Black art needs no white sympathy, but the reception it meets from whites is often patronizing or exploitative.
As you go north from Johannesburg, the landscape grows in scale and grandeur, and you begin to feel that you are incontrovertibly in Africa: the vague Europeanizing influence that is so powerful in Cape Town and half-successful in Johannesburg disappears. If this area is a hotbed of gross Afrikaans conservatism, that must be because it is so obvious here that you cannot shut out Africa with a high fence or a well-planted garden of foreign herbs and flowers — and Africa, taken in its entirety, is not only beautiful, but also frightening to most whites.
The road from the town of Louis Trichardt to the Venda homeland climbs slowly into the gentle hills south of the Limpopo River. When you arrive in Venda itself, you are made quiet by it; an air of mystery and joy and of a dialogue of spirits dwells over Venda the same way an atmosphere of excitement and bustle and urban decay hangs over New York.
I had wanted to go to Venda for a long time. The first time I visited South Africa, two years ago, Johannesburg dealers had described Venda as the land of the innocents, where an authentic black culture still reigns, and I thought it might be the missing link that would make sense of my experience of South African urban black and white art. I was impressed then by how much urban artists of every race seemed to treat one another as equals, to respect and listen to and even like one another. They struck me, in general, as good people who wanted to make things right, but they operated at a terrible distance from one another. I wondered what a closer study of their lives and work would reveal about their country and its transformations. I thought I might find a cultural reflection of the political center mentioned so often in the American news.
Venda seemed a good place to start. Its people have been carving for a long time — bowls, animals, little figures — and the new Venda art connects to this tradition. Some works are inflated curios, some para-religious objects; some reflect a Western idea of art. The story of their integration into the South African art scene is a parable for the confused but touching cultural interaction that will be the basis of the “new” South Africa.
There are no real maps of Venda. The artists are not easy to find; most of them don’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, much less a telephone. You just show up and they are usually at home, and usually glad to see you. I turned from the main road onto a dirt path beside a field of hemp and passed through a village of rondavel (round) huts, made of mud and dung. I was looking for Noria Mabasa, whom I found sitting outside her concrete house with some friends and relations. “Most of my things are in Johannesburg now,” she said. “Too far away.” But I found a few carvings, made from hollow trunks, of rings of people reaching out toward one another.
“It wasn’t my choice to carve,” she said. “I was sick. So sick, terribly sick.” Mabasa shook and hunched over. “And I had a dream, and an old, old woman came to me, and I was afraid. She said I must make some figures from clay, for being well. So after this terrible dream I began to make figures, and I got well. Oh, I was so well again, with making these figures. And it lasted, oh, some years.” She laughed.
“And then I was ill again. And again this terrible woman came to me in my dream and said I must not cut my hair. So each time as it was growing I began to get more strong, and I never will cut it again.” Mabasa took off her hat to reveal a fibrous topiary of hair that had been neither cut nor combed. “And then this old woman came a third time and told me to carve, and that it was the last time — if I carved, she would never be coming and bothering me again. And I was so afraid, and when she was gone I began to carve my dreams, to keep her away. Now when it is a strong dream, I am making carvings.”
We walked together behind the house. Mabasa picked some mangoes, which we ate. “And now these people are coming from Johannesburg, and they take my carvings and sell them. I went to Johannesburg, too. Too many people! Terrible place.”
I wanted to see the Ndou brothers, Goldwin and Owen. Mabasa said it was too difficult to explain where they were, and after some cajoling she agreed to come with me. Like Mabasa, Goldwin Ndou has earned some money, and he also has a “luxurious” concrete house. When we arrived, the mother of the Ndou brothers was standing outside. Tall, erect, dignified, she was bare-breasted and wore traditional clothes. When she saw us coming, she disappeared into her rondavel and emerged wearing the housecoat of a domestic servant.
For 14 years, Goldwin worked on the railway and lived in a township hostel. Then one day, in Venda, he cut down a mopani tree and saw the hard dark wood at its center. “I said to this little boy Owen, ‘In Johannesburg they are selling some things from this wood for big money.’ ” Each made a carving, and they took them out to the road to sell, and Goldwin never returned to the railroad.
Owen was wearing a silk jacket and Italian-looking loafers the day I met him; 3,000 years of history seemed to lie between him and his mother. Unlike other Venda artists, Owen was pretty clued in on current South African politics, but he supported no one. “It’s a good thing in Venda,” he said, “not too much politics, and no one fighting for politics. No violence.”
