Polly Street: The Story of an Art Centre
by Robyn Sassen
Polly Street Art Centre in central Johannesburg, which existed roughly between 1952 and 1975 in ethos if not in Polly Street itself, is the subject of the first of The Ampersand Foundation's (TAF) newest initiatives. The Foundation aims to research and document 'previously under-researched South African art history', according to chairman Jack Ginsberg. Elza Miles wrote the main text, Helene Smuts wrote an educational supplement, which slips into the cover, and Paul Emmanuel designed the book.
Visually, the book is exciting, displaying generally well-photographed art that has really enjoyed very scant coverage over the years. Polly Street was born and existed during the thick of apartheid and things were severely circumscribed by its legalities and inanities. Many of the white Polly Street teachers were there of their own accord and with little or no promise of remuneration, and the centre did indeed give birth to a rich legacy of practitioners.
All of this technically makes the area rich and somewhat virginal for any researcher. But the years have passed, and many who were there are no longer with us, or no longer remember the detail and circumstance as sharply as they once might have. Memories have faded and research must have been really difficult. Miles' approach to this era in South African art history lends something of a frenetic tone to the period, coloured by her need to rely on old newspaper cuttings and committee minutes, as well as personal anecdote and recall.
The text as a whole, though, is sadly overly didactic and unfashionably formalist in tone, offering a sometimes judgmental cluster of adjectives describing works. This detracts from the ethos, spirit or mindset that made Polly Street Art Centre the rich melting pot it obviously was, giving people like Sydney Kumalo, Ephraim Ngatane, Cecil Skotnes, Louis Maqhubela, Julian Motau and more, a real creative platform with general and international credibility.
Smuts' educational supplement juxtaposed with Miles' provides the publication with balance. Written with characteristic passion, Smuts interprets Miles' focus, in a useful, articulate manner.
Miles offers too detailed a focus on minutiae, beginning the book with a rigorous correction of small details that had appeared in other publications. Knowing the 'correct' primary school that Dan Rakgoathe attended doesn't do anything for my ability to grasp the passion that informed his woodcuts, and these small details led me to philosophical pondering: how much does actually count in a memory of this nature?
There are open-ended elements to the grand narrative which are also irritating in their lack of follow-through. For instance, Miles mentions the projected expansion of the Church of St Martin of Porres, commenting that it would make Kumalo's beautiful installations there history. Does this mean the work will be destroyed? Or will it be celebrated? After an exhaustive description of these works, we're left not really knowing what happens next.
It is this level of exhaustive description that also compromises the potency of the exercise. Other publications of this nature beg comparison, simply because of the ambit of the project, and Vincent Katz's 2002 anthology on Black Mountain in North Carolina between the 1950s and 1970s comes to mind.
A project like this, because of the diversity and plethora of people who came and went, people who stayed and blossomed, people who stayed briefly and moved mountains by their presence, is complex and untameable. Miles's focus predominantly on Kumalo does tend, however, to feel as though the book aims to give the more prominent Polly Street products a bit of extra exposure, even though the introduction expressly comments on how this book is about an era rather than individual artists.
In addition, the main text is sadly under-edited, and there are spelling and referencing inconsistencies which are disappointing in terms of how they busy up the reading process.
In terms of socio-political, musical and fashion issues, the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s in South Africa resonate with a brilliance and a bravery, a recalcitrance and a pioneering spirit which is exciting and sexy. This is lost here in pedantry and factual busyness. Smuts embraces it pithily, but the physical relationship between the two texts speaks implies that Miles' text is more importat. Had this been a direct collaboration or an anthology, some of the more glaring inconsistencies and more troubling levels of pedantry wouldn't have felt so problematic.
The overwhelming upside to the book is its visual aspect, and this is strong enough to counterbalance the flaws in the text. Not only is the visual subject matter magnificent, but the compilation of the material is sensitive to photographic idiosyncrasies and offers a layout that is fresh and crisp in its proffered understanding of colour, medium and thematic relationships.
Divided into four chapters, which explore the different stages of the art centre's development, the book proclaims to not be a biographical pastiche of the artists associated with the center and doesn't provide biographical details, which would have considerably upped its profile as a resource.
Conversely, we get to read a lot of descriptions of minor works and major installations, particularly in churches, but aren't exposed to an interrogation of where these Christian iconographical values fitted into the artists' lives. We're privy to the formative years of many artists, but don't get to understand the difficulties that so many of them inherited, by electing to study art here, close to Faraday Station though it might have been.
This, the first comprehensive extrapolation of Polly Street Art Centre might well be its last. Much has passed, and much has been erased and fallen into obscurity. Sadly, this book doesn't do it meaningful justice, and while we have the names and contribution of many skilled and dedicated individuals, from Edoardo Villa to Harold Rubin, Judith Mason to Armando Baldinelli, Lucas Sithole to Ezrom Legae, and Pat Mautloa to Dumile Feni, their position and a broader picture of the centre does not emerge.
Miles, Elza. Polly Street: The Story of an Art Centre
The Ampersand Foundation: Johannesburg