Elizabeth Rankin & Philippa Hobbs
University of Auckland
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
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The Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre that became known as
Rorke's Drift was established by the Church of Sweden Mission in Natal in South
Africa during the early 1960s. Initiated at Ceza Hospital as an occupational
therapy and self-help project, mainly for women, it developed into a teaching
and production centre at the old Oscarsberg mission station at Rorke's Drift.
The Art and Craft Centre focused initially on applied arts that would readily
find a market, such as weaving, fabric printing, and pottery, but introduced a
Certificate in Fine Art in 1968. In a country whose apartheid institutions
denied formal fine art education to black people, Rorke's Drift became the
chief training ground for many exceptional artists, and the Centre's
seminal role in the development of black artists in South Africa is widely
acknowledged amongst artists, teachers and dealers.
But this recognition has been, implicitly if not intentionally, derisory. Compounded by a paucity of scholarship in the area of black art, the conception of the Centre's role has been a simplistic one. It never accorded Rorke's Drift a central position in what was perceived by art critics of the 1960s and 1970s as 'mainstream' South African art, which has, at least until relatively recently, been understood as the domain of academically trained, invariably white artists. The reputation of the Centre was based on a perception that it was not related to either establishment art or avant garde developments but was, however interesting, a secondary current. It seems to have been thought of in a rather patronising way as an appropriate project for rural black artists, producing work which comprised uncomplicated black-and-white linocut prints of Biblical stories and African folklore.
The apparent simplicity of the forms and compositions of prints by such artists as Azaria Mbatha and John Muafangejo matched a concept of naive pictorial expression identified with so-called 'primitive' peoples by many white viewers. And the seemingly straightforward narrativity of the prints corresponded with western notions of preliterate Africa and its oral traditions. Similarly, the technique of linocut itself and the ubiquitous compositional organisation in zones was assumed to be akin to 'unsophisticated' African processes, particularly the shallow relief bands decorating Zulu mat racks in the versions produced for the tourist market. Like the Zulu reliefs themselves, these prints from Rorke's Drift appealed to white buyers seeking images of 'authentic' Africa. The Centre's location in a remote rural area reinforced this reading of the works. The obvious facts that printmaking and its image-transferral process, as well as the use of linoleum as a matrix, were unfamiliar to black people in southern Africa, and that the Christian subject matter of many of the prints was introduced by foreign missionaries, does not seem to have deterred clients or disturbed these perceptions. Rather, an essentialist concept of the Centre's art was confirmed by the notion of an unbroken connection from 'traditional' woodcarving to linocut printing. This concept was identified particularly with the prints of Mbatha and Muafangejo, and entrenched by their visibility in the art market, and by their steadily growing prominence in South African art history as it expanded to include the production of black artists.
The role of the artists in sustaining this view of Rorke's Drift should not, however, be denied. Breaking into an art market that had given little attention to black artists, the artists of the Centre produced a high proportion of works that satisfied the demand for prints that reinforced ideas about 'primitive' African art. This enterprise continues today as some still deploy strategies of style and technique to create a linocut genre identified with Rorke's Drift, an approach followed even by artists who were never trainees at the Centre. And it is noteworthy that Mbatha, despite experiments in a modernist idiom in Sweden, has continued to create works very close to his early style: recent exhibitions of his work in South Africa have still focused on narrative linocuts, some reprints from old blocks, but many of recent date.
The stereotype developed exclusively through a reading of linocuts like these has masked a deeper and richer history at Rorke's Drift. It is a stereotype that can be challenged in many ways, not least by revisionist writings on the prints of Mbatha and Muafangejo themselves. But, in order to counteract the customary understanding of the Art and Craft Centre based on readings dominated by their work, this paper will attempt to reconstruct a broader picture, although it will focus on printmaking because it has been so central to the Rorke's Drift contribution. It can be argued that, far from being limited to a rural community project in 'primitive' Africa, Rorke's Drift was in many ways more professional and more international in its focus than many other art schools in South Africa at the time. Because of its central aim to empower black people, the Centre provided an environment in which students were made aware of dimensions of professional practice, such as issues around art markets and the media, often given scant attention at official 'white' art schools. In addition, at a time when South Africa was beginning to feel the effects of cultural and academic isolation, the Centre enjoyed international connections through its Swedish steering committee, its teachers and the Church of Sweden Mission. A number of students also had opportunities to study in Sweden but, in any event, all the students enjoyed the privilege of working under staff who had trained abroad and were specialists in the teaching of many different media in the arts. It is particularly relevant for this paper that the training in printmaking was easily comparable with that of many of the recognised tertiary institutions in South Africa. The range of processes taught at the Centre extended far beyond linocut relief prints, which anyway often provided examples of sophisticated experimentation. Similarly, the subject matter was not limited to serialised narratives, but explored a range which extended from still life, figure studies and portraits, through to autobiographical subjects and contemporary social themes, sometimes with strong political implications.