At Owen’s house, I saw a painted wooden sculpture of an angel, wearing a dress Jean-Paul Gaultier could not have conceived of, her enormous breasts projecting from green accordion pleats. Another recent work is a six-foot-tall rabbit dressed in plus fours holding a golf club, called “Sport for a Gentleman.” Owen has never seen a golfer, or plus fours. And why a rabbit?
We sat in Goldwin’s house drinking beer, and listened to the international news, which came from the mouth of a six-foot-monkey radio he had made, until the sun set. Though the Ndou brothers’ work, often inspired by their dreams, feels ritual in its strangeness, they are making it to sell and do not weep when a dealer comes and takes it away. They have fixed prices, can negotiate in a rational fashion, have even signed contracts.
The next day, I set out to find Albert Munyai. “Munyai? You must go down the hill and past the Zimbabwe Supermarket,” said the woman I asked for directions. “You cross the river, and after the third hill you will see him, sitting in the middle of his orchard and singing.”
When I got out of my car, Munyai jumped up and welcomed me as though I were a childhood friend. He was good-looking and muscular, wearing only a pair of shorts, his hair in tiny dreadlocks, his eyes sparkling. His wife sat nearby, sanding a big spoon like the ones from local curio shops. He was carving a giant wooden fish, driving the scales into its sides, and addressed as many comments to the fish as to me, more to it than to his wife.
“I have to make the sculpture,” he said, “so the wood won’t be burned. It’s so beautiful, the wood. My God! I am saving this wood from the fire.” I asked him about selling. “Oh, my dear,” he said. “It makes me so sad that you ask me this question. My dear, it breaks my heart every time. When I sell this work and it goes away from here — my God, it’s so terrible. And these men coming for buying: this money talk is ugly talk.”
Later, inside, while we were looking at his work, he said, “I cannot live with it. Thanks to God that these people come and take it away from me! It’s too strong for me, too powerful. If I live with it all the time I am made weak by it.” I wanted to see the work more clearly, but he hesitated to bring it out into the sun. “You don’t know what it can do,” he said.
My last day, I went down to Gazankulu to see Jackson Hlungwani, often identified as the greatest black artist in South Africa. Until two years ago, Hlungwani lived on top of a hill, among the great stone circles that mark the site of an ancient citadel. God came to Hlungwani and told him to live there, to make great carvings to His glory, and Hlungwani laid out a sacred ground filled with giant monuments. At the center was a crucifix, 20 feet high. Hlungwani became famous all over Venda and Gazankulu for his preaching and his life in “The New Jerusalem,” and for his personal iconography; his strange four-eyed faces, as eerie and intimidating as the heads on Easter Island, seem alive, as though Hlungwani has let free something organic in the trees.
Five years ago, Ricky Burnett came up from the Newtown Gallery in Johannesburg and offered Hlungwani a retrospective. At the end of the retrospective, Hlungwani, excited by the adulation he had attracted, gave Burnett permission to sell everything. But when the great monuments from “The New Jerusalem” were sold, Hlungwani felt the spirit go out of him. Defeated and lost, he climbed down from his hill and left the stone citadel.
Hlungwani says he has been betrayed, and curses Burnett; Burnett says he has taken good care of Hlungwani and that if he didn’t want to sell the work he shouldn’t have offered it. In 1985 Burnett staged an exhibition called “Tributaries” that flew in the face of the received wisdom that there was no artistic activity in South Africa outside white circles. Featuring artists from Venda and elsewhere, the show began to break down the solid wall between black and white artistic experience. ” ‘Tributaries’ was our Armory show,” says William Kentridge, a white South African artist.
What went wrong with Hlungwani? Burnett wished to promulgate the work of this great artist, and by white standards, that’s a fine thing to do; by black standards, not clearly so. Would it have been nobler for Burnett to keep Hlungwani’s work a big secret? Non-black Africans in this situtation have only two options: they can be exploitative or patronizing. Burnett could have put Hlungwani’s work into the open art market, or preserved it artificially within its context. There are no right solutions when these white and traditional black values touch, because they simply do not merge into a single system.
Most white people have two responses to Venda. On one hand, they look at these people living much the way black Africans lived thousands of years ago and wonder why there was never any of what the West would call progress — why no one here came up with the Renaissance, built palaces, wrote philosophical treatises, developed new methods of land economy, made rockets and flew to the moon. These questions are not politically correct, but they are inevitable, because the “failure” of tribal Africans to do these things has defined white views of blacks.
