University of Durban-Westville
As South Africans prepare themselves for the new millennium, it is significant to take a critical look at the brief past of the new South Africa in order to elucidate and define some of the factors that have shaped this past and are likely to impact on the future. This paper will investigate the process of re-writing South African art history and the formation of a new, re-defined canon of South African art in the second half of the 1990s. It will take as its point of departure the well-researched first phase of this process, the radical re-ordering of the canon during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
This phase of dramatic change has been documented in a number of retrospectives, art gallery catalogues and conference papers and academic articles by art historians such as Elizabeth Rankin, Alex Duffey and Anitra Nettleton. Rankin for instance, in her article Recoding the canon, focuses on the collecting policies of South African public art galleries, documenting the shortcomings, the gaps and imbalances created over the past decades by a racially biased collecting practice and the most recent changes towards greater representivity (Rankin 1995).
Essentially all these investigations are tracing the same course of development from different perspectives, namely a transformation from an elitist, Eurocentric, exclusive art historical discourse to a radically re-defined one. The 'new South African art' is characterised by boldly shifted paradigms, impacting most crucially on the work of Black South African artists - the reconstruction of lost histories, extreme changes in exhibition and acquisition policies, curricula and research interests: all of which contribute to a culturally diverse, highly representative and inclusivist, non-hierarchical, all-embracing concept of South African art.
The question is: what happened next? How has the ongoing process of re-writing South African art history unfolded, what parameters and paradigms have determined its course and what can be expected for the future?
Any investigation of this process must begin with a consideration of its agents. Although the racial transformation of the South African art world has made some progress, there can be no doubt that virtually all key players - art historians, museum curators, gallery directors, art critics and publishers - are still White. Despite efforts to draw in Black contributors, the history of South African artists, both Black and White, is still largely being written from the perspective of and informed by the experiences of White South Africans for whom the 'discovery' and embrace of Black artists's works has opened up a rich new field of research and opportunities for professional activity.
It is also largely White academics who are shaping discourses surrounding South African art and determining which aspects of its past are worthy of exploration or critical revision. A look at publicly presented art historical research produced at South African academic institutions during the past five years reveals that while the focus is clearly on South African topics, the art of Black South Africans does not feature prominently apart from aspects of craft, such as pottery, wirework and textiles. This is reflected for instance in papers presented at the annual South African Association of Art Historians and articles published in South Africa's journals and in particular, the history of art journal De Arte. Interestingly, De Arte's November issue of the election year 1994 is brimming with contributions on Black artists's works, but the sudden surge subsided immediately thereafter.
Many of the paradigms and categories established in the past to classify South African artists and their work and, in particular, contextualise the work of Black artists, continue indirectly to guide much current thinking on South African art within large sectors of the art world. The term 'township art' for example and the connotations it carries have only very recently been critically re-examined (van Robbroeck 1998) and still impact on the appreciation and status of the respective artists and their works. The term 'transitional art' has gone out of usage, but a new category, 'community art', has gained currency since the late 1980s and is now firmly established to classify a broad array of work produced by informally trained Black artists. Bongi Dhlomo has publicly articulated Black artists's deep resentment at constantly finding themselves "labelled, checked, re-labelled and re-checked" (Dhlomo 1995:26).
In fact it is striking to note the difference in perception between Whites and Blacks of the current state of the art and the process of re-defining art history in South Africa. White artists, academics, and cultural brokers tend to emphasise the dramatic transformations that institutions and the art world as a whole have undergone since the early 1990s and often express a certain wariness of discussing issues of disadvantage. Black artists on the other hand frequently argue that very little has in fact changed and that the majority of Black artists in South Africa continues to struggle, due mostly to persisting, discriminating mechanisms entrenched in established structures. It can be observed for instance, that very few Black artists have solo exhibitions in established art galleries. Most Black artists exhibit in all-Black group shows or in venues traditionally associated with African art or craft, such as the African Art Centre in Durban. A survey of exhibition reviews or interviews with artists published in South Africa's respected weekly newspaper, The Mail & Guardian, from 1995 to the present, reveals that an estimated 90% of all articles cover White artists. There is no need to reiterate how media coverage and contextual factors, such as the exhibition venue, influence the perception, appreciation and perceived quality of the work. These factors in turn impact on the process of selection and the formation of a new canon. As two Black artists recently put it, "a revisionist era in South Africa's visual arts has yet to begin" (Smith 1998 quoting Motlhabane Mashiangwako and Lefifi Tladi).
