Archive: Issue No. 73, September 2003

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African identity
by Kim Gurney

Is South Africa too keen to embrace Eurocentric and American values at the expense of developing its own authentic voice in the art world? That was effectively the thorny question raised by one American delegate at the plenary session of the 3rd Impact Printmaking Conference held in Cape Town last month.

Referring to the state of art criticism in this country, he said: "I get the impression there is almost an anxiety to be seen in a wonderful light among Western art institutions and establishments. Art criticism is very tempered. I understand that desire to present South Africa in a favourable light. Naturally critics want to give South African artists a chance in the international arena. But´┐Ż at the expense of critical debate?" In that context, he asked whether local artists could have featured more prominently to set a different tone for the conference.

The issues raised were pertinent and reflected in other presentations. Garth Walker, founder of South African design company Orange Juice Design, touched on the debate during his talk. Walker said that despite enormous pressure for advertising and design to reflect the society in which we live and work, it was still very Eurocentric.

Referring to South African society as a "fruit salad" mix, Walker said South African business was extremely reluctant to embrace 'African-ness'. Somewhat surprisingly, he said new black business was even more reluctant. Walker said: "They all want to look like London or Hong Kong. The dominant perception is that everything African is negative. They are reluctant to embrace our own culture because it has been so traumatic. We really need to develop a visual language that we embrace."

The lack of artists north of South Africa's borders was certainly a disappointing element of the conference - a weakness the organizers acknowledged and tried hard to address. Their presence would perhaps have helped develop this compelling closing debate.