On the other hand, when you are in Venda you are seduced by its beauty and apparent simplicity, and wonder why Western and Asian civilization bothered with progress at all. You cannot subscribe to the theory that no one there has ever flown to the moon because colonialism was disempowering. No one there is interested in flying to the moon, and, perhaps as a consequence, no one there could or would ever have developed the technology to do so. You tumble headlong into unfashionable questions about primitivism and the nobility of natural experience, which are paralyzing to whoever would build a multiracial society. What is Ricky Burnett to do? Whites in South Africa now invite blacks to the moon. It’s meant generously, but it’s an irrelevant offer. Or else they say, “Really, you’ll be undone by space travel,” and that’s just obnoxious.
The exceptions, the Whites who understand, are also compromised. Many in Venda were first encouraged to make art by a sculptor named David Rossouw, whom I was to meet in Johannesburg. Rossouw is that authentic but elusive thing, a white African as much a part of Africa as any Xhosa or Zulu, and his own works — fantastical weather vanes — are fully engaged with the elements. He is much loved in Venda, where you sense his influence constantly. But he is not free of accusers; Jo-burg cynics say he made the work less “authentic” or less “black” and that he should never have tampered with the “innocent” people.
It’s very fashionable in Johannesburg society to deplore Burnett for his treatment of Hlungwani. “The New Jerusalem” should have been preserved as a national monument. The art should be only for those willing to make the pilgrimage to see it. Hlungwani should be given a house, a car, a spa vacation. Poor Hlungwani, whose beautiful spiritual life has been destroyed by the greed of whites. I heard all of this. What I found was that Hlungwani’s life was not destroyed. Black values in general are not so weak or so vulnerable, which is why they can neither be incorporated into an essentially white value system nor annihilated by a white hierarchy. “Ricky destroyed Jackson,” people kept telling me as I planned my trip to Venda. But Hlungwani is a pretty powerful character. I found him very much intact, sitting outside in the shade between the legs of a giant devotional figure, carving a stack of angels. In a nearby hut there were several others working, and they came to interpret: talking to Hlungwani is like chatting with the Delphic oracle.
“I’m rebuilding the Garden of Eden. You go up that hill until you see God,” he said, pointing, “and then you will find it just among the trees.” I found Hlungwani’s carving of God, an entire tree, vast, lying on its side, with dozens of eyes, several noses. Beyond it I found the garden, with more carvings.
“I have something for you, for your spirit,” he said when I came back. He brought out two carvings. “This one is finished,” he said, showing me an angel. “It’s perfect. This one is not for you.” He picked up the second one. “This one is not finished. I am giving it to you so you can finish it from your own spirit.” I looked closely at the two angels. “Use your brain! Give him a face yourself! This angel is full of love! Tell the people in America all about it!”
The Bag Factory
A London-based patron opened the old Speedy Bag Factory to Johannesburg artists in mid-1991; it contains 19 studios now, occupied by black and white artists. On Fridays, they have lunch together. To many outsiders, this seems a miniature utopia, where racial barriers have been eliminated, but the gaps are painfully vivid if you look just a bit more closely.
The white artists at the Bag Factory are the trendiest crew in South Africa, a trendiness manifested in their clothes, mannerisms, reading material and racial attitudes. The most talented are Joachim Schonfeldt and Alan Alborough, though there is also impressive work from Kendell Geers, Wayne Barker and Belinda Blignaut. Schonfeldt’s “Curios and Authentic Works of Art” are subtle, funny and disconcertingly beautiful carvings, always made from the wood of blue gums; they confront the divides between art and craft, integrity and artifice, black and white.
Alborough works with boundaries, crossable and inviolable, and has done a particularly powerful series in which children’s games become metaphors for social definition and exclusion. Geers, the most articulate of the crowd, is the bad boy of South African art; he deconstructs his society, sometimes very cleverly, sometimes apparently unaware that intellectual constructs already exhausted abroad cannot serve in South Africa as the basis for internationalism.
In Gazankulu in the late apartheid period, white liberals set up a program for local blacks to explore their heritage by learning basket weaving. Since the appropriate grasses did not grow locally and none of the local people knew how to weave baskets, the organizers had to import materials and teachers. No one observed that this area was rich in clay and that these people had a tradition of clay modeling. The basket weaving was absurd, in much the same way the sometime Eurocentricity of these white artists can be inept. It’s not that they should have to work only on local topics, but simply that to ignore the clay and import grasses is so wasteful, and people from Gazankulu are never going to be as good at basket weaving as the people from the grasslands. Similarly, the work of these white Bag Factory artists is sometimes too sophisticated; they fail to realize that nothing is more provincial than to deny your own provincialism.
