Parent Category: Saffron Catalogue
Category: Saffron African Art & Society Series
The popular image of the brilliant artist who starves unrecognised in the garret was once interestingly debunked in a British essay, writes Sue Williamson in her contribution to Divisions and Diversions: The Visual Arts in post-Apartheid South Africa (ISBN 9781872843124, Picton et al).
The popular image of the brilliant artist who starves unrecognised in the garret was once interestingly debunked in a British essay. A really good artist with the combination of conceptual strength and technical skill needed to succeed in the contemporary art world, asserted the writer, would almost always rise to the top. Further, the essayist proposed that this rise follows a plottable trajectory: Stage One is the recognition of potential excellence by the artist’s peers, followed by the more avant garde critics and galleries, and then museums. Finally, some ten years after Stage One, awareness of the work of that particular artist slowly filters down to the public at large. By this time too, exceptional artists would have caught the attention of overseas curators, and have gradually become absorbed into the rapidly expanding global art circuit.
Of course, this model presupposed the normal media coverage of cultural activities and the interconnectedness of the contemporary art world. But what if that infrastructure did not exist? Would the artist then escape the garret? One might argue that until the changes of the nineties, South African art, enclosed by the high walls of the internationally enforced cultural boycott, took place in that garret, unseen by the larger art world. (The fact that many progressive artists fully understood that the larger purposes of this boycott were to help force an end to apartheid, and supported it, is not part of this discussion). At a conference entitled The State of Art in South Africa held at the University of Cape Town in 1978, many artists had signed a declaration: no longer would they support any State-sponsored art initiative or foreign exhibition invitation until such time as education was truly open to all races. This, too, had helped build the walls. Not only did the world at large know nothing about South African art, I suspect that most curators, if asked, would have expressed the view that there could be little of interest beyond genre painting and regional curiosities.
There were a few chinks in the brickwork, of course. In 1989, David Elliott, then director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, working through groups outside and within the country, came to South Africa to curate a show of contemporary art for his institution. His original intention had been to select about twelve painters and sculptors for his show. But inside the garret/ghetto, many artists had spent years working in a variety of “struggle” organisations and had learned the skills of bargaining and compromise, and the considerable power that accrues to belonging to a group. Now members of artists organisations within the country – the Visual Arts Group in Cape Town and the Artists Alliance in Johannesburg – used this strength. They felt that Elliott’s proposal of twelve artists to be too narrow and undemocratic a choice for the time. A series of protracted and sometimes acrimonious negotiations followed, with the artists threatening withdrawal of support for the show. “No New York artist would dream of treating a visiting curator the way you do”, commented a US visitor to the VAG. To his credit, Elliott weathered the storm and proved flexible. The final lineup of artists numbered 69, and included not only work by the country’s top artists but such pieces as stitched cloths and embroidered cushion covers by rural black women. A glance at some of the essay titles in the catalogue gives us an overview of the dissenting voices raised in debate at that volatile time. There was Babel in South Africa by David Elliott (‘Babel’ in this case being Russian writer Isaac Babel); Preparing Ourselves for Freedom by Albie Sachs; Art as Propaganda Inevitably Self-destructs by Kendell Geers; Inventing South African Art by Gavin Younge; What are We Supposed to be Doing Here – On Earth by Mongane Wally Serote, Desperately Seeking Africa by Colin Richards and Moma Show Raises Questions about People’s Culture and Art Museums by Jacqui Nolte and Mario Pissara.
For Nolte and Pissara, committee members of the Visual Arts Group, the questions raised by the Oxford Moma show concerned the true benefits to the artists and the cultural organisations to which they belonged of such a show. 'The task at hand is not to appropriate a fortunate few onto the dominant institutions and discourse but to redress radically the imbalances created by the entrenched cultural values of a protected class and race. To do so entails both short and long term initiatives and the former will always be contingent upon the overriding principles of the latter,' wrote Nolte and Pissara, and: 'Being transposed into a foreign context and into an art museum posed the threat of cultural artefacts losing their particular significance. Removed from communities for which such work was made, the purpose of production might be unclear. Artificial values could then be substituted for the authentic values of the work. At worst, the item might simply function as a fashionable commodity.'
