My first experience of David Koloane’s work (excepting the flicker of a projected slide in a first year Art History class) was not of his art but of his writing. In the pages of the Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwezor edited anthology Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace, Koloane offered a brief but thought-provoking examination of the Authentic African Identity trope which continues to dog all forms of African cultural production. Sketching a history of (white) establishment attitudes towards art in an essay entitled ‘The Identity Question: Focus of Black South African Expression’, Koloane surmised that
The argument for ‘identity’ in the work of Black artists, therefore, is only a smokescreen for an essentially racist questioning of their abilities, very much like the argument for the ‘protection’ of ‘Otherness’ or separate cultures that lies at the heart of apartheid.
In other words, black artists who created art outside of the mythological construction of the African artistic tradition were deemed inauthentic, insufficiently black. By bucking against the ‘appropriate aesthetic classification’ of ‘ethnic’ art, and modifying Modernist painting to interpret their individual visions, artists like Sekoto, Pemba, and Koloane, among others, chipped away at the superficial conception of the African identity. In doing so they took ownership of the agency to appropriate in the name of artistic progression as white artists did.
Koloane’s paintings vibrate and glow, in colour and brushstroke, with memory, and with emotion. They are of a time and place and people. Subject visibly informs their form. And yet figurative painting is often responded to with an art world jadedness caused by aestheticised imitations of the expressionist style, deftly satirised on Artthrob by Michael Smith. However, there are artists presently creating paintings that are anything but derivative.
The first artist that comes to mind is Portia Zvavahera born, raised, and educated in Zimbabwe. Her aptly named 2015 solo exhibition I Can Feel It In My Eyes was so striking that I remain convinced that I saw it only a couple of months ago. Zvavahera’s depictions of couples making love in the flower beds of Harare Central Park are heady, heart-racing and relevant. The illicit lust that she depicts in frenzied strokes and textile-inspired patterns feels lastingly subversive, particularly in its setting of a government-owned public space. As do her nightmarish but beautiful paintings of women birthing, bathing, and crawling on their knees in agony or ritual, among other acts, in her previous exhibitions Wayfinding and Mavambo Erwendo.
And there is the hysteria, humour and vulgarity of Misheck Masamvu’s paintings. Also from Zimbabwe, the colourful deviance seen in works such as Ranked Heads (2016), Observers (2012), and the ram’s head/phallus in Black Stereo (2014), are examples of an oeuvre that ranges from shocking to dark to humorous. The cultural and political power of provocation held by sexual imagery is best exemplified by the soldier/Mugabe figure in Ngoma ndiyo ndiyo (beating the same drum) (2012), who has a nude body slung over his shoulder like a drum over the shoulder of a military drummer boy. This points to a small part of what makes both of these artists’ paintings feel so vital: sex will always (or at least as long as our society looks the ways it does) be a revolutionary act.
Reasons for the association of contemporary southern African expressionist art with “gloopy portrait paintings”, may be found (through contrast) in a statement Masamvu made in an interview with Another Africa,
In the absence of fear, one longs to define freedom. Growing up, I felt my tongue go numb and my throat began to swell. It became clear to me that I had to find a different way to speak. The main obstacle was, I had very little information and means to follow this path.
While a lack of opportunity in the arts is certainly nothing to celebrate, perhaps more art schools and a more prosperous art market have discouraged strangeness, encouraging artists to paint the ‘right’ way rather than their own way. That would be a contemporary art landscape not so different from the one Koloane examined in his essay after all. Another possibility is that, exposed to art school and the eccentricities of the art world, many of the artists who ‘long to define freedom’ are freeing themselves of the traditional nature of paint, choosing to work with performance, video, digital, and conceptual art.
Or perhaps painting is simply in a slow phase, waiting to be revived by the likes of Zvavahera and Masamvu.