of often unscrupulous dealers. Artists were generally encouraged to produce marketable work only; and this gross commercialisation was further encouraged by sell-out exhibitions by some of the artists. It is not difficult to imagine that because of their commercial success some of the artists felt themselves superior within the community. The irony is that these artists, whilst alienated from the community, were patronised in the white art circles. Some of them actually started playing the ‘misunderstood artist’ role within their communities, the rationale presumably being: how can the community understand them when they cannot even afford their work! Most of the artists thereby developed a formulaic expression and found themselves trapped in a ‘no-man’s-land’ between the community and the market.
The influence of politics in the creative disciplines must not be seen in isolation from the broader liberation struggle, for the myriad tentacles of apartheid affected every aspect of human endeavour. Within the visual arts it seemed peculiar that in 1960s apartheid South Africa, the work of African artists was displayed alongside that of their white counterparts. It was, in essence, a concession which the government helped manipulate. An earlier and poignant example is that of the late Gerard Sekoto, who was one of the first artists to have his work displayed in the annual academy exhibitions in the Johannesburg City Hall2 . Yet Sekoto, though his work was displayed alongside that of his white counterparts, was not allowed to enjoy refreshments with the guests inside the gallery.
The advent of the trade union movement and the United Democratic Front ushered in the era of the clenched fist. The UDF comprised an amalgamation of various civic structures which became collectively known as the mass democratic movement. This national formation active through the 1980s was intended to fill the vacuum created by the banning of the major liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Banners, posters, T-shirts, and flaming-red hammer-and-sickle flags became defiant icons of the struggle. The banner became the canvas which defined the oppressed masses’ quest for liberation. The creative disciplines in the visual, literary and performing spheres were united for the first time on a national level. Funding was crucial to the success of collective structures in various sectors of civil society. The strategy was a holistic approach intended to work in a similar manner to the way the government employed the apartheid system: that is, to permeate every aspect of the communities’ existence. Of course, it was natural that some structures would avoid political alignment like the plague, whereas others, who were funded by ?parasitical parastatal institutions were trapped in a credibility crisis.
Working with the Community
The Community Art Centres became an integrated component of the liberation struggle in the 1980s (though the concept was in existence from the early 1970s). The collective concept was intended to encourage artists to work collectively in order to reawaken them to their surroundings. They were also inspired to share their skills within the community. The Community Art Project (CAP) based in Cape Town was one of the centres which embraced this concept. The project initiated poster printing workshops for trade union members, and it also popularised the lino-print technique, which was an economically accessible medium as well as appropriate for direct expression.
Annual calendars were produced at prices affordable for the community. Multi-disciplinary festivals became a regular feature in some of the centres. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in Durban founded a theatre and music group of a reasonably professional standard. The productions of these theatre groups dealt with day-to-day issues within communities. Artists worked hand-in-glove with varied community structures, such as youth and labour groups, imparting skills as well as collaborating on various projects. Non-governmental organisations aligned to liberation movements became conduits for receiving and distributing funds. Most of the funds came from Scandinavian countries, well known for their anti-apartheid sentiment, with some funding also coming from Great Britain, elsewhere in Europe, and the United States.
The community art centre was the only mechanism available for alleviating the lack of infrastructure in the visual and performing disciplines. A new breed of artists emerged from the centres who did not have to parade themselves under the ‘self-taught’ rubric (which has become a common classification for some artists, a classification not dissimilar to the notion of the ‘noble savage’)3 . These artists realised the importance and necessity of education before they, in turn, could educate others. Some of these artists have realised the pitfalls of being trapped in a market-production situation and, in a sense, thereby producing ‘programmed’ work. Alternatively, they have immersed themselves in community-based projects such as teaching mural painting, designing, banners, posters and working on other related commissions.
Many of these artists had been trained in the Rorke’s Drift Art Centre which, situated in an idyllic rural setting in Natal and funded and administered by the Swedish ecumenical Lutheran Church Mission, was the only institution with a semblance of formality and ambient surroundings. The Rorke’s Drift Centre introduced the lino-print medium, which immediately became the characteristic technique of the institution. The Centre counts among its alumni many internationally-renowned graphics artists such as John Muafangejo from Namibia, and Azaria Mbatha, now based in Sweden. (refer to Rankin 1997)
A new consciousness has developed amongst younger artists associated with the Centres. It is as if they have suddenly discovered that there is after all life after the market. They have become aware of a sense of belonging and a commitment to contributing collectively. These artists now comprehend liberation in the holistic sense, and not as if it were something only politicians can confront. They recognise that, as an individual, you cannot feel liberated when there are no opportunities for others in similar circumstances to yourself. From this perspective these artists comprehend that expression cannot be something external to his or her experience, as if it were something imported or appropriated from some remote theorist.
The work had, therefore, to be something commonly shared with the community. In the case of the township, for instance, it had to be a collective memory of an environment or space not of their choice, for the politics of space in South Africa have resulted in one of the most massive displacements of communities in history whereby ancestral land has been divided and subdivided into a political chessboard. This translates into the fact that there is no neutral space in South Africa. Every person has been slotted willy-nilly into some ethnic nook. The work of artist Willie Bester encapsulates some of these experiences. Through the medium of collage and assemblage, Bester relays the experience of desolation and futility in the squatter settlements of the Western Cape where he lives, imparting to that experience a sense of universal relevance and humanity4 .
An all-embracing factor which distinguishes the work of this generation of artists is its humanism, for the human condition is the axis around which it evolves. It is also encouraging to note that a kind of nucleus is forming around the professional circuit of medical doctors, legal practitioners, business operators and university lecturers towards a market structure populated by a new patronage; and I, indeed, felt very proud to have been involved in selecting work for President Mandela’s house in Johannesburg on a modest budget before he was appointed state president.
The liberation movement has been the catalyst which propelled communities to transcend seemingly impregnable barriers; and after the dissolution of the legislative apparatus which denied communities their humanity it is equally necessary to ensure that our newly-acquired democracy is as fiercely protected. It is, however, only through economic liberation that the artist can assume his or her rightful role within the community as a ‘mirror-holder’. A slogan employed by students during the turbulent eighties, intended to protect those students who could not afford the fees, was: teach one teach all. I strongly believe this is an appropriate operative principle for artists working within the community. The community art centre concept should become a national education policy which must be implemented in both urban and rural areas in order to continue their role as crucibles of consciousness.
Some formal institutions and other related organisations have mistakenly dismissed work produced within community art centres, misperceiving them to be characterised merely by mediocre lino-prints. This notion was justified by the staff of the 1995 Africus: Johannesburg Biennale5 who displayed work selected from the arts centres under the ‘community arts’ label, exhibiting it in the more remote venues under dismal conditions. This is precisely the kind of discrimination which has typically promoted the ‘township art’ label. It is only when artists and students from art centres can interact on an equal basis with counterparts from technical colleges and universities that a creative dialogue can begin. For each will contribute the necessary ingredient towards a menu still to be savoured.
Rankin E, 1997. 'A Mission for Art: the Evangelical Lutheran Church art and craft centre at Rorke’s Drift,' In J Picton (ed), Image and Form: prints, drawings and sculpture from southern Africa and Nigeria, London: Brunei Gallery, SOAS, pp47-52.
Revue Noire, 11, South Africa, December 1993, Paris.
Sachs, A, 1990. 'Preparing Ourselves for Freedom,' in D Elliott (ed), Art From South Africa, exhibition catalogue. Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, pp10-15.
Spiro, L, 1989. Gerard Sekoto: unsevered ties. Johannesburg: Johannesburg Art Gallery.