It is worth exposing some of the parameters, structural limitations and vested interests that determine the production of research and re-writing of South African art history. For example, one of the intrinsic limitations of publicly re-defining art historical discourse in South Africa is the fact that one of the most crucial fora of this process, the critical academic publication, is hampered by severe constraints due to the country's extremely limited market for books of this kind. Unless it can attract major sponsorship or be marketed as a prescribed textbook for schools and tertiary institutions, most art publications are tied to, or coupled with, temporary exhibitions in public art galleries. This in turn influences what can and cannot be published.
As State-funded institutions, South Africa's major public art galleries today acknowledge their responsibility towards the broader public by embracing concepts of nationhood and representing a new South African identity. But their permanent collections are still dominated by art created by White artists. Radically revised acquisition policies cannot effect much change when matched against drastically curtailed or entirely absent acquisition budgets, particularly in light of the enormously high prices that the works of some Black artists now fetch on the international art market. Pushed by pressures of public accountability, the temporary exhibition programme steps in to help correct imbalances and fill the enormous gaps that continue to exist with regard to the history of Black South African artists.
|Exhibitions and publications|
It is this context that has prepared the ground for a number of exhibitions focused on recovering lost histories and paying tribute to the work of Black artists. Some art galleries were more active in this regard than others, often precipitated by the personal research interest of academics from nearby tertiary institutions with whom the gallery cooperates. A number of single-artist retrospective exhibitions with accompanying catalogues have been mounted in the past few years, including those for Gerard Bhengu, Gerard Sekoto and Azaria Mbatha; but an enormous lack of monographs on Black artists persists. This comes at a time when internationally the tide is turning against the project of artist's biography and other ventures associated with the "heroisation" of the artist (Brenson 1998).
This lack of monographs and other forms of in-depth research which continue to hamper the process of re-writing the history of South African art is compounded by, or partly due to, the shortage of older Black artists's works in public collections. It is no coincidence for example that the most recent travelling survey exhibition of South African art, Emergence, spans only the period of the past 25 years, during which collecting practices have become more inclusive. Few exhibitions and publications with a distinctly historical perspective have been produced. Notable exceptions, such as the recent exhibition on the Ndaleni Art School at the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg and Elsa Miles' 1997 exhibition and publication Land and Lives: A story of early Black artists, tend to focus on recovering lost histories, but they lack any serious discussion or critical evaluative assessment of the works produced by these artists.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this reluctance to engage critically with the art produced by Blacks and their relation to art produced by Whites is a lack of innovative perspectives or different paradigms that offer new insights and worthwhile avenues of interpretation and contextualisation. The exhibition Emergence, for instance, although avoiding old labels, is still essentially arranged along the lines of established categories and predictable themes such identity, politics, religion, landscape, etc..
|Museums in crisis|
What compounds the problem is the impending funding crisis faced by national and municipal museums and public art galleries in the light of increasing pressures to become self-sustaining. As the curators of Emergence critically remarked, "museums struggle to retain highly trained staff, purchase new works, care for collections and engage in research" (Emergence 1999). These parameters do not bode well for the project of catching up on lost histories and re-assessing the history of South African art.
Furthermore, public art galleries are increasingly forced to position themselves in relation to the recently emerged and strongly proliferating corporate art collections which constitute another significant consideration; one that is beginning to impact on 'who is in and who is out' in the process of re-defining the history of South African art. Unlike public art galleries, corporate collectors are neither impeded by strapped acquisition budgets nor do they necessarily feel obliged to express a responsibility towards a broader public. Although it may be too early to make a generalised judgment, it has been pointed out that corporate collectors make conservative choices (Cruise 1998). The Gencor collection for example, highly publicized through its recent glossy publication edited by Kendell Geers (1997), is characterised throughout by fine quality and established value to the exclusion of younger, or lesser established artists and very recent or more experimental work. Black businesses, while supporting Black artists, have been observed to be extremely conservative in their selections, rejecting, for instance, Black avant-garde artists in favour of those previously called 'transitional' artists (Cruise 1998:58).