Inside the garret then, there was a certain safety, an understanding of cultural contexts. Would the removal of art objects to the art museums of Europe not represent a new phase of colonisation, a presentation of the cultural products of the exotic ‘other’ to surprise and titillate – and perhaps reinforce the certainty in the West that the only ‘real’ contemporary art is Eurocentric. (This is an ongoing debate, one that periodically re-presents itself in varying guises and in different parts of the world).
The Art from South Africa catalogue did, in fact, attempt to address the concerns expressed by Nolte and Pissara by containing a number of articles regarding township workshop projects and giving the names of the makers of the work on the show wherever available. The show, with its wide array of paintings, wooden sculptures, ceramics, linocuts, ball point pen drawings, cloths, and assemblages opened in Oxford in June 1990 to general acclaim, and went on to a successful tour at a number of venues. A book I had written entitled Resistance Art in South Africa (David Philip Publishers, Cape Town) which had been launched the previous November took the same broad cultural approach. Not only the work of established artists was covered, but also posters produced by collectives, murals, the drawings of children, peace parks and street art.
‘In the eighties we all worked together, there was a common goal,’ commented Cape Town artist Brett Murray recently. ’In the nineties that all blew apart’. The solidarity and sense of purpose which had operated inside the garret had dissipated as the walls came down. Artists organisations such as the Visual Arts Group in Cape Town, formed in 1987 and extremely active in the last years of the old dispensation, lost its sense of purpose with the unbanning of the ANC and with the coming of democracy, foundered, and eventually closed. The battle which had kept artists going to meetings, putting up posters, organising group projects for years on end seemed to have been won. A collective sigh of relief was drawn as artists turned once more to their own work.
And what work were the artists making? In the wake of the 1994 elections and the new world interest in the art of the peripheries, streams of curators, journalists and other art world people began arriving into the country to see exactly what – if anything – was being produced in the studios and the community centres which had been in isolation for so many decades. If the art of the eighties had been characterised by overt or subtle undercurrents of social protest, what new themes would take their place? How would the artists cope with the new freedom? So remarkable had been the political about-face, so joyful the election, that perhaps South African artists could somehow visually represent this transformation as a source of inspiration for the rest of the world? And in a wonderfully African way, perhaps, or both Euro- and Afrocentric in concept and execution? Something new for the ever hungry art world. “Apartheid is finished,” said these curators. “ What was the impulse that brought about change? How do you feel now your future has changed? What was your feeling at that moment? At this moment? Hold up a mirror for us. This is what the world wants to see.”
But the mirror that began to be held up by the artists of South Africa contained an image which was more often a sober reflection on a damaged past or a caustic swipe at a flawed present than an optimistic vision of a shared future. These trends were apparent on one of the first important group shows to take place after the 1994 elections, Scurvy in June 1995, a show which reclaimed for contemporary art a space previously tainted by apartheid – The Cape Town Castle.
Built in 1655 by the original colonisers of the Cape, the Dutch East India Company as a vegetable garden and victualling station for Company sailors on their way east to gather spices, the Castle had retained its military connections. Under the Nationalist government, sections of this historic edifice were open to tourists, but it was also the headquarters of the South African Defence Force, engaged in enforcing apartheid both within and without the country, and thus an area of contention. Many local Capetonians, as a matter of principle, had never set foot inside its heavily studded gate.