The black Bag Factory artists are mostly older, their works’ meanings embedded in a different spectrum of cultural references. Several of the leading lights of the black art world are here: David Koloane, Durant Sihlali and Ezrom Legae, as well as younger artists like Sam Nhlengethwa and Pat Mautloa.
I remember getting tangled in a conversation two years ago with David Koloane and a white artist about how their work is related. “How did you become artists?” I asked. “I’d always liked to draw,” said Koloane, “but I never knew you could do anything with this. When I was 16, Louis Maqhubela moved in across the street from me and said there were people called artists who did drawing and painting and nothing else. We decided we wanted to do that.” The white artist said, “When I was 16, I was seated next to Andy Warhol at lunch, and he suggested I apply to the London art schools.” Koloane, at 16, had never heard of art.
Looking at work by urban black artists, you have to consider that difference. To decide to make a work of art in an environment where art is not only unvalued but also frequently unknown is a bold and almost radical act. The distinctive and poetic styles of artists like Koloane and Sihlali reflect a courage and self-determination not relevant to the work of white artists. This does not make the black work better (in fact, it’s often ingenuous), but it does make it different. You lose much of the value of these black artists’ works if you try to look at them in the same context as the hyper-sophisticated installations of Kendell Geers.
“It’s very politically correct,” said Sam Nhlengethwa, “not to write the race of murder victims in the newspapers. But you can always tell — from the names, the place of the murder, how much space it gets in the paper. It may be fashionable not to mention the race of the artist, but you can always tell the difference.”
Pictures, Concepts And Beads
Five years ago, the South African National Gallery, in Cape Town, was a dead loss: pictures by Pierneef, the “great” Afrikaans painter, hung gloomily beside third-rate works by second-rate American and European artists. The new director, Marilyn Martin, strong, dynamic, opinionated, swept in like the west wind and changed all that.
When I went to the National Gallery I found, beyond the impressive permanent collection, a large installation by Malcolm Payne, built up with shopping carts, ancient and new ceramics, text and light projections. The piece was impressive but made no concessions to a population unacquainted with the discourse of contemporary art. In the room beyond, there was an exhibition called “Ezakwantu: Beadwork from the Eastern Cape”; in the corner sat two Xhosa bead workers, Virginia and Lucy, who beaded quietly all day unless asked a question through their translator.
Malcolm Payne compared this situation to the 19th-century European enthusiasm for putting Hottentots on show for the public. Martin insisted that Virginia and Lucy were at the gallery to demonstrate that this historical tradition continues to the present, a point made elsewhere simply by the inclusion of contemporary material. Martin had not asked a German Expressionist to sit all day and paint in the neighboring gallery, where there was a show of German Expressionism.
It is fashionable in South Africa to call craft “art,” especially if it’s very good craft. This is like calling very good chicken “veal.” Very good craft is very good craft — not less than art, but different. “We have freed ourselves of the shackles of such Eurocentric definitions,” Marilyn Martin said in a bluntly P.C. manner — though she holds to that most Eurocentric principle of the museum. In the gift shop at the National Gallery, you can buy Xhosa beadwork or postcards of other material in the museum. It is important to draw a distinction between the stuff that has to be copied because it is unique in its genius, and the stuff of which you can make more.
If you insist that art and craft are the same, you have to discuss them in the same terms, which reduces both. Some art is at its best in a museum, and some is at its best on a hill, and some is at its best being worn or carried back and forth to the fields, and some is at its best in the home of the artist who made it, or in the homes of his friends.
A painting called “The AIDS Doctors,” by Alson Ntshangase, a relatively unknown artist, shows a doctor, a priest and a sangoma (a witch doctor) all ranged surrealistically around a patient lying in bed. How to make sense of the spirit and science, the black and white views of life and death? “I know exactly where I came from and who I am,” Ntshangase said to me. He had walked over from his job as a handyman in a white-run Durban hotel, and was wearing overalls. “I grew up in Zululand and am a Zulu,” he said, and showed me that underneath his uniform he wore a traditional Zulu loincloth. “Show one of my people a basket,” he said, “and he will know at once whether the grasses have been well dyed. But show him a painting and” — he looked across the room — “that plastic shopping bag with the bird on it, and he will not be able to see why one image is better than the other.”
Trips to the Townships
Classic white liberals open their homes to black friends; I spent many fine evenings at parties where the races seemed to mix completely comfortably. But only a tiny number of these white liberals are willing to cross the boundary in the other direction, to go into the townships. In effect, the whites have now welcomed the blacks to participate in their system of values, but have not yet considered giving up those values in favor of another set, and are touchingly bewildered when blacks fail to see this as a new equality. In the township of Mamelodi, outside Pretoria, an old woman told me: “We have always had one great advantage over the whites. We knew their houses inside and out. We did their scrubbing, their cooking, their shopping; we were the nannies who suckled their children. But they never came out here, and they didn’t know a thing about us.”