Preconceptions about Rorke's Drift have portrayed it as an exercise tangential not only to the mainstream of artistic production, but also to political issues in South Africa. On the contrary, the Centre was born out of political developments around the time of the Sharpeville massacres and the keen interest in apartheid South Africa that such events triggered amongst the Swedish public - writers, radio journalists, and the press, as well as the Church. Prominent amongst these were the Swedes who met at Uppsala to discuss an art and craft initiative for the mission in Zululand, inspired by its future Bishop, Helge Fosseus. It was to prove important that the group included a number of influential figures - a family member of the Bonniers media empire, Jytte Bonnier, well-known editor and writer on South African politics, Herbert Tingsten, and controversial radio-journalist, 'Jolo', all of whom actively promoted the unfolding project. Exposure in the media, first in Sweden, and then through an increasingly energetic exhibition programme in Europe and America in the 1970s, ensured an international profile for the Centre and its work.
The Swedish Committee for the Advancement of African Arts and Crafts, the steering committee established out of the Uppsala initiative, was charged with the task of appointing a couple, professionally trained in the arts, to travel to South Africa to research craft activities. The first recruits, Peder and Ulla Gowenius, had recently qualified in art education and weaving respectively. Like the later Swedish appointees, they had studied at the Konstfackskolan in Stockholm where support had begun to develop for communist pressure groups with an interest in third world affairs. Initially conceived to promote Zulu craft, the project soon shifted to a more active self-help scheme. Although formal art training was introduced considerably later, it was in the context of occupational therapy at Ceza Mission Hospital that the teaching of printmaking was initiated in 1962. Building on their familiar skills of carving with a knife, Peder Gowenius introduced the linocut process to a few male patients, including Mbatha and the less well-known Muziweyixhala Tabete. Impressed by the imagination of these artists, Gowenius embarked on a more ambitious printmaking project by early 1964, initiating the use of colour through the introduction of screenprinting, which had been his favoured medium at the Konstfackskolan. He was beginning to realise the potential of a fine art course, especially for men who were not included in the by now well-established applied arts projects which he and his wife were running for women at Rorke's Drift.
To launch fine art at the Centre, Gowenius recommended the appointment of Ola Granath, who had majored in printmaking before specialising in art education at the Konstfackskolan. Granath's arrival widened the scope of printmaking processes still further, with the crucial acquisition of an etching press by the end of 1966. During the next year, various artists who were to form part of the first fine art group observed Granath working with intaglio processes on the etching press. When the formal fine art curriculum was launched at the beginning of 1968, it was to encompass etching techniques as well as linocut, woodcut and screenprinting and, within a very short time, a range of sophisticated intaglio processes, including drypoint, aquatint, mezzotint, hard- and softground etching, was being explored. This programme continued, although there was some staff turnover in the later 1960s, with Granath taking over as principal from Gowenius at the end of 1967, followed by the arrival of the Lundbohms. Otto Lundbohm in turn took over the principalship when Granath left in 1969, and continued to work there, building up the printmaking facilities, until the Swedes withdrew from the Centre in 1976. Lundbohm reinforced and extended printmaking practice in relief and intaglio, acquiring another press and attempting to find local substitutes for imported materials to make printmaking more sustainable for graduates once they had left the Centre. He also introduced relief printing in colour, while Malin Lundbohm developed more advanced technology in screenprinting, although textile was the preferred substrate for this medium at Rorke's Drift and silkscreen was most fully developed as a medium for fabric printing at the Centre. She worked with Azaria Mbatha who had recently completed studies at the Konstfackskolan (1965-1967), and taught for a short period at Rorke's Drift before returning permanently to Sweden in 1969.
Although a number of white art institutions in South Africa were developing printmaking departments by this time, few could offer a range of printmaking processes that was comparable. Far from being technically limited, as the stereotype of Rorke's Drift might suggest, it can be claimed that, at least in relief and intaglio, the Centre was at the forefront of printmaking developments in South Africa.