The opening of Scurvy – a reference to the sailors’ skin disease to combat which the Castle had first been erected. – was an event of significance. Curated by the seven artist participants themselves: Kevin Brand, Lisa Brice , Brett Murray, Barend de Wet, Andrew Putter, Wayne Barker and Kate Gottgens, it was the first of a number of groundbreaking shows at this venue, and it pinpointed the direction artists were taking in the new democracy. By and large, the work on Scurvy either addressed the history of the country, or considered the effect of that history on the present, or on themselves. In this case, special attention was paid to the role of the Castle in that history. Its earliest occupants, the Dutch East India Company, were remembered in Wayne Barker’s piece, The World is Flat, in which the Company was positioned as the first of the multi nationals, putting profits above considerations of humanity. Slaves captured in other parts of the world were shipped to Cape Town to work the Company’s gardens. In a map of the world, the continents were set out in green bottles – a symbol of commerce – and the oceans constructed from hundreds of old military uniforms co-opted by Barker from the South African Defence Force. The company logo in neon marked Cape Town on the world map. (The piece would be re-installed in 1997 on the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale with its theme of Trade Routes).
Lisa Brice counted the cost of apartheid on contemporary South Africa with a piece called Make Your Home Your Castle. The inequities of the apartheid educational system left a huge underclass of insufficiently trained and thus unemployable people, many of whom have turned to crime as a way of life. In her installation, Brice portrayed the suburban home as a fortress, with heavily barred windows and messages reminding home owners to switch on the burglar alarm systems embroidered on pillows. Brett Murray took a wry look at the increasing commercialisation for tourists of traditional cultures, and gay activist Andrew Putter foregrounded a long-suppressed subject: love between men.
The work produced for this show felt interesting and powerful enough for me to make an instant decision to start another book,(?Was this completed, when & title) charting this new phase in the art life of the country. One year later, I found myself at the University of London at a conference on the visual arts in post-apartheid South Africa, talking about the material I had collected. I showed slides by such emerging young artists as Moshekwa Langa and Peet Pienaar alongside the work of more established artists like Willem Boshoff, Pat Mautloa and William Kentridge.
As I remember it, I think I was trying to show that the difficulties, both political and economic under which artists worked in South Africa had bred in the artists a toughness and directness which characterised their work. Further, most artists were still defining their position in relation to the situation in the country, even though circumstances had changed radically. In response to my presentation, one member of the audience remarked that he could not see that the work I was showing differed much from cultural production from other parts of the world.
His comment caused me to examine my own position more narrowly, and to try to analyse other national productions. It is always problematic to generalise, but I would say that emerging countries with difficult political histories like Colombia produce artists who work at the same level of intensity as South African artists. One thinks here of artists like Doris Salcedo, or Fernando Arias. The concerns of young British or Swedish artists, for example, are more laid back.
In the last few years, the art world has paid increasing attention to the work of the developing countries, and the artists, writers and curators from these areas are enlarging their sphere of influence. Recently, Nigerian born director Okwui Enwezor, who is based in New York, was named director of the next Documenta, an appointment which apparently occasioned surprise in certain quarters of the New York art world, but which must certainly be traced back to the international acclaim which Enwezor received for his directorship of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale. This watershed event was hailed by Dan Cameron, director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York “as the artistic payoff the world had been waiting for” in an article on the art events of 1997. It was fairly safe to surmise that the choices for Documenta 2000 ( would show an increase in non-western artists.
But at the same time that the art world and even this book seek to define the essence of South African art, there are those artists that are seeking to evade those very definitions. Classification is a form of control with which South Africans are only too familiar. The irritating and unwelcome question ‘Where is the Africa in your art?’ was recently answered in this way by one of the brightest of the rising stars, Moshekwa Langa, on his way to the Sao Paolo Biennale:
“My intention in Sao Paulo is to invent an accomplice (working name: John Ruskin). Because Moshekwa has to answer stupid questions most of the time – ‘Where is Africa in your work?’ – we will both be able to answer and I think having this personage might go a long way to deflecting confining thinking. My/our work will be seen in an altered state and not within the limits of simply "African Art". I am very keen to make this kind of confusion – whose work is which? – which work is more authentically “African”? In other words I want to show that there are multiple forms of influence and that I and other African artists meander and incorporate different forms.”
Now that we are well and truly out of the garret, it would be my hope that the best work from my country will never be defined by some kind of ethnic ‘look’, a certain palette, a technique which becomes characteristic. Each of these would be a cul de sac. Instead, let the only common elements be a desire to take artistic risks, an energy, a generosity and an honesty.