Increasing criticism of political correctness in the arts, along with other factors resulting from South Africa's new interconnectedness with the global international art scene, has contributed to a significant paradigm shift during the past five years. While the recently re-arranged permanent exhibitions in public art galleries with their emphasis on broad inclusivity are likely to stay as they are for the near future, temporary exhibitions and other indicators suggests that the pluralist approach and obsession with representing the 'rainbow nation', characterised in the immediate post-election period, has lost ground against a more cautious and critical attitude and a renewed concern for greater focus, selectivity and 'quality'.
An early indication of this shift was the 1996 FNB Vita Art Now Awards exhibition, generally considered one of the barometers of contemporary South African art, which was praised for being more selective than the previous year's widely inclusive show. The concept of 'colour blindness' and an unstated concern for merit independent of racial considerations and a new focus 'on the work itself', also characterises Williamson and Jamal's (1996) publication Art in South Africa - the future present. The exhibition Emergence appears highly inclusive at first sight, representing a large spectrum of artists working in a great variety of media from pottery to video-installation. However, the curators did by no means feel compelled to include an Indian artist's work, not even when the exhibition was recently re-mounted in Durban, home to South Africa's largest Indian community. Four years ago the decision to let selectivity prevail over representivity for an exhibition of this kind would have been untenable.
A comparison between the two Johannesburg biennales, Africus 1995 and Trade Routes 1997, places this shift into a more global context. Both biennales were highly prestigious and internationally visible art events which impacted on art production, curatorial concepts, theoretical debates and the positioning of individual artists in South Africa. Africus epitomises the pluralist, highly inclusive approach, influenced by post-modernism and the curatorial concept of the 1989 Magiciens de la Terre exhibition. Trade Routes, influenced mostly by post-colonial theoretical discourses, was locally (but not internationally!) associated with elitism and inaccessibility. Africus bridged the enormous aesthetic, technical and conceptual discrepancies between the works of many self-taught or informally trained Black artists and academically trained Whites by celebrating diversity and emphasising difference. Organisers of the second biennale however selected only artists conversant with the visual language of contemporary art production and whose work corresponded to a particular, internationally accepted standard. The whole race issue was played down in the spirit of post-colonial theory and in accordance with international practice. As Kobena Mercer (1998:43) has recently pointed out with regard to the contemporary global art scene: "Diversity is more visible than ever before, but the unspoken rule is that you do not make an issue of it."
This raises important questions with regard to the ethics and politics of forming collections and representing South African art. Is it ethical and whose interests does it serve to make issues of race and disadvantage invisible by focusing on 'quality' and 'the work itself'? Should a re-defined South African art reflect the enormous discrepancies in artistic output between Black and White artists, both past and present, or rather emphasise the high achievements of a few Black artists judged by standards ultimately set by Whites? To what extent should the prevailing politics of reconciliation and nation-building influence the re-writing of art history and to what extent should the process of selection be determined by international norms and expectations?
|Overseas exhibitions of South African art|
As South Africa becomes part of the global international art scene, it is not only international standards of art production that impact on defining a new South African art, but also the display and reception of South African art overseas. The need to provide a conceptual framework that makes the works accessible and comprehensible to overseas audiences only marginally familiar with South African art, influences curatorial concepts and strategies of display; these may frequently reinforce rather than challenge stereotypes and audience expectations. For example, art critic Francesca Buglioni (1996) noted that the exhibition Colours - Contemporary Art from South Africa mounted in Berlin (1996) was arranged in categories such as 'traditional and naive', or 'protest art' and 'white art', so as to be immediately recognisable to a Western audience,
Other overseas exhibitions of South African art, such as Simunye/We Are One at the Adelson Gallery in New York, or Common and Uncommon Ground: South African Art to Atlanta (both 1996), although keen to demonstrate representivity, were ultimately curated along the lines of what is acceptable as 'art' for a Western and largely American audience; for instance, they contained no vernacular art objects that locally would be termed 'folk art' or craft. Steven Sack, who curated Common and Uncommon Ground, in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue (Sack 1996) vehemently affirms his personal conviction that the categorisation of art into 'folk art' and 'high art' is a Western concept. The imposition of such categorisation he deems not only irrelevant to the South African context but, at the present moment, obstructive to a re-shaping of the South African art world and the re-making of South African art history. Sack explains - and one could surmise, apologizes for - the absence of craft works with a broad reference to limitations of time and space but also shifts some of the responsibility for the decision onto the shoulders of those on the American side with whom he collaborated .