Nor were Rorke's Drift prints limited in their imagery. Preconceptions of the Centre's printmaking practice oversimplify and undervalue even the familiar linocuts. A thorough perusal of such works demonstrates that the very concept of 'typical' Rorke's Drift prints is a construct. John Muafangejo's Biblical narratives, for example, do not simply utilise zonal organisation, but explore a variety of compositional possibilities, from his emblematic Adam and Eve with its circular centrepiece, to rectangular framing devices determined by a cruciform motif in Our Church at Rorke's Drift. Yet more extraordinary as a compositional device is Albert Ndlovu's structuring of a holy personage, possibly representing the Body of the Church, through a towered array of acrobatic figures. The specific meaning of this work remains inscrutable, perhaps because it is a highly personalised statement, or possibly because it reflects Africanising trends in black theology. Some Rorke's Drift images are hard to read in terms of conventional Biblical stories on account of their dependence on the beliefs of African-initiated syncretic Christian churches. Caiphas Nxumalo, for example, depicts the story of the local Shembe church. His composition is compartmentalised, not only to frame the episodes of the narrative, but also to suggest the rising form of the 'holy mountain', which the prophet Isaiah Shembe climbed to test his mistaken conviction that he could fly. Rare images that refer to indigenous beliefs predating Christianity are Tabete's representations of Zulu creation myths. He depicts the 'spring of creation' from which all life emerges in a multiple image of centrifugal energy. Another print shows the double domain of the known world and that of the abaphansi or spirits, establishing alternate existences in a composition that defies certainty as to which is the top and which the bottom, challenging not only western world views but also the conventional compositional practices of European art.
Against images like these, the Biblical linocuts of Azaria Mbatha may seem uncomplicated. Yet many of his prints are layered with metaphor. For example, the white form of the risen Christ amongst the black figures in The Passion of Christ not only suggests luminosity associated with the vision of the Christian Resurrection, but also subtly references the Zulu spirit world of the abaphansi, who are believed to be white. In other works, like Maria's Child, Mbatha experiments with a range of approaches to cutting the lino block, distinguishing the episodes with different linear configurations to create contouring, modelling of form with highlights, and effects of backlighting. These departures are emphasised in the central frame showing the Flight into Egypt, where the figures are endowed with a sense of corporeal substance, yet a spiritual presence too through the effects of shimmering atmosphere.
Such tonal evocations are unusual in the medium of linocut, but Mbatha's introduction to intaglio printmaking at the Konstfackskolan in Sweden extended these options for him and, in turn, for the trainees at Rorke's Drift after the introduction of the qualification in fine art from 1968. Nxumalo's drypoint version of Shembe is reminiscent of the flat zonal compositions of narrative linocuts, yet deploys a subtler line than linocut that is created by the furrowing of the metal plate with a drypoint needle. More complex indirect intaglio processes, using acid to bite the metal plate, further widened the tonal and textural range. Lonelyness by Cyprian Shilakoe, for example, combines aquatint with linework, affording rich textural effects and evocative moods. In Shilakoe's Philosopher and Eric Mbatha's Marching to Golgotha, the linear qualities and high contrasts of relief printing have been almost entirely abandoned in favour of pure aquatint. Its washed grey tonal effects dissolve the picture plane to create spatial recession. Even mezzotint was occasionally employed, with the deepening effects of its continuous tones and extraordinarily lustrous darks, as in still life studies by Maribe Mamabolo.
The complex potential of colour etching was also explored. Eric Mbatha deployed select wiping of a number of muted colours on a single plate, enriching the sense of atmosphere in his African Queens, for example. Judus Mahlangu was to develop multiple plate colour etching as his distinctive medium. In his view of Rorke's Drift, the overlaying of primary colours on the paper surface creates a jewel-like luminosity rarely seen in South African prints.
Such a range of intaglio processes was conducive to individual styles and approaches. The sophistication of Rorke's Drift printmaking laid the foundation for artists to move on to explore the potential of printmaking outside the frame of representation, equipping students to address the modernist project when they encountered it later in their careers. They could move readily from the fragmentation of partial abstraction to non-figurative works, as in etchings and monotypes by Vuminkosi Zulu and Tony Nkotsi. But even without transgressing the representational parameters that dominated printmaking at Rorke's Drift, works like Zulu's emotive figurative etchings deploy the range of marks made possible by intaglio techniques as expressive devices in their own right. The Leader and Mother and Dying Child seem physical manifestations of emotion in the violent gouging and deep biting that penetrates the plate, and in his strongly granular use of aquatint.
The variety of media and styles also prompted a reconsideration of the familiar conventions of linocuts. Relief printers, like Jacob Matsose, built up images with new textural approaches to tool work, which both dissolve form and create dramatic complexity. Linocuts were to realise an unprecedented level of expressiveness, exemplified in such works as Dan Rakgoathe's compelling double Self Portrait and a stark image of Steve Biko by Tony Nkotsi.