It’s not an easy problem to address. The townships are scary; though the danger was exaggerated by the apartheid government, and though many whites have a fear disproportionate to the reality, township violence is unpredictable and people do get killed. You are never sure you are going to make it into the township on the day you plan to, because the person you are visiting may tell you it’s a “bad day.” You are dependent on this person’s knowledge, connections and radar; sometimes the phone will ring and your host, without any real explanation, will say that you have to leave. You must overlook the danger to understand the other side. But when you do go, many people are glad. If you are in the township, people know that someone thought it was worth the trouble to bring you.
“I was excluded from many places during apartheid, and since,” Durant Sihlali said as we sat in his house in Soweto. “And I am not so eager to include all the whites who say in their casual way that they want to come here. It’s an effort, and distracting, for me to come into Johannesburg and pick someone up and think about his safety all the time, and protect him and entertain him and drive him home. I am not going to give my life over to doing it.”
Sihlali speaks a beautiful, rich English. He grew up under apartheid, but he is educated, self-assured, even diffident. For years, he was engaged in commercial enterprise, painting scenes on seashells for tourists, but he simultaneously did a series of watercolors of township life. To a Western critic, these appear accomplished but outside the issues of contemporary art. But the work of South African black artists should be read from the standpoint of their frequent obsession with family, history and dreams. Sihlali’s watercolors are documents of a history the government wished to suppress.
“My interest was not in beautiful things,” Sihlali explained. “Nor are my paintings an expression of rage; I don’t think that when you tell the truth you become angry. I painted against bulldozers as a mode of protest, and when I finished painting a house before they destroyed it, I felt that I had won.”
Sihlali’s work did well in Johannesburg galleries in the apartheid period. “People bought it for its decorative appeal,” he said. “The perpetrators of injustice would buy my work and hang it on their white walls without ever noticing that it was telling the story of their cruelty.”
When I went to Soweto with Sihlali, we looked through an enormously various collection of his own work. Whereas white artists in South Africa define a trademark style fairly quickly, black artists tend to be interested by the breadth of visual arts, and many of them have worked in every medium and style.
We left Jabulani — “deepest Soweto,” Sihlali calls it — and went to see Vincent Baloyi, a sculptor, and Charles Nkosi, another artist, in the Chiawelo Extension section of Soweto. We sent some children off to get us beer and sat in the front room talking. We discussed Nkosi’s strange and beautiful collages, and the work of other artists, and how much the black community needs to create and to feel pride in the act of creation. Art is the basis of a proud and almost sovereign dialogue that is rare and precious in the townships, that exceeds in its meanings anything you could adduce from the appearance of the work.
I traveled to the Durban township of Umlazi with Alois Cele, a painter and commercial artist who has in the last five years built up a trade in T-shirts, signs and billboard advertising. “They all come to me for their T-shirts and flags,” he said. “I tell the guys from all the political groups, all of them, that I’ll have the shirts on Wednesday around 4, and then I keep them waiting so they’ll have to talk to each other. They sit there fuming, but they see each other as people, too. You can do everything through the art business.”
Cele and I drove to Trevor Makoba’s house. The Soweto artists may not have cared very much about the international art world, but they knew about it as a principle. Makoba, though he does oils and pastels on paper, is curiously unaware of the Western tradition altogether, unable to place or value his own pictures.
I knew that Makoba had been one of the featured artists in the South African exhibition at the 1993 Venice Biennale, and so I asked him about that. He showed me the allegorical picture that had been included, a piece of cheese in the shape of South Africa being nibbled by a black mouse on one side and a white mouse on the other. He said, a bit sadly, “I’m glad I have been in this exhibition. But I do wish they’d asked me first. I would have liked to talk to them about it.” “No one asked you whether you wanted to be in Venice, representing South Africa?” I asked. “No,” he said. “The first I heard of it was the week of the opening.”
