Jane Alexander, Butcher Boys, 1985-1986.
photo : collection permanente | permanent collection, Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town

From April 15 to October 3, 2010, the Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG), in Cape Town, presented an ambitious retrospective of South African art titled 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective. The object of the exhibition was to present an historical overview of the country’s rich and diverse production of modern and contemporary art, and “to provide insight into the soul of [this] complex nation, from the hilltops of the Union Buildings a hundred years ago to the townships of Cape Town today.”1 1 - From the introductory text of 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective by curator Riason Naidoo, http://www.iziko.org.za/sang/exhib/2010/1910-2010_pierneef_gugulective/curatorial_statement.html. Developed from both the museum’s own collection and works on loan from other institutions, the exhibition displayed an impressive number of very engaging works, from the idyllic landscapes by the painter of Dutch descent, Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957), to the sound installation of Gugulective, an artist collective whose members live in Gugulethu, a black township in the Cape Town area. While art is occasionally political, exhibitions, whether we like it or not, are likely always so. As such, an appraisal of From Pierneef to Gugulective offers an opportunity to probe the power relationships that have shaped the art world and its institutions in South Africa.

Organizing an intelligent and coherent retrospective covering a century of a nation’s artistic production is certainly a colossal challenge that entails, besides a general perspective, a fair representation of diverse approaches and voices. The challenge is all the greater in a country like South Africa, which put an end to a white supremacist political system little more than fifteen years ago. Indeed, with the obvious exception of rare pockets of resistance, like the Polly Street Art Centre in Johannesburg, where black and white artists worked side by side, the art world took an active part in racial segregation. Apart from the fact that the country’s major artistic institutions disregarded any art that did not conform to canonical European tradition, they also followed the racist apartheid regime in systematically excluding the black population. Access to museums was tightly controlled, in accordance with “colour bar” rules,2 2 - The “colour bar” was the South African government’s legal classification of racial hierarchy in the apartheid system. and access for Blacks was either restricted or forbidden altogether. Artistic education was also reserved for Whites, who were apparently alone capable of elevating themselves beyond manual labour and, needless to say, had total control of the institutions.

Although the end of apartheid, the easing of racist laws in 1990, and the advent of democracy in 1994, which led to the election of Nelson Mandela, have had a positive impact on the country, racism hasn’t necessarily disappeared. One only has to stroll about in South Africa to see the racial partitioning of the territory and to grasp how the “rainbow nation,” as Archbishop Desmond Tutu affectionately liked to call it, is still hamstrung by economic and social inequalities related to its old demons and shameful regime. The art world, unfortunately, is no exception. “South African visual arts practice is still racially divided,” writes artist and theoretician Thembinkosi Goniwe in Art in a Democratic South Africa.3 3 - Thembinkosi Goniwe, in Sophie Perryer (ed.), 10 years 100 artists – Art in a Democratic South Africa (Cape Town: Bell-Roberts, 2004), 12. In the same publication, Andrew Lamprecht goes further still to declare that the South African art milieu is poisoned by racism. “White collectors, curators, critics, academics, educators and gallerists still dominate and seem ever more reluctant to loosen the grip that they so patently have on fine art in South Africa.”4 4 - Andrew Lamprecht, Ibid., 16.

George Hallett, Jann Turner, daughter of slain activist Rick Turner, with Eugene de Kock, the commander of Vlakplaas, the infamous farm where victims were tortured and killed, TRC Headquarters, Cape Town, 1997.
photo : collection permanente | permanent collection, Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town
Jurgen Schadeberg, Avoiding the Pass, Johannesburg 1955, 1955.
photo : permission | courtesy Heidi Erdmann Contemporary

The appointment in May 2009 of Riason Naidoo to the directorship of the South African National Gallery brought an end to a century of exclusively white management at the institution. 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective was the first exhibition Naidoo organized at the museum as curator and director. It also served to advance the mission he intended for the museum: an encompassing, inclusive approach to audience ­development, more criticism regarding exhibition and acquisition choices, with greater room given to the cultural diversity of the nation.5 5 - Naidoo, 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective. To bring this desire for change to fruition in the retrospective, Naidoo chose to occupy the entire space of the museum with a variety of pieces drawn from a broad artistic pallet. For the first time in the museum’s history, a temporary exhibition claimed every single gallery in the museum (usually devoted to “European” art). One can certainly see an attempt on Naidoo’s part to break down barriers and to offer audiences a broader vista.

While some saw the exhibition as a major turning point, even a ­revolution within the establishment, others were quick to condemn Naidoo’s premiere, accusing him of taking advantage of the Soccer World Cup to produce a grandiose exhibition lacking direction and a common thread. Lloyd Pollock, a journalist, said of the museum director that he had “no thesis to propound, no argument to advance and no interpretation to propose.”6 6 - Lloyd Pollock, “SANG’s reputation trashed for 2010 show,” The South African Art Times (on line), http://www.arttimes.co.za/news_read.php?news_id=1908. Sharing the same point of view on Naidoo’s work, art historian Gerhard Schoeman went so far as to accuse the museum of outright opportunism and of succumbing to political sentimentalism.7 7 - Gerhard Schoeman, “Collected Works,” Art South Africa, vol. 8, No. 4 (Winter 2010): 58.