Exhibitions like Common and Uncommon Ground play a significant role in shaping a diverse international audience's perception of South African art. This invariably influences decisions about selection, acquisitions, funding and other forms of promotion on an international level which, in turn impact on the formation of a new canon of South African art on a local level.
The gradual liberalisation of the political landscape in the early 1990s, culminating in the 1994 elections, provided a powerful impetus for revisionist research and the process of re-assessing the history of South African art. The enthusiasm and dynamic of this process appears to have levelled off somewhat towards the end of the decade. This is due partly to individual researchers's interests and the impact of global trends in a now internationally connected South African art world. But beyond that are the financial constraints placed upon public art galleries which affect their acquisition and research capacity; the recent spate of closures of fine art departments at institutions of tertiary education throughout the country; persisting public apathy and lack of art patronage; as well as the absence of various forms of governmental support for the arts. These are factors threatening to hamper both art production and art historical research in South Africa in the new millennium.
 Notably the exhibition Contemporary South African Art 1985-1995 from the South African National Gallery Permanent Collection, Cape Town with accompanying catalogue (SANG 1997), reviewed by Charlton 1997 and Nolte 1997.
 See SANG 1997 and JAG 1997.
 Alex Duffey's (1996) paper Art History in South Africa: Past and Present takes an historical look at the transformation of the discipline, discussing tertiary education, art historical conferences, and the South African Association of Art Historians as important academic fora where art historical discourse is shaped.
Anitra Nettleton's (1995) contribution to the 1995 Johannesburg Biennale catalogue concentrates on exhibitions during the period of 1988-1992 - crucial years in the construction of a new national art history, discussing watershed exhibitions such as The Neglected Tradition curated by Steven Sack. Due to her chosen time-frame, Nettleton relegates discussion of the important Tributaries exhibition curated by Ricky Burnett in 1985 to a footnote. Tributaries was the first example of a fine art exhibition in which works by Black and White artists were shown together without hierarchies of material.
 For example, a comparison of the Johannesburg Art Gallery's Annual Report of 1985/86 with the one of 1995/96 shows that 15 new works were acquired in 1985/86, one of which was by a Black artist. Ten years later, 33 works were purchased, the great majority of them by Black artists. Furthermore, many of these works do not fall into the 'fine art' category (for example beadwork and fabric items). While the 1992/93 Annual Report still lists such objects in a separate category under the heading "traditional southern African objects", no such differentiation is made in the 1995/96 Annual Report, giving an indication of the conceptual expansion of the term 'art'.
 Lize van Robbroeck's paper 'Art History in Africa: A Look at Course Content', published in 1987, still reads like a justification for including some local content in the completely Western-dominated art history curricula at UNISA. By the mid 1990s all Fine Art departments at tertiary institutions had made similar changes.
 It is worth remembering what Anitra Nettleton (1995) concludes in her above-mentioned essay on watershed exhibitions of the late 80s/early 90s. She exposes that the re-defined art history presented in these exhibitions is constructed once again by White liberals informed by their specific understanding of culture and emphasises the need for indigenous people to represent themselves (Nettleton 1995:69). Today, nearly five years later, this need persists. The most recent exhibition of South African art, Emergence (first opened in June 1999 in Grahamstown), curated by three White academics (Julia Charleton, Fiona Rankin-Smith, in consultation with Marion Arnold), is a case in point.
 See for example Oltmann 1997; contributions to aspects of Zulu pottery are regularly being presented at the annual conferences of the South African Association of Art Historians by Juliette Armstrong and Ian Calder from the University of Natal at Pietermaritzburg.