South Africa’s invitation to the Biennale (after decades of exclusion) sat with government officials for ages before the rushed “democratic” selection of the artists. The government paid for bureaucrats to go to Venice but did not provide tickets for artists. Several white artists paid their own way, and the South Africans found, embarrassingly, that they had many white and no black artists in town. So the authorities quickly sent tickets to black artists. These were in most instances people who had never traveled across their own country, much less overseas. The committee sent a ticket to Jackson Hlungwani, who responded, “The radio is good but the message is bad,” and declined to leave Gazankulu. Makoba made a valiant effort to organize himself for this travel, but even with the help of white friends couldn’t get himself on a plane in time. “The clear implication,” observed Sue Williamson, a Cape Town artist, “was this: You are not important; only the fruit of your labor is important. It’s what the whites have been saying to the blacks since the start of apartheid.”
Sam Nhlengethwa said: “People ask, ‘How can you do such happy pieces out of the township?’ In the townships, it’s not just war. We have music, weddings, parties, even though people are dying in the next street. I try for a ratio in my art that reflects the reality: 30 percent violent pictures and 70 percent happy festive gatherings. The other day I woke up and walked out my door and almost fell over a corpse. But I went out as I was planning anyway. That’s how my life is balanced.”
Tyrone Appolis, a colored (mixed race) artist working in Cape Town, has a wonderful clarity of delivery and amazing egotistical panache, though his work flashes between inspiration and rubbish. “I am the prodigal son of the arts,” he said to me, “with a hire-purchase degree in streetology. The biggest radicals tell their story through art. The world is lucky that Beethoven and Bob Marley weren’t terrorists, because if they’d expressed themselves violently they would have blown up the world. The world is lucky with me, too, that I’m not a terrorist.”
Teach all the terrorists to make art, educate them, and perhaps the township violence — to so large an extent the outgrowth of people’s inability to communicate — would begin to wane. It’s an idea of art pretty far from the installation work of the white Bag Factory artists.
I went to the colored Cape Town township of Mitchell’s Plain with Willie Bester, perhaps the most highly regarded urban black artist in South Africa at the moment. His work is powerful collage/assemblage pieces that juxtapose found materials from the township with painted images. One work has bits of barbed wire, a copy of the Government book categorizing the various races, snapshots of a racist attack that, according to official documents, never took place and a police officer’s ammunition belt.
The whole colored population faces the most difficult situation right now, with neither the privilege of the whites nor the self-actualization of the black Africans, and many are trying to hold onto that slight privilege they enjoyed in the apartheid period. They have too much to turn destructive (like the black Africans) and too little to live well (like the whites). It’s an incredibly confused population, fearful in two directions rather than one. “Mitchell’s Complain,” Bester’s wife, Evelyn, jokingly called the township, which they would soon leave for a once whites-only neighborhood.
“When I was younger,” Willie Bester said at one point, “I made art to please the white man, pretty things for them to hang in their houses. Now I am working for myself, doing work about the problems of the townships.”
Well, it’s complicated. Bester is working for himself, but most of his collectors are white. They are liberals who buy his work because it is good, but also because it helps alleviate their sense of responsibility. It’s a sort of mea culpa activity. In the current climate, work by black artists in which they express their suffering is what white collectors want; you cannot please them with pictures of the Cape landscape.
There are only three really important galleries in South Africa, all white-owned with almost exclusively white clients, showing a lot of black work: The Goodman Gallery (oldest; the flagship), Everard Read Contemporary (hottest, newest, trendiest), and The Newtown Gallery (a bit unfocused just now). How is the nonwhite population to redress this monopoly of control?
Eighteen months ago Matsamelo Manaca declared his Soweto home a gallery. When I visited, I found his crew patiently explaining to visitors what art is; the visitors, though curious, were there more for the strangeness of the event than to understand the messages of the work. Linos Siwedi has set up shop as a dealer, but though he used to sell from Soweto he is now working through Johannesburg, because the blacks won’t buy and the whites won’t come in. He’s a middleman, keeping track of what happens in the townships, getting the work into the public eye, setting up exhibitions in rented spaces. He even sets up private art tours of the township for rich visitors.
All of these people have trouble with the black artists who are not of the townships, who have moved out and have indulged in the concomitant intellectual metamorphosis. The wonderful painter Tony Nkotsi, for example, could easily show at galleries in New York or Cologne.
“It might as well be white art,” I heard. Or else, “He’ll go the same way as Helen” — a reference to the painter Helen Sebidi, whose rather beautiful work has become terribly repetitive, in part, perhaps, because of the galaxy of prizes she’s won from the white establishment. Both sides say her ability to integrate has incapacitated her. Everyone hates the patronizing phrase “township art,” but urban black art in South Africa is defined — by blacks and whites — by its relationship to the isolating circumstances of black life under apartheid. It will take a long time for the work to shed the limitations this context has created; it will be impossible to shed them without losing much of the singular power that accompanies them.
