Landmark Art Exhibition 'A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists' opens in Johannesburg
A new exhibition maps out a 20-year survey of Black South African artists, from Modernist works to art created on the eve of the country’s first inclusive elections.
Walk through the Standard Bank Gallery’s doors into A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists (1970-1990), and one thing quickly confronts you dead-on: a series of almost uniformly earth-coloured, life-sized sculptures by some of the country’s masters, who seem to be having a silent conversation among themselves on the ground floor. You tell yourself it may be better not to barge into their decades-long conversation, and so you tiptoe upstairs, where more formalist expressions – such as paintings and smaller sculptures – are in exhibition.
Upstairs, the 150 pieces include etchings, woodcuts, linocuts, serigraphs, drawings and paintings, arranged in a not-so chronological order. The works suck you in almost immediately, and you simply don’t know where to begin. So you roam up and down, getting lost across the ancient parquet floor like a ballerina absorbed in the scintillating silent music in her head.
Curated by the gallery’s manager Same Mdluli, A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists (1970-1990) is both catchy and tricky. With its sheer sheer size alone, it must have caused bouts of frustration, exhilaration and ultimately total challenge. Among the African 'Modernists' (understood to be the first generation of contemporary African artists) coming out of rural settings and cultivating a broader community of peers in missionary schools, as well as finding their artistic voices on the outskirts of the cities, are artists such as Ernest Mancoba, Gerard Sekoto, George Pemba and John Koenakeefe Mohl.
Modernism itself, in both art and architecture, is perceived to stretch over the period spanning the late 1800s up to the 1970s, although these things necessarily overlap as new fashions are built from preceding traditions, even as nouveau expressions rupture as a subversion of the past. It is also a highly problematic term used in a racial context, as modernism is often considered to be part of a project of 'civilising the natives'; an assumption that rests on the idea that the West is inherently and naturally civilised.
It was, as the early black Modernists’ works such as Sekoto’s 'Bioscope in Marabastad' (not included in this exhibition) show, a period of experimentation. Both Mancoba and Sekoto hailed from the then-Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo), Pemba from Port Elizabeth and Koenakeefe Mohl from Dinokana in Zeerust. While Sekoto and Pemba are globally recognised as part of the 20th century black global canon, in stylistic conversation with the likes of Romare Bearden, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Charles Alston and Beauford Delaney in the West, and Congolese modernists such as Albert and Antoinette Lubaski, as well as West African titans such as El Anatsui and the exiled Dumile Feni, art history has not been that kind to Koenakeefe Mohl.
Mohl's work is steeped in realism with a disruptive commitment to colour. South African History Online has a tightly neat, but not comprehensive biography of him: Mohl attended Moeding Training Institute, moved to Nambia with a German artist and studied at the Windhoek School of the Arts. The Missionary Society and the Lutheran Church ferried him to Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, where he furthered his studies. Later in the 1970s – the foundational date this show is built from – Mohl founded Artists Under the Sun, a loose band of township-based artists showing their work in the Joubert Park area.
Helen Sebidi once confessed to me in an interview recorded at her Parktown home: 'I owe my spiritual and formative training to my grandmother, but my exposure and growth to Ntate Mohl.' Perhaps the intended beauty and power of this show is also to shine a light on scholarly and media-neglected artists such as Mohl.
One of the highlights of the show is the Dumile Feni wall and his sculptures. Feni’s elegant lines and figures jump from the canvas and insert themselves in the viewer’s soul long after contact. Furthermore, Feni is here in conversation with his peers Thami Mnyele, Paul Sibisi, Lucky Mbatha and William Zulu. A show of this scope runs the risk of overwhelming one’s senses and yet, the basic approach to hanging the work with each piece dimensionally speaking to the others and the space, helps render it lighter and navigable.
Conceptually, this is one show you are not expected to view just once or twice. It invites the viewer to forge personal intimacies with sections of it. It is entirely up to them whether they want to forge close conversation with the work on the basis of the period, art genres, or aesthetic styles on show. The pieces that spoke to me are by artists neither chic nor popular with the art history and art theory set. Indeed, one of its perhaps unintended achievements is that Mdluli succeeds in rescuing the black archive and collections of individual artists and aesthetic formations from theory, lecture room and out-of-print monographs and rendering these accessible.
For too long art has been colonised by dense theorists writing for their peers and the art seminar circuit. Ditto the work that distinguished itself, which at least for me, is work by relatively unknown artists: Lucas Sithole’s simple, but delicately carved wooden facial sculpture, conceived on the template of West African masks, is both terribly forlorn and charming in its contemplative silence. As a work of art, it looks and feels effortless and elegant. Art that seems so spotlessly perfect and uncomplicated possibly required the highest attention to detail, thus discipline. It is also a reminder that profundity and simplicity feed off each other.
Hidden behind the entrance corner on the wall is a half-moon shaped – let’s call it the love wall? – featuring three almost-hidden pieces that layer, cover and instinctively uncover its subject. On the left is an etching by Job Mokgotsi ('Untitled', 1984) of a young woman refusing to be swallowed by the midnight blue of her backdrop. Half-dressed and innocent, she looks random yet sure of herself. Below her is Solomon Sedibane’s wooden sculpture ('Loving Arms', 1979) of naked lovers clinging tightly to each other. The silent, almost hush-hush ambience is completed by a sepia-toned Conté on paper drawing of three women, all nude, also in close but not forced embrace. Two of the women face the viewer and almost lean on the bigger woman facing away. And while the work is in sepia monotones, it evokes deep marauding blues, silence, sensuality, comfort and erotica.
For a moment, the painting teleported me to the still power of Isabella Rossellini’s screen presence in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Uncluttered beauty, pared down, androgynous and utterly dangerous. I am fascinated by the curatorial decision to hide them in plain sight, the viewer’s interest in these pieces almost forbidden, characters shrouded with uninviting colours, yet so easy and free in their settings. Its almost sensuality is double hidden, but the characters depicted refuse to be bound by our perception of what women can or cannot do with lust, love and ultimately the metaphysical experimentation their bodies yearn for.
To the casual viewer, the show throws up its challenges. For example, its title lends itself to – dare I say – over-interpretation. However, as wide in scope the show is, it is neither a chronological survey nor an all-inclusive, silence-everyone sort of visual congregation of every recorded piece of art produced during the stated period. 'A View of South African Artists', reads the subtext.
While it is true that the show revolves around the University of Fort Hare art collection, it benefitted from the contributions of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, as well as works from Standard Bank’s own art collection. Long fascinated, ideologically and aesthetically, by the idea of the archive (especially the Fort Hare archive), Mdluli did not and could not have included every artist of the period. For example, apart from Gladys Mgudlandlu, there’s a lack of female artists in this show. Women such as Noria Mabasa and Helen Sebidi, for example, are conspicuous by their absence, as is the nuanced and accommodative definition of blackness.
Strikingly absent are works by what apartheid classified as 'Coloured' and 'Asian' – artists, especially in the age dominated by the black consciousness cultural philosophy that included 'all those systematically oppressed by the white settler regime'. I looked for the Cape Town artist Peter Clarke, whose unmistakable repertoire is intrinsically black and contemporary, and also spanned over half a century. Also, as Mdluli admits, there are some important ceramics in the university collection too fragile to transport from the Eastern Cape to Johannesburg.
Thus, it feels as though art that hews to that which has been dismissed as 'craft' has been left out, along with the other shades of blackness. But that’s the price of the ticket the curator had to work with in an already determined collection and archive.
A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists (1970-1990) is on at the Standard Bank Gallery from 22 February to 18 April 2019. For more information head to Facebook @StandardBankArts.