 Township art for example was considered too commercial and therefore not bought by public galleries (van Robbroeck 1998). Ironically however, one could argue that a lot of recent work by Black artists that is enthusiastically embraced by art galleries today could be compared to township art.
 It is well-known that many Black artists resent being classified in this manner. See van Robbroeck 1999, endnote 2.
 The wariness is compounded by perceptions that political correctness has superseded merit as a criterion for judging art. This sentiment is epitomised by an article in the Sunday Independent with the telling title 'Wailing worthies have hijacked culture for the use as a weapon against originality in the arts' (Greig 1997).
Structures such as general education, art training, the art market, art criticism, and the gallery system. Even aspects of basic infrastructure, for example the availability of a private telephone number or stable postal address, continue frequently to discriminate indirectly against Black artists living in townships or rural areas. As more telephone lines are being installed, the rapid expansion of new electronic media systems (e.g. internet access) step in to perpetuate the disadvantage.
 The unspoken implication of this observation is that Black artists either do not produce enough work or that their work is not 'up to standard'. Both points warrant critical investigation. A exploration of this issue is currently in progress by the author.
Compare for example Duffey's (1996) above- quoted paper, in which he points out how universities and other art institutions began to change dramatically towards more Afrocentric content in the early 1990s, with Bongi Dhlomo's (1995:26) assessment: "Despite the changes that are sweeping South Africa, none of the institutions concerned with art education have yet questioned whose art history they are teaching or whose art history they should teach, in order that such an education is relevant to the art made within the country." The view of persisting disadvantage and divisions in the South African art world is often corroborated by foreign academics and outsiders, e.g., Oguibe 1997 or Nicodemus and Romare1997-98.
 The South African National Gallery for example, has publicly stated its exhibition policy as follows: "To redress the imbalances created by our history and by Eurocentric attitudes and approaches and to participate in the writing of South African history and art history." (SANG 1997:41).
 An example is a number of exhibitions (e.g. Ndaleni Art School, Gerard Bhengu, Spiritual Art in Natal) held the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg that were solely, or in part, curated by Juliette Leeb-du-Toit, history of art lecturer at the University of Natal.
 It is no co-incidence that the recent exhibition on the Ndaleni Art School (Bell and Clark 1999) has been assembled mostly with work from private collectors.
 Hazel Friedman's review of the exhibition was sub-titled "This year's FNB Vita Art Now Awards were strengthened by being selective rather than widely inclusive". (Friedman 1996) This critique in the Mail &Guardian sets the tone for her assessment and praises the "selective representation" of the 1996 Awards over the "nebulously inclusivist principles" of the previous year.
While the telling title Simunye/We Are One suggests broad inclusivity, the show did, in fact, not contain works that a western, primarily American audience would consider craft or 'folk art'. The selection of black artists focused on well-known names, such as Willie Bester or Kagiso Patrick Mautloa. For a review of the exhibition see Peffer-Engels 1997.
 "Criticism is often levelled that exhibitions from Africa present many disparate art forms in a single show. Africa does not wish to be categorised in the way in which European and American art is categorised, in which there is a kind of an apartheid between folk art and high art; South Africa in this time of remaking itself would be foolish to impose the kind of categorisations that divided us from one another for so many decades." (Sack 1996: no page number).
 In particular, he mentions Eddie Granderson, the director of the City Gallery East, "who alerted me to the heated debate in Atlanta surrounding the 'vernacular' versus 'fine art' schools of art." (Sack 1996: no page number).
Africus 1995. Johannesburg Biennale, Exhibition catalogue. Published by the Johannesburg Transitional Metropolitan Council, Johannesburg.
B. Bell and Clark, B. (editors). Ndaleni Art School. A Retrospective. Pietermaritzburg: Tatham Art Gallery, 1999.
M. Brenson. "The Curator's Moment", Art Journal vol.57 no.4,1998, pp.16-27.
F. Buglioni."Berlin hosts major SA art exhibition", Evening Post 29th May 1996.
J. Charlton. Review of "South African National Gallery 1997", De Arte 56, Sept.1997, pp.59-60.
W. Cruise. "Corporate art collections", De Arte 58, Sept.1998, pp.36-58.
B. Dhlomo."Emerging from the Margins", Africus 1995. Johannesburg Biennale, Exhibition catalogue. Published by the Johannesburg Transitional Metropolitan Council, Johannesburg,1995, pp.26-27.
