'Revisions' at SANG
by Mark Oppenheimer
'Revisions' comprises an assortment of artworks selected from Bruce Campbell Smith's private collection. It is a comprehensive collection that includes works dating from the early part of last century up until the present. The exhibition proclaims itself to be a narrative of South African art, and it is in no uncertain terms a highly complex one. The narrative is composed of a range of stories that have been told by artists, who have lived in a country that has undergone a series of radical political, cultural and economic transformations. It has also been significantly mediated by a collector with a specific aesthetic and by a curator who has chosen to construct a journey through a new history of South African art, by grouping works together in a way that facilitates dialogue between them.
The majority of the works were created by black South Africans and it is evident that the exhibition is an attempt to revise the history of South African art by including works produced by artists that have previously been neglected. An exhibition of this kind would probably not have been possible were it not for precedents like the Steven Sacks curated 'Neglected Tradition', which have opened up the debate about what ought to be included in the canon of South African art.
In addition to its role in determining the history of South African art, 'Revisions' functions as an historical record of the experiences of black people in the country. It is a record that emphasises the rapid transformation of Black identity in a South African context that was itself going through radical changes. Tribal rituals carried out in a pre-colonial context are contrasted with depictions of people at work in highly industrialised cities.
The exhibition also houses a large number of works produced during the apartheid era. While it is conspicuous that few of the pieces on display are overtly political in nature, the works demonstrate the subtle devices used by artists, threatened by censorship, to speak out against the apartheid system. Some of the works created over the last 10 years demonstrate the ability of artists to provide a critical insight into life in post-apartheid South Africa. The works assess power struggles between differing ideological systems that developed in relative isolation from each other, and are now being forced to integrate. It is a struggle that some artists have construed as a threat to traditional African values, while others have embraced as part of the process of national integration.
The curator has deliberately chosen to display works in a way that allows them to be read as parts of an historical narrative. The narrative begins with a series of portraits that are meant to be 'authentic' depictions of South African people. At first glance, works by Simon Mnguni and Gerard Bhengu look like faithful depictions of tribal people, but the fact that the representations divorce their subjects from a social context undermines their goal of depicting something that could be considered genuine.
Bhengu's detailed renditions demonstrate his ability to capture the unique features of his subjects. The wrinkles around an old man's eyes and the gaps between the a female sangoma's teeth convey the distinctly human qualities of the people that he paints. It is unfortunate that he displaces them from their cultural settings by painting them with nothing but a white background.
Mnguni's works, which were commissioned by buyers in search of accurate depictions of native people, look like a series of ethnographic studies. A Zulu girl covered in beadwork is displayed alongside a similarly decorated young man. The ethnographic project is somewhat undermined by the inclusion of two contrasting self portraits that show the artist dressed in a smart suit and a traditional tribal outfit respectively. The juxtaposition of the two is an effective way of challenging the idea that there is an essential africaness. The curator manages to use Mnguni's works to demonstrate the fact that black identity is in a state of constant flux.
Billy Mandindi's African Madonna has been situated, by the curator amongst a series of other paintings representing black African women. These representations go beyond mere ethnography and they depict their subjects with a great deal of intimacy. Several of the paintings were painted by Europeans and Mandindi's piece establishes a dialogue with them. It is painted in the style of the works surrounding it but it also draws on motifs found in renaissance art. This Madonna is firmly rooted in a rural setting but the symbols used in the piece make it clear that her child will be forced to leave his home and lead the life of a migrant labourer.
Religious imagery can also be found in a series of pieces created by artists that were trained at the Rorke's Drift Art School. The school played an important role in the development of art produced by black South Africans. Artists were trained in the use of linocut, etching and aquatint and the works on display demonstrate how well they mastered those techniques. Nathaniel Mokgosi's Crucifixion and Vuminkosi Zulu's Jesus is feeding 1000 of people are both reinterpretations of biblical narratives. By daring to question Christ's racial identity these works posed a threat to the Christian fundamentalist rhetoric espoused by the apartheid state. The works appropriate Christ in an effort to quash bible-based justifications for the oppression of black people.
Cyprian Shilakoe's Silence is one of the most intimate and beautifully rendered works here. It demonstrates the impact that the apartheid system had on women and children. Families were separated because men were often forced to leave their homes to find work, or they were imprisoned by the state for violating apartheid laws. Shilakoe's use of etching and aquatint allows him to capture the agony and loneliness of his subjects in a way that is best described as haunting.
The works produced by artists at the Rorke's Drift art school were not overt acts of protest against the apartheid system, but the subtle methods used by the artists were an effective way of illustrating the harm caused by that system. 'Revisions' houses few works of explicit resistance art but an untitled Gavin Jantjes print stands out as a stark reminder of our violent history. It incorporates images of freedom fighters in a state of rage, with a resistance poem proclaiming the collapse of White South Africa.
An amusing sculpture of PW Botha performing a military salute has been placed in front of an artwork by Paul Sibisi depicting a tank rolling through the streets of a devastated township. The streets are stained with blood and littered with body parts. The juxtaposition of the two is a clear indictment of Botha and the policies that he enforced during his reign. The title of the piece seems to call out to Botha, Stop it now!! Now!!
A number of other sculptures have been carefully placed around the gallery to interact with the pieces hung on the walls. Nelson Makhuba's sculpture of Mohammed Ali is positioned in front of Trevor Makhoba's Hard Blow in Beijing, which is an unsettling but comical depiction of a topless woman standing victorious over her husband, in the centre of a boxing ring, surrounded by dozens of leering men and a few horrified women. The title references a recent victory in Beijing for the woman's movement and the artwork is an allegorical account of the clash between feminist values and traditional understandings of gender roles in South African communities.
The vast number of works on display bear testimony to the talent of countless great South African artists, many of whom have been previously denied a voice in the history of South African art. 'Revisions' is a significant contribution to the process of restoring forgotten artists to their rightful place in history.
Opened: September 24
Closes: March 19, 2006
Iziko South African National Gallery
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