Denied the freedom to exhibit their work, a generation of formerly neglected artists nevertheless expressed their personal pain and the collective outrage of a marginalised majority at the policies of the oppressive apartheid regime. Most were black, a few were white; sharing a common commitment to justice, they became the spearhead of modern art in South Africa. Juliet Highet reports.
At Bonham’s auction house in central London in March, a sale of South African contemporary art drew huge attention. Its historical significance was ably expressed in a unique and moving piece of ANC heritage, linking Nelson Mandela to another leader of the armed struggle to end apartheid, Arthur Goldreich.
Mantle for Nelson was the timely pivot of this sale of South African art. An artist and designer, Goldreich was also imprisoned, but escaped jail dressed as a priest. In 1983, while Mandela was still incarcerated, he created this painted collage and raffia hanging, symbolising a mantle for Nelson to “fly” from jail, as if he were on a magic carpet.
“A child understands fear, and the hurt and hate it brings”, wrote South African author Nadine Gordimer. “Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever.” This older generation of artists, who had experienced at first hand the daily struggle simply to survive, and were hardly able to sell their art, bequeathed a telling legacy to today’s movement of contemporary South African artists.
This could still be described as “resistance art”. Willie Bester’s father was Xhosa, his mother “coloured”, making him “other coloured” in the obscene classification of apartheid. Like so many of South Africa’s non-white citizens, he and his family endured forced removal from their farm to a “homeland”.
In 1986, Bester attended the famous Community Arts Project in Cape Town, a political organisation that aimed to empower black or marginalised visual and performing artists in the movement towards liberation. He realised that his skills represented a means of fighting back: “I was angry … so I used my work as a tool against apartheid. I didn’t care if it matched your curtains or not. My art was a chance to be heard… I am sometimes tempted to go to the seaside and paint beautiful things from nature. But I don’t do it, because my art has to be taken as a nasty-tasting medicine for awakening consciences.”
He uses township rubbish to retrace the political history of South Africa, his assemblages built of bones, newspaper clippings and tin cans, barely concealing threats to life, as in his A Tribute to Steve Biko (1992). Although George Pemba never positioned himself as a political artist, he joined the ANC in 1945, and when the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948, anchoring and reinforcing discriminatory legislation, inevitably the impact of apartheid on the daily lives of his people began to dominate his work, including their urbanisation, with its degrading and poverty-stricken consequences.
“Sometimes I paint to express pain and sorrow, like the train massacres and life in hostels,” Pemba says. His painting Bisho Massacre Funeral depicting a mass funeral for its victims, is solemn, emotionally subdued, giving poignant dignity to each mourner. The artist and film-maker, William Kentridge, was born into a wealthy Johannesburg family, descendants of Jewish refugees from Europe’s pogroms. For generations the family has been deeply involved in politics and human rights issues.
His work explores themes of conflict, loss and reconciliation, cultural and personal memory. “I was six years old and my father was one of the lawyers for the families who had been killed (in the Sharpeville massacre). I remember once coming into his study and seeing on his desk a large, flat, yellow Kodak box … Inside were images of a woman with her back blown off, someone with only half her
Using the metaphor of the box, as in Black Box (2005), he has constantly re-examined South Africa’s recent history, the light and darkness that are outside and within it – the box and the history – the essential incompleteness of its victims and of those who engage in this victimisation.
Kentridge’s work Domesticate the World refers to the domestic arena, the chief place of contact between black and white people. Firmly imprisoned in a tight box, an apparently naked white man is curled up, asleep or dead. Kitchen equipment hangs incongruously above him, the whole image conveying considerable unease.
“I am trying to recapture moral terrain in which there aren’t really any heroes but there are victims. A world where compassion just isn’t enough, ” the artist explains.