A. E. Duffey. "Art History in South Africa: Past and Present", paper presented at the XXIXth International Congress of the History of Art in Amsterdam, September 1996, published in Ezine Journal for History of Art, 1996 (https://www.up.ac.za/academic/arts/archive/essays01/04text.html).
Emergence . Curators's statement, displayed in the exhibition and on web-site (in lieu of catalogue, https://www.wits.ac.za/emergence). Exhibition first opened in Grahamstown, June 1999.
H. Friedman. "Voices heard above the babble", The Mail&Guardian May 10-16, 1996.
K. Geers. Contemporary South African Art: The Gencor Collection, Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1997.
R. Greig. "Wailing worthies have hijacked culture for the use as a weapon against originality in the arts", Sunday Independent 4 May 1997.
Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG). A decade of collecting: The Anglo American Johannnesburg Centenary Trust 1986-1996. Johannesburg, 1997.
Johannesburg Art Gallery, Annual Reports, 1985/86 to 1995/96, published by the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
K. Mercer. "Intermezzo Worlds", Art Journal vol 57 no.4, Winter, 1998, pp.34-45.
E.Miles. Land and Lives. A Story of Early Black Artists. Cape Town, Pretoria, Johannesburg: Human & Rousseau,1997.
A. Nettleton. "Collections, Exhibitions and Histories: Constructing a New South African Art History", Africus 1995. Johannesburg Biennale, Exhibition catalogue. Published by the Johannesburg Transitional Metropolitan Council, Johannesburg, 1995, pp.65-73.
E. Nicodemus and K. Romare. "Africa, Art Criticism and the Big Commentary", Third Text 41, Winter,1997-98, pp.53-65.
J. Nolte. Review of Contemporary South African Art 1985-1995, Third Text, 39, Summer 1997, pp.95-103.
O. Oguibe. "A Place in the Centre: South African Art at the End of the Century". In Geers, K. (ed.) Contemporary South African Art: The Gencor Collection. Jonathan Ball: Johannesburg,1997, pp. 119-129.
W. Oltmann. "Decorative wirework in African material culture of southern Africa", De Arte 56, September 1997, pp.9-24.
J. Peffer-Engels. "Insight: Four Artists from South Africa and Simunye/We are one". Review. African Arts, winter 1997, pp.75-77.
E. Rankin. "Recoding the Canon: Towards Greater Representivity in South African Art Galleries", Social Dynamics 21.2, 1995, pp.56-90
S. Sack. The neglected tradition: towards a new history of South African art (1930-1988). Exhibition catalogue. Johannesburg Art Gallery, 1988.
J. Smith. "Those we follow", Mail & Guardian, March 6-12, 1998.
South African National Gallery. (SANG). Contemporary South African Art 1985-1995 from the South African National Gallery Permanent Collection. Cape Town, 1997.
Trade Routes: History and Geography. Exhibition Catalogue. 2nd Johannesburg Biennale. Published by the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council, 1997.
L. van Robbroeck. "Art History in Africa: A Look at Course Content", De Arte 36, September,1987. pp.37-39.
L. van Robbroeck. "'Township Art': libel or label", De Arte 57, April 1998, pp.3-16.
S. Williamson and A. Jamal.Art in South Africa - the future present, David Philip: Cape Town and Johannesburg, 1996.
Dr Sabine Marschall is a German art historian permanently residing in South Africa. After completing her PhD in art history at the University of Tübingen, she taught at Clemson University and Wofford College in South Carolina (USA) and is currently lecturing at the University of Durban-Westville (mostly on traditional African art and 20th century). Recent publications focussed on 20th century South African architecture (Opportunities for Relevance, co-authored with Brian Kearney, UNISA Press, forthcoming), on community mural art in South Africa, and aspects of South African art historiography.
|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