Even the small selection of works discussed in this paper make it self evident that there was no uniformity in the subject matter or processes of Rorke's Drift prints. Works such as Rakgoathe's and Nkotsi's portraits demonstrate that social and political comment was frequently deployed in the work of the Centre. It is a false perception that Rorke's Drift was a refuge from the political tensions of urban townships. The Centre was for many years a target of harassment by the authorities, with police searches and threats of deportation of the Swedish staff and closure of the Centre, illegally situated on 'white' land, so that the stresses of apartheid were not uncommon for teachers or students. While early depictions of The Battle of Rorke's Drift by Muafangejo and Shilakoe show historical confrontations of black and white, many prints depict scenes that offer more contemporary comment. Caiphas Nxumalo's dehumanised figures in Prison Labour, for example, suggest the harshness of authority during the apartheid era. The viewer might even read a hint of resistance in the raised pick of the labourer on the right, although the intention of the artist can only be guessed at. In the case of Azaria Mbatha, however, it is on record that he utilised the characteristic black and white contrast of linocut to make a deliberate statement of Zulu resistance, when his black David overcomes a white Goliath. Works like this demonstrate an awareness of the wider issues of Pan Africanism, and the fusion of political and religious debates in black churches in Natal. As a sense of political urgency intensified towards the Soweto Riots of 1976, so the pressures revealed themselves increasingly in works at Rorke's Drift. A particularly striking exponent is Charles Nkosi. As well as depicting contemporary martyrs, he rethinks the story of Christ's Crucifixion as a metaphor of political suffering and struggle.
But works like these have not formed part of the conventional understanding of Rorke's Drift and its art, engendered by the views of white clients who favoured works which fitted their preconceptions about African art, and which were less overtly confrontational - Mbatha's Passion of Christ rather than Nkosi's. It must be acknowledged, however, that the Rorke's Drift stereotype was not fashioned by the essentialist concepts of outsiders alone. Because of the initial self-help goals of the programme at the Art and Craft Centre, and the subsequent development of an energetic international exhibition calendar, its artists were particularly self conscious about market forces and buyer expectations. Such concerns were sharpened in an apartheid economy, where few, if any, jobs in the art domain were available to black professional artists. While the narrative linocuts of early artists at the Centre helped to shape buyer expectations, these expectations in turn influenced the choices of later artists. Dependence on the market to provide a livelihood, together with the constraints of lack of access to technical resources, encouraged compliance with the stereotype. A considerable proportion of Rorke's Drift prints that found their way onto the market and into collections conformed to the expectations of buyers in technique, style or subject matter, further imprinting a notion of 'primitivism' as a fundamental aspect of Rorke's Drift production. The artists as well as the public had a role in inventing and reinforcing an image of the Art and Craft Centre as an unsophisticated rural project restricted to applied art and simple linocut prints.
This partial construct of Rorke's Drift has limited our understanding, and masked the full force of the Centre's contribution to South African art history. The rich range of processes and styles as well as the depth of content in Rorke's Drift printmaking, which we have tried to demonstrate in this paper, must be acknowledged in order to ensure the Centre a central place in that history, directing attention to the need to redraw the parameters of so-called 'mainstream' art in the 1960s and 1970s, and to reinvent the concept of canonical South African art.
Artist: Caiphas Nxumalo
Date: c. 1968
© Do not reproduce
Artist: Musiweyixhwala Tabete
Title: (no title)
© Do not reproduce
Artist: Cyprian Shilakoe
Title: Lonelyness (sic)
© Do not reproduce
Artist: Vuminkosi Zulu
Title: Mother and Dying Child
© Do not reproduce
Artist: Tony Nkotsi
Title: (untitled portrait of Steve Biko)
© Do not reproduce
Artist: Caiphas Nxumalo
Title: Prison Labour
Date: c. 1968
© Do not reproduce
Artist: Charles Nkosi
Title: Pain on the Cross IV
© Do not reproduce
 The role of the Centre was not limited to the training of its own graduates. Many of them became teachers in turn, working in art centres throughout South Africa, and passing on what they had learnt at Rorke's Drift to many others. See, for example, Sack 1988: 20, and Hobbs and Rankin 1997: 14-21.
