'Sasol 1991 - 2001' at the Sasol Art Museum
by Hazel Friedman
If Sasol wanted to introduce a new pay-off line for one of its marketing drives, it might use the phrase "Sasol: Fuelling creativity" or "Pumping the visual arts". This might strike some as an incongruous advertising slogan for an institution that is more widely associated with coal anof Stellenbosch might jolt general preconceptions about contemporary business ethics and aesthetics.
Formerly the old Bloemhof School, the Sasol Art Museum was established in October 1991 as a result of generous sponsorship by the namesake company. To celebrate its 10th universary the museum is hosting an exhibition of pieces from Sasol's contemporary art collection. And a mighty fine one it is too, comprising works by both younger and more established bravehearts of the contemporary visual art scene, including Willie Bester, Diane Victor, Kevin Brand, Dominic Tshabangu, Sam Nhlengethwa, Zwelethu Mthethwa and Terry Kurgan - to mention a few.
At the risk of bracketing all current local output between the bookends of apartheid South Africa, it can be safely stated that this show is distinctly "post". The grey areas of the simunye rainbow - hallmarks of a country in the throes of post-liberation anxiety - are eloquently depicted, alongside imagery embracing issues of global significance and idiosyncratic individualism in both subject matter, interpretation and medium. Although this show doesn't generate the controversy of trailblazing collections like the Gencor selection, it nevertheless offers a thought-provoking discourse on socio-cultural change - or the lack thereof.
Joachim Schönfeldt, for example, interrogates the commodification and "curiosity" status of artworks and other products of a materialist society, providing subtle commentary on the blurring of boundaries between the popular and precious. In a more overtly comical, in-yer-face vein, Brett Murray plays with ongoing racial and cultural stereotypes, incorporating Bart (Simpson) and other icons of mass culture and the MTV generation into his art.
A relatively new conscript to South Africa's contemporary art mart, Stephanus Rademeyer provides hi-tech surreality to the concept of church, faith, duality and cultural cathedrals in his video installation entitled Deferred Reconstructions, while Colbert Mashile's watercolours cut to the bone of male circumcision and other cultural rites of passage. Then there's the unravelling of gender stereotypes and cultural ownership by Christine Dixie who depicts herself, literally, trying to find her place and identity in an environment with which she feels inextricably entwined. And environmental issues of a more global kind form the fulcrum of of Paul Edmunds' Cumulate - an archetypal ovoid consisting of shredded pages from National Geographic magazine.
Making hand-worked processes look industrial is the forte of Walter Oltmann whose linocuts are made up of an accumulation and profusion of marks, harking back to traditions of basket weaving, embroidery and beadwork. And the mark in all its guises forms the recurring refrain in Durant Sihlahli's richly textured surfaces.
Also represented in this impressive collection are the handful of South African artists who are creating rumbles in the international art jungle such as Norman Catherine with his voodoo pop imagery and Willie Bester who is still producing incisive social commentaries constructed from the flotsam of everyday life.
But the most impressive element of the show lies not simply in the works themselves. Rather it lies in the efforts on the part of the Sasol Art Museum, currently under the directorship of Dr Lydia de Waal, if not to take visual arts out of the cultural refrigerator, then at least to defrost some of its contents. While many collections languish unnoticed and unadvertised to the wider public, for whom they should in fact exist, the Sasol Art Museum has embarked on various outreach programs initiated by the university's drama, music and fine arts students. They regularly hold workshops during which learners from schools on the Cape Flats are encouraged to interact with the works on show and to articulate their responses in both verbal and visual terms. The results - proudly displayed in front of the "orginals" - provide fresh, unpretentious insights into contemporary art and life, thereby helping to ventilate the often stale cognitive air wafting through these rarified rooms.
While museums are trying to shed their musty, mothballed status, the reality for contemporary art in South Africa remains murky. It's common knowledge that being an artist these days is an act of dogged optimism verging on sheer madness, particularly if you hope to make a living. There is precious little money available, either for private purchases or from government funding.
So maybe it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that those largely responsible for helping to transform masuleum-like museums into dynamic interactive cultural spaces are none other than members of South Africa's private sector. Their assistance has come at a time when public galleries are flipping rapidly depreciating coins, desperately trying to decide whether to prioritise updating art collections or fixing leaking roofs.
Which is not to say that the union with business was made in cultural-corporate heaven. The two sectors speak inherently different languages, adhere to their own sets of market-related rules, payoffs and bottom lines. But in recent years there has been a genuine meeting in the middle between the business of art and the art of business through initiatives such as Business Arts South Africa (Basa). And in the last few years it has been cemented as a marriage of convenience due to successful efforts on the part of businesses, banks and mining houses to thrust generous wads of money into the mouths of the contemporary visual arts. No doubt art collections like Sasol, together with the outreach efforts of the Sasol Art Museum itself, can only pump new creative fuel into an otherwise visually challenged society.
Until December 2
Sasol Art Museum, 52 Ryneveld Street, Stellenbosch
Tel: (021) 808 3524
Fax: (021) 808 3669
Hours: Tues - Fri 9am - 4pm, Sat 9am - 5pm, Sun 2pm - 5pm