White Liberals (And Others)
Apartheid fell largely because of economic realities, but the white liberals provided whatever white moral impetus there was in the transformations; and if some of them are hypocritical or simply lost, that is no reason to throw them out altogether. These days many people, striving to be neither exploitative nor patronizing, are almost as embarrassed by the label “liberal” as by the label “racist,” and that is a shame; the liberals, though they may hate their moniker, are an impressive lot. Some of them negotiate that liberalism successfully in art; others divorce it from their production. “I live to help the struggle,” said the very fine painter Andrew Verster, “but I paint what I like.”
That said, there is no question that the inclusive policies of liberals have often been extreme and misguided. Robert Hodgins, the elder statesman of South African art, says, “We are now afflicted with a mingling of condescension and panic that has created a terrible Bantuphilia, which is in turn producing enormous publicity for a lot of very bad artists.”
Wayne Barker submitted a work in 1990 to a drawing competition under the pseudonym Andrew Moletsi, and it achieved some renown. He suggested that all white artists should work in this way to break down the existing barriers. Beezy Bailey took him at his word. Bailey’s hyper-expressive, loosely conceptual, pink-and-orange-and-green work had some measure of success but never entered into the top echelon of the South African art debate. In 1991 he submitted work to the prestigious Cape Town Triennial. One piece went in as the work of Beezy Bailey, and three others he submitted as the work of Joyce Ntobe, a domestic worker. No one paid much attention to the Bailey work, but Ntobe was at once discovered, and her work was purchased by the South African National Gallery. It is the view of Bailey and other anti-liberal artists that the habit of buying black work because it is black does more in the long run to erode than to increase black self-esteem. The white liberal community was outraged at Bailey’s ploy, but many black artists applauded his courage.
Throughout the 80’s, the cultural boycott, set up by the ANC in exile and enforced by the United Nations, served to undermine the apartheid government’s appearance of legitimacy. Under its terms, foreign artists, athletes and academicians were asked not to come to South Africa, and South Africans not to exhibit or compete abroad. Given the control the Nationalist Party maintained, this meant South African art and sports were cut off from the rest of the world. The cultural boycott helped speed the demise of apartheid, but the devastating effects of that isolation are inestimable.
“And yet the cultural boycott helped to cut the umbilical cord to the U.S. and Europe,” Marilyn Martin says. “Of course, the boycott was cutting off our own noses at one level,” says Sue Williamson. “But it did have the unsought positive effect of increasing our sense of South Africanness.”
Black artists were already quite isolated, but the boycott shaped the work of several extraordinary white artists. Williamson, William Kentridge, Penelope Siopis, Andries Botha and Malcolm Payne are the most impressive of the established generation of white artists.
Williamson does sophisticated work in which she confronts problematic local history: for her Biennale piece, for example, she took scraps from District 6 (a rich and diverse colored area that was destroyed because it was too good for a nonwhite population), encased them in Lucite and used these bricks to build a small house, a testimony to what was lost.
William Kentridge’s work is poetic, lucid and eloquent, fully engaged with the situation of South Africa, but refreshingly free of the political self-consciousness that circumscribes the work of many others. Kentridge is currently producing a series of drawings that make up films (or films that require drawings). In the latest film, a complex dialogue between a white man and a black woman takes place in symbolic terms as they watch from their separate perspectives the creation of the landscape of the East Rand, an area east of Johannesburg that has been the site of extreme violence. Figures appear, are shot or killed and covered with newspapers, and then turn into hills or pools of water so that they become the stuff of which the landscape is made, so that this bleak terrain, so familiar to all South Africans, comes to be not simply a geological phenomenon, but the physical manifestation of an accrual of deaths. “My work has many polemics and no message; it is not to inspire people to save the country,” he said.
Siopis’s mesmerizing paintings and collage/assemblage pieces often address women’s history and experience and the integrity of the female body. They are strangely overcrowded, full of faces and bodies pressed close together; the power of her work lies in its hidden quality of empathy as much as in its technical achievement and sophisticated intellectual base. She is both a rigorous thinker and the most humane artist in South Africa.
Andries Botha’s sculptural constructions often express European ideas with African techniques. Many are put off by his manner of almost obscene intensity; but in fact, like many Afrikaners, though he is inept at the rhetoric of liberalism, he is adored by the blacks who have worked with him, and his work radiates conviction.
There is a thriving young crowd of non-liberals in Cape Town that forms a parallel group to the white Bag Factory artists in Johannesburg. This grouping includes Barend de Wet, Kate Gottkins and Beezy Bailey. Standing at a distance from them is Jane Alexander, whose large-scale models of displaced or homeless black men, built in plaster and then dressed in scrap clothing, are eerie, desolate and compellingly human.