 This perception is reflected in such publications as Alexander 1974 and Berman 1983. It is also telling that at the time when Clement Greenberg judged the Art South Africa Today exhibition of 1975, the entries were displayed in two exhibition areas, one comprising 'progressive' work and the other a 'catch all' for representational and 'naive' works, the latter section including Rorke's Drift artists. However, it should be noted that the Centre itself may have not have sought a 'mainstream' position. In interviews with Philippa Hobbs in Sweden in 1999, the Swedish teachers of Rorke's Drift recalled their low opinion of South African art at the time, which seemed to be either out of touch with international trends or over-anxiously seeking an African idiom. For this reason, as well as their suspicion of white institutions, they tended not to encourage Rorke's Drift students to engage with current South African art.
 To cite a specific example, South African art historian Esmé Berman speaks of the Centre 'as a flourishing workshop, in which the concept of collective creativity has been realized with spectacular success'. She writes of 'linocuts, executed in stark contrasts of dark and light and filled with 'primitive' narrative imagery, in the manner which has become associated with the Rorke's Drift school' and describes 'the simplified conventions used ... typical of the devices adopted by the untutored artist' which she also compares to the conventions of Medieval art and Zulu mat racks. (Berman 1983: 142, 201, 281. The latter two quotes come from entries on Muafangejo and Mbatha respectively.)
 This concept may be implicit even in Steven Sack's ground-breaking reclamation of the history of black art, The Neglected Tradition, where, when comparing Rorke's Drift to the Polly Street Art Centre in Johannesburg, he states, 'Polly Street was urban. Rorke's Drift was rural. If Polly Street attempted a romantic re-connection to Africa, Rorke's Drift was in Africa.' (Sack 1988: 20)
 See, for example, Levinson 1992; Rosen 1993; Azaria Mbatha 1998.
 Details and chronology of the early development of the Centre are drawn from correspondence with Peder Gowenius and Philippa Hobbs's personal interviews with Peder and Ulla Gowenius, Sweden, 1999. The authors wish to acknowledge their exceptional generosity in providing access to memories, documentary material and other sources.
 A significant development a little later was the appointment of one of the Centre's own graduates, Eric Mbatha, to teach in the print studio in 1974, possibly the first black appointee to a formal printmaking post in South Africa.
 Rorke's Drift co-founder, Peder Gowenius, was eventually deported from South Africa and Lesotho in 1970.
 This deliberate intention was recounted by Azaria Mbatha in an interview with the authors in Durban in 1997, and also recalled by Peder Gowenius (Hobbs interview, Sweden, 1999).
 See Nkosi 1979.
Alexander, F.L. South African Graphic Art and its Techniques. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau, 1974.
Azaria Mbatha. Retrospective exhibition catalogue. Durban: Durban Art Gallery, 1998.
Berman, E. Art and Artists of South Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1983.
Hobbs, P. and Rankin, E. Printmaking in a Transforming South Africa. Cape Town: David Philip, 1997.
Leeb-du Toit, J. Spiritual Art of Natal. Pietermaritzburg: Tatham Art Gallery, 1993.
Levinson, O, ed. I was Lonelyness: the Complete Graphic Works of John Muafangejo. Cape Town: Struik, 1992.
Miles, E. Land and Lives: a Story of Early Black Artists. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau, 1997.
Nkosi, C. 'Black Crucifixion'. Staffrider 2 (4) 1979, pp.31-33.
Rankin, E. 'The Graduates of Rorke's Drift'. South African Journal of Art and Architectural History 2 (3&4), 1991, pp.108-112.
Rosen, R. 'Art History and Myth-making in South Africa: the Example of Azaria Mbatha'. Third Text 23,1993, pp.9-23.
Sack, S. The Neglected Tradition: Towards a New History of Southern African Art (1930-1988). Johannesburg: Johannesburg Art Gallery, 1988.
Elizabeth Rankin is Professor of Art History at the University of Auckland.
Her extensive writing and research on South African art, while she was based at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, focused particularly on interchange between black and white artists in the areas of sculpture and printmaking.
Philippa Hobbs has worked as an artist and printmaker since 1976, giving workshops and holding exhibitions in South Africa and abroad. She maintained a senior lectureship post at the Technikon Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, between 1987 and 1993, after which she initiated an independent printmaking teaching studio and print resource. Since 1995 Hobbs has collaborated with art historian Elizabeth Rankin on research on South African printmaking. She recently joined the MTN Art Institute in Johannesburg as print curator and educationist.
|Paper presented at the African Studies Association of Australasia & the Pacific 22nd Annual & International Conference (Perth, 1999)|
New African Perspectives: Africa, Australasia, & the Wider World at the end of the twentieth century