Messages and Meanings: the MTN Art Collection
reviewed by Sue Williamson
Is South Africa unique in the attempts of a significant number of its artists to come to grips in some way with the core task of the nation of which they are a part: in this case, a struggle to achieve transformation?
The title of the substantial tome Messages and Meanings: the MTN Art Collection, , seems to suggest a national focus which concentrates on the way art can communicate and contribute to discourse.
The general manager of the MTN Foundation, Dr Meshack Khosa, describes the role of the MTN Art Collection, started in 1997 and housed in the MTN headquarters in Johannesburg, as being �multi-layered, a tool for social investment, an educational resource, a means of inspiring in-house communication and debate, and a showcase for visitors.� Following the lead of Billiton, in the eight years between the start of the collection and the publication of this catalogue, MTN has built up a substantial holding.
The collection comprises 1400 works, including three new site specific
sculptural installations commissioned when MTN moved offices to its present location. One of these is Andries Botha�s Conversations/Art and Technology (1998) incorporating speaker boxes, optic fibres and sound bytes, an installation stretching upwards through several floors of lobby space.
Sixty percent of the inventory consists of a detailed print collection covering the period of South Africa�s transformation. Many of these were conceived as artworks, but others are the hand pulled screenprinted posters which played such an important part in the cultural resistance of the 70s and 80s from organizations such as Cape Town�s Community Arts Project and the Graphic Unit of the Medu Arts Ensemble in Gaborone. Beadwork, embroideries, wooden carvings and ceramics are also part of the collection, as are new media works such as Minette V´a;ri�s video Alien in which the artist, head shaved bare, morphs herself into old TV news footage.
In her introduction, MTN curator and editor of this book Phillipa Hobbes concludes by saying � the artworks in the MTN Art Collection � suggest detours and alternative paths of South Africa�s journey - the places we might have found ourselves, could not speak of, could have seen or could only imagine.�
No less than 12 cultural commentators contribute substantial essays to the book, each discussing certain work in the collection within the framework of their particular point of view. Subjects range from the practice of corporate collecting (Ronel Kellner) to specific parts of the collection. Wilma Cruise writes on ceramics, Judy Seidman on posters, Nessa Leibhammer on beadwork. A number of the essayists open their contribution with a quote, and given the theme of the book, I particularly liked Seidman�s choice of Zakes Mofokeng�s, �Trying to avoid politics in art is like trying to dodge raindrops on a rainy day�.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the furtherance of discourse on and around contemporary art by such writers as Colin Richards, Emil Maurice and Clive Kellner. In his essay, Alter Images and the Aesthetics of South African Resistance Art, Andries Oliphant makes the point that it is usually assumed �that effective resistance requires bold, unambiguous iconography. Yet given the propensities of repression, subterfuge far from being ineffective, often turns out to be just as important as open and direct confrontation.� Writing On the Uses and Abuses of African Art History for Life, Khwezi Gule reflects on the lack of critical writing on contemporary African art. �� in practice our way of interpreting African art is still monolithic and seeks to construct narratives and chronologies where none exist. We regularly privilege the traditional/tribal context and fail to acknowledge the multiplicity of situations in which an art object can and does exist�.
There are many such insights to surprise and challenge in this fine coffee table sized book. Design is good and production values are high with stunning examples of work by such artists as Robin Rhode, Willem Boshoff and Stefanus Rademeyer. If some of the other works selected by the various writers to illustrate their essays seem a little dull, they do, of course, have art historical significance.
All in all, an important and substantial addition to the canon.
Publisher: David Krut Publishing cc 2006
Hardcover, 301 pages