“In the new South Africa, white artists will have to move into the background as part of affirmative action,” Alexander commented, wistfully but not sadly. “It’s inevitable that my work will go down to the storerooms, even if to you it looks sympathetic to black causes.” What of the balance so many other artists were representing in their work? “A large part of the white population is trying to redress the inequalities as quickly as possible,” she said, “because they want to get it over with.”
In South Africa there is no tradition, in either the black or white communities, of going to look at pictures. Art’s audience is limited to its producers, but that number is not small because in the new South Africa, everyone is being encouraged to make art. In the country, rural outreach programs teach provincial men and women to work through their problems by expressing themselves artistically. Within the townships, there is a powerful influence exerted by the so-called art centers. These places, mostly set up under apartheid, provide a venue for township residents to make art and music, to dance. They keep people off the streets, teach them a cottage industry, let them discover themselves and their talents.
Throughout the apartheid period, art centers served a second function. It was, of course, illegal to organize political rallies or meetings in the townships, but it was not illegal to organize cultural evenings, and so the various political factions would organize arts events as a cover for their activities.
The Alex Art Center, at the edge of the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, was once funded by money from idealists abroad. But financing disappeared when Mandela was freed. No one at the center knew how to run it, so it’s now virtually a shell. Katlehong is one of the most dangerous townships, and it is curiously moving to hear the real toughs at the Katlehong Art Center, scary guys with big guns, extolling the sense of peace they have when they are weaving, printmaking, carving and drawing. The sales they realize through the Center’s gallery, outside the township, give them precious social freedom. The African Art Center, in Durban, provides similar focus to a less troubled area, while Jonathan Comerford’s Hard Ground Print Studio in Cape Town draws in artists of every race and description. Comerford sets them up with high-grade printmaking equipment and helps them create salable work. “People weren’t held accountable in the art centers and milked everything to death,” he said. “I hold the artists here answerable so that they can run their own lives. I don’t want to set up a system where they’ll fall apart if something happens to me.” Such views are fast replacing the liberal tendency toward paternalism.
But what stands as paternalism falls? There are now black and white students at the big universities. Before the mid-1970’s there had been black art activity only at the Polly Street Center, and at the Swedish mission art school at Rorke’s Drift. Bill Ainslie’s Johannesburg Art Foundation is still the only fully integrated school of its kind; he set it up ten years ago as a teaching facility where black and white artists could mix, and today they mix there more equally than ever. In 1985 Ainslie, with David Koloane, also set up the Tupelo Workshops, where an artistic dialogue was established.
There are two independent art schools for blacks: Fuba, in Johannesburg, and Funda, in Soweto. “We get letters,” Sydney Selepe, who runs Funda, told me, “from mothers who say, ‘My son has failed at school, so please make him an artist.’ ” Charles Nkosi described trying to judge candidates who had never drawn anything except in school science classes. Though some students are very sophisticated, others arrive without ever having been to a gallery. “We ask about their dreams,” Sidney Selepe explained. “In this way, we move forward.”
A Joint Exhibition
I found myself, one rather cold night, in a small house in Johannesburg with a black artist named Paul Sekete. I had been asking him about exhibitions, shows, internationalism. “I think art should make people happy, not just show them what it’s like to be happy,” he said. “I want to make people happy. That’s what we need from art.” It was very late, and we were both tired.
“Can you make people happy?” I asked. Sekete reached out one hand and began to tickle me, and I started to laugh. “You see how easy it is?” he asked. We had been talking about a white conceptualist we both knew. “That stuff — it’s O.K., but it isn’t art,” he said. “Such a waste of time. Why do they keep doing it?”
A few days later, I saw the white artist — and his excellent work — and described my evening with Sekete. I got as far as recounting being tickled, and he interrupted me. “But that isn’t art,” he said irritably. “I thought you were here to write about the damned art scene, not to do more P.C. quasi-political reporting. If some guy tickled you in New York, would you write it up for an art magazine?”
It should be noted that each of them had given me an invitation to an exhibition where their work was being shown together, and had used that invitation to demonstrate the point, close to both their hearts, that the art world had no racial differences, that it was now united, that there was now a center in which all were the same.
But the fact that they were showing together did not mean that they wanted the same things out of art, any more than the fact that blacks and whites will be listed together in the population registers of the new South African Government means they will govern in commensurate ways or for reconcilable reasons. It’s slow, frustrating progress from artistic tolerance to esthetic parity.