Archive: Issue No. 107, July 2006

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Dominic Thorburn

Dominic Thorburn
Spectres of Colonel John Graham
lithograph, gun powder, red ochre
tobacco, tea, ecclesiastic braid
and blood-stained bandages

Dominic Thorburn

Dominic Thorburn Spectres of Colonel John Graham (detail)
lithograph, gunpowder

Artist withdraws from PE Biennial exhibition in protest

Well known Grahamstown artist and Rhodes University professor of Fine Arts, Dominic Thorburn has withdrawn his artwork chosen for Port Elizabeth's Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum's (NMMAM) Biennial Exhibition in reaction to the all-white selection of artists.

Professor Thorburn's withdrawal came after he learnt that not one of the 15 artists chosen from 102 entries was an artist of colour. The biennial celebrates the 50th anniversary of the art museum, formerly known as King George V Art Gallery. Expressing his concern, Thorburn said, 'Little appears to have changed... Although at first I felt honoured to be included in the show, I discovered that there was not a single black artist selected. I find this most disturbing, and it has left me feeling incredibly uncomfortable and compromised.'

'I understand that the judges could only select on merit and from the artwork submitted, and I must stress that this decision of mine is in no way an indictment of the judges and the task they had to engage with.

'Rather it raises vital questions about the vision, planning and organisation of such an event. We undoubtedly have many very talented black visual artists in the Eastern Cape province, but I feel that there are a number of factors that may have mitigated against them entering. Only about half a dozen entries of the 102 received were from black artists.

'These factors include the photographic format of entry (the digital divide is a real phenomenon), the entry fee (even R50 for some is prohibitative), and the intimidating nature and concept of an art biennial and art museums in general.

'I believe that the NMMAM should have pro-actively engaged with a far reaching promotional programme that identified and invited entries from practicing and emergent black artists, and elucidated on the notion of biennials and public art competitions. Other similar exhibitions like the Brett Kebble Art Awards, the ABSA L'Atelier, and Sasol Young Artist Award have pursued these challenges most successfully.'

Thorburn dismisses the NMMAM's claim that this exhibition is 'not about demographics, but quality' as 'disingenuous and an insult to all visual artists in this country.'

Ironically, the work of Thorburn's selected for the show, entitled Spectres of Colonel John Graham, is a pointed criticism of colonial expansion and domination in the region. It depicts multiple portraits of Colonel John Graham, after whom Grahamstown is named and whom President Mbeki has described as a 'butcher', with dominant crosses negating his features. The crosses are made from gun powder, red ochre, tobacco, English tea, ecclesiastic braid and blood-stained bandages. A number of Thorburn´┐Żs agit-prop graphic works from the 1980's are in the permanent collection of the museum.

For more information about the exhibition, go to