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Sunday, 12 February 2017

South Africa: the art of a nation

In his review of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, John Patterson comments that ‘Christianity is one of the Big B’s of violent colonial intrusion – Bullet, Bottle, Bacillus, Bible.’ (‘A test of faith’, J. Patterson, guide 31 Dec – 6 Jan 2017) This succinctly outlines the issues with which the curators of South Africa: the art of a nation have to grapple when it comes to exploring the influences later religions have had on South African art. They do so with rather more nuance, subtlety and grace than Patterson manages in his review.

As is the case with Shusaku Endo’s novel on which Scorsese’s film is based, artists in South Africa exploring aspects of religion have done so within their own culture and, as a result, what we view and discuss cannot simply be dismissed, as Patterson seeks to do, as alien poisons. The curators of South Africa: the art of a nation tackle these complexities from several angles. They showcase artworks indicative of indigenous beliefs as well as positive examples from later religions of engagement with the Arts, whilst also balancing confessional artwork with art which questions religion from within the belief system of the religions questioned.

This is the first major UK exhibition to use objects to tell the story of South Africa’s art heritage and history over 3 million years, including rock art images which often depict shaman (or spiritual leaders) entering trance-like states while dancing, giving them the power to heal the sick, overpower evil spirits and summon rain. This modest but astonishing exhibition includes some of the earliest known human artworks and iconic pre-colonial art from southern Africa. It also explores the impact of nonAfrican artistic influences and traditions from the 17th century onwards, showcases 20th century apartheid ‘resistance art’, and celebrates the contemporary art of post-apartheid transformation.

When the history of modern art in South Africa is examined, as here, the influence of Christian missionaries cannot be overlooked. Rasheed Araeen described Ernest Mancoba as ‘Africa’s most original modern artist’ and noted that ‘he enters the space of modernism formed and perpetuated by the colonial myth of white racial supremacy and superiority and demolishes it from within.’ Mancoba’s missionary training, however, was typical for ‘that magnificent generation’ (to use Mancoba’s own words) of ‘pioneer modern artists in South Africa that included Gerard Sekoto (a close friend and colleague of Mancoba) and George Milwa Pemba.’ ‘These artists were all, to a greater or lesser extent, educated and Christianised members of a small but influential African middle class that espoused the Victorian liberal values inculcated by their missionary training.’

Rather than highlighting the work of Mancoba, this exhibition shows the influence of the Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift, which together with Polly Street Art Centre and the Thupelo workshops, was ‘vitally important to the development of new artists.’ The legacy of these centres ‘lives on in South Africa’s contemporary art scene.’ (South Africa the art of a nation, J. Giblin & C. Spring, Thames & Hudson / The British Museum, 2016) Rorke’s Drift ‘became one of the most important institutions for black South African artists during apartheid,’ with Emma Dammann, Lionel Davis, BongiDhlomo, Avhashoni Mainganye, Philda Majozi, Kasigo Patrick Mautloa, AzariaMbatha, Elizabeth Mbatha, Gordon Mbatha, John Muafangejo, Sam Nhlengethwa, Anthony Nkotsi, Mpolokeng Ramphomane, Joel Sibisi, Paul Sibisi, Velile Soha and Vuminkosi Zulu all having taught or studied there. Works by Davis, Muafangejo and Nhlengethwa are all included within the exhibition, as are works from Helen Mmakgabo Sebidi and the Siyazama Project which utilize Christian imagery in the context of struggles with apartheid and HIV/Aids.

Rorke’s Drift was far from being a one-off however. Sister Pientia Selhorst of the Congregation of the Precious Blood as well as other Christian missions, including the Ndaleni Teachers’ Training College and Mariannhill Art School, all made their contribution towards the provision of access to opportunities for art education.

As a means of exploring the positive and negative legacies of Christianity in South Africa, the curators examine the work of Jackson Hlungwani and Willem Boshoff. Hlungwani was ordained in the African Zionist Church and founded New Jerusalem, a church at the site of an ancient hilltop settlement where he carved monumental wood sculptures of animals, warriors and Biblical figures. His Christ with football indicates the essential humanity of Christ, as a man for all peoples. Boshoff’s Bad Faith Chronicles skewer thirty-six very small baby dolls through the heart, like insects, labelled and displayed on a collector's chart. The labels bear the names of Old Testament nations who had lost their land and lives in ancient Israel. Below each collection is a Bible in an official South African language, opened at Psalm 111:6, which in an English translation reads: "He has given His people the power of His works, giving them the lands of other nations.” Boshoff’s work is ‘an angry response to the way in which Christian churches colluded with the apartheid regime, and to how the Bible was used to justify apartheid.’

Fiona Rankin-Smith has noted that ‘the immense and often unfathomable topic of faith is frequently debated in the public sphere in South Africa’, including its political history. The 2006 Figuring Faith exhibition that she curated provided multiple depictions of the symbols, people and places associated with belief. William Kentridge, whose work features in South Africa: the art of a nation, spoke at the opening of Figuring Faith saying that the works showed that ‘we are incurably en route’ between ‘a quotidian, every day reality and the world of mystery and transcendence beyond.’ This journey is ultimately what is depicted in South Africa: the art of a nation. The very activity of making the work’, Kentridge suggests, ‘involves the artist in a journey of going from what is known to what is glimpsed at, half understood and tentatively approached within the work.’ (Figuring Faith, ed. F. Rankin-Smith, Fourthwall Books, Johannesburg, 2006)    


Soweto Gospel Choir - Thina Simnqobile.

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