Without a doubt, Naidoo wished to take advantage of the enthusiasm generated around the World Cup to present a major exhibition whose theme would attract a great number of visitors. While some technical aspects of the exhibition were somewhat lacking — particularly with respect to the contextualization of the works and the availability of information on the artists — Naidoo’s exhibition was unarguably rich and substantial, and did not deserve the contempt it received. One could go so far as to say that Naidoo managed a tour de force with a bold project that, while relying on quantity, was of unstinting quality. The abundance and eclecticism of the presented works offered a kaleidoscopic view of South African art while maintaining integrity and coherence. In this respect, one fails to understand the dire tone taken by some critics, who intimated the ruin of museology. Wariness may certainly be called for with respect to well-meaning institutional discourse and the lengths some museums are willing to go to in order to reach the widest possible audience, even to the extent of watering down their programming or instrumentalizing social practices as art. However, it is not the case with 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective, it seems to me. It should be said that the desire to democratize access to art is not an evil in itself — all the more so for an institution laden with a colonial and exclusionary past. One might in fact wonder if, between the blistering lines of the grim chroniclers, there might not be a form of intractability regarding the changing of the guard that is gradually occurring at the museum and generally in the South African cultural milieu. If such is the case, the attitude should be condemned.

Mary Sibande, Conversation with Madam CJ Walker, 2009.
photo : Mario Todescheni, permission | courtesy Gallery MOMO, Johannesburg

To enliven the route from one hall to another, and to break the ­monotony of a straight chronological sequence, works were variously grouped either by theme, by formal affinities, or by period. Several major events in South Africa’s history, broached by artists of all backgrounds throughout the country, were highlighted as many variations on the same theme. Among them were the Sophiatown deportations in 1955, and those of District Six in the 1970s, the murder of Steve Biko (founder of the Black Consciousness Movement), and the massacres in Sharperville in 1960 and in Soweto in 1976. Showcased for good reason in photography were the stunningly poetic snapshots of the DRUM Magazine photojournalists who portrayed the social reality of Blacks under the repressive regime in the 1950s. A couple sharing a moment of tenderness at a bus stop in Sophiatown (Bob Gosani’s Love Story, Sophiatown, 1954), teenagers playing cat and mouse with police officers to avoid showing their pass (Avoiding the Pass, Johannesburg, 1955, by Jurgen Schadeberg), Mandela practising boxing (Nelson Mandela Sparring with Jerry Moloi, by Bob Gosani): these images became icons and symbols for the struggle toward racial equality. A more recent and poignant photo by George Hallett, Jann Turner with Eugene de Kock (1997), shot during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, captured the encounter of Jann Turner — whose father, a philosopher opposed to the apartheid regime, was eliminated by the police — and Eugene de Kock, formerly a commander in chief of the paramilitary death squad C10 (or “Vlakplaas”), responsible for the disappearance or murder of many anti-apartheid activists. The “punctum” of this photo resides in the gaze, at once sad and triumphant, of Rick Turner’s daughter, looking obliquely at the former regime’s enforcer, whose own gaze is shrouded in dark glasses.

A hybrid mixture of African and European iconography, the paintings and drawings of many artists of the resistance were also in evidence. As to be expected, among the latter was the work of painters Gerard Sekoto and Helen Sebidi, with their modern-style depictions of daily life in black neighbourhoods, the “expressionist” drawings of Dumile Feni, dubbed the Goya of the Townships, and of Ezrom Legae, expressing the physical and psychological violence of segregation through the anguished human figure. In sculpture, one found Jane Alexander’s work, Butcher Boys, three mutant figures, part-animal, part-human, their bodies mutilated, representing victims and aggressors simultaneously, the composite work of Willie Bester, openly political and produced from recycled materials, and finally, the very promising work of the young Mary Sibande, an artist concerned with the power relationships between servant and mistress of the house. In her installation, Conversation with Madam CJ Walker (2009), a life-size mannequin representing a housemaid with ebony black skin (her face is modelled on the artist’s) faces the portrait of a woman (CJ Walker), that is embroidered with black synthetic hair, onto which the servant clasps.8 8 - CJ Walker (1867-1919) was an African-American business woman who made a ­fortune selling beauty and hair products to black women. The latter’s eyes are closed, and the elegant Victorian dress that stands in for her work clothes undoubtably expresses the dream of a better life.

Finally, to conclude the retrospective, the ISANG director ushered in another exhibition whose works delved into the issue of nationalism. After the xenophobic attacks the country experienced in 2008, it was essential, Naidoo said, to be watchful of the pitfalls of intense nationalism. Titled US and organized by the curators Bettina Malcomess and Simon Njami, the exhibition broached the notion of “us” versus “them,” or the marginalized “Other.” Though it may be idealistic to think that museums can change the world, one may nonetheless hope that they can be the conduits, or at least the intermediaries, for an openness to difference.

[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]

This article also appears in the issue 71 - Inventories

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