'Amandla!': A critical assessment of 'A Decade of Democracy' at SANG
by Joost O. Bosland
The exhibition 'A Decade of Democracy' at Iziko South African National Gallery is a showcase of the South African art produced and acquired in the 10 years after the fall of apartheid. Politically, Iziko SANG's location in time and space puts a huge burden on the 'Decade' show. Art is seldom unambiguously joyous, yet the appropriateness of an exhibition with critical overtones organised and curated by a still largely 'white' institution is at least questionable.
Moreover, in the economic paradigm, transformation is a somewhat clear concept: previously disadvantaged communities and individuals should be economically empowered. In art, the goals of transformation are more nebulous. With all these constraints, can the exhibition be a celebration of democracy? Or, for that matter, should it be?
The vast majority of the works on show is politically charged, something which has led critic Lloyd Pollak to claim that 'it seems that the National Gallery is dictated by the ideological concerns of the artworks, and not their quality.'1 Firstly, it is questionable whether the two are, or should be, independent factors. The decade on display, after all, directly follows a period where art was viewed as a tool of the Struggle, and it seems only natural that artists did not renounce political engagement en-masse.2 Secondly, I would like Pollak to explain exactly which ideology underpins the work of Moshekwa Langa, Sandile Zulu, Noria Mabasa or Josephine Ghesa, to name a few key artists.
Just because these artists are black, and do not conform to traditional notions of formalism, does not mean that their works have been purchased because it is 'art with a message'3: a message that is, if present at all in the work of these artists, often far from clear.
The notion that ideology has determined the collection strategy of Iziko SANG is also undermined by the heterogeneous nature of the political content of the works. While some of the work is unequivocally celebratory about the advent of democracy, like Jackson Nkumanda's Presidential Inauguration, others voice tentative doubt or even encompass a scathing attack on the current government, like Esther Mahlangu's Suid-Afrika Vorentoe and Zapiro's About Art, respectively.
The exhibition in part finds legitimacy in the nationwide celebrations of 10 years of democracy, but does not adopt the oversimplified rhetoric of the average Pick 'n Pay or Telkom commercial, or even most government-organised happenings. Annie E. Coombes has identified that dilemma in her already seminal text History After Apartheid. Should the role of South African museums be
'to educate for transition and for a new model of national unity or to be a venue that eschews a conciliatory role in favor of exploring the contradictions and tensions of a more dynamic model of history and society[?] In other words, how much should shared histories and common goals be foregrounded rather than emphasizing the ethnic, cultural and political particularities of different sectors of society and the tensions among them?'4
The 'Democracy X' show at the Castle seems to have opted for the first scenario, while 'A Decade of Democracy' has hesitantly chosen to do the latter, as critics have observed: Pollak, in ThisDay, notes that '[o]ddly, the overall mood is seldom festive.'5 The exhibition is no 'celebratory feel-good fest' urges Chris Roper in the Mail & Guardian.6
The straightforward answer to Coombes' dilemma is that, of course it is preferable to openly deal with the complexities of society. That is the line Emma Bedford, the curator of the exhibition, implicitly takes in her introduction to the catalogue when she commends artists for 'mirroring social and political developments or electing to explore newfound freedoms of expression.'7 The straightforward answer is too naïve, however. One has to wonder at the ethical soundness of a white government institution refusing to (unequivocally) celebrate black majority rule. Not only is the exhibition not a smooth narrative fêting the ruling party, the catalogue also includes an essay by Marilyn Martin, the director of the National Gallery, deriding the ANC's arts and culture policy.
Pieter-Dirk Uys has often said that he is eternally grateful to the ANC for not having been put against a wall and shot. However lightheartedly the comedian expresses that sentiment, a careful observer will realise that Uys is utterly serious. It is a position of true humility, a humility that he uses as a starting point for often scathing attacks on the very ANC towards which he feels the gratitude.
SANG, analogously, should be deeply thankful that its building on Government Avenue in Cape Town was not demolished in 1994 to make space for an extension of the Tuynhuys. The audience to which the gallery caters is still predominantly white. The very notion of a National Gallery is profoundly interlinked with the implied superiority of the European nation state. In a people's contract to create jobs and fight poverty, the role a national art museum can play is severely limited.
Even in the view of cynical critic Ivor Powell, 'art [in the last 10 years in South Africa] has been allowed, by default, to go about its business.'8 In a country where government resources are direly needed to curb the HIV/Aids pandemic, create jobs for the millions of unemployed, and redistribute land to dispossessed communities, non-interference seems to be all an art museum can legitimately wish for.
Martin complains in her catalogue essay that the Freedom Park initiative receives a disproportionate share of the Department of Arts and Culture budget.9 A similarly dangerous attitude is expressed by Powell in his review of the exhibition for Art South Africa. Clearly referring to Sara Baartman, Powell speaks of the return of 'pickled remains',10 implying that the repatriation was a waste of money. While it is their full right to complain, Martin and Powell need to realise that Freedom Park and Baartman's honour might just be deemed more important than some white building in Cape Town, by its very nature inaccessible to most South Africans.
Perhaps the comparison with Freedom Park can be soundly defended as a desperate cry, albeit slightly naïve, from someone who takes the fate of her institution to heart. What is worse, is that Martin had the audacity to negatively compare the National Gallery's budget of 2004 to that of 1984, in an interview with Die Burger.11 Especially in the context of an Afrikaans-language newspaper, such a comparison is nothing less than malicious.
Even on a pragmatic level, it is misguided: 'Look what has happened since the natives took over' is not a sentiment that will entice Pallo Jordan to provide the gallery with additional resources. Again making a mistake comparable with Martin's, Powell holds that 'impassioned cries of Amandla!'12 at the opening of 'Decade' would be 'as appropriate to the occasion as a lap dance in a high Catholic mass.'13 In the first place, such anti-ANC rhetoric will do a huge disservice to the cause of the National Gallery. What strikes me more is that a cry demanding 'power to the people' is apparently inappropriate at a celebration of democracy. Would impassioned cries of 'Amandla' within the halls of Iziko SANG not be the biggest compliment Bedford and Martin could get?
Let it be clear that I do believe that the National Gallery has a vital role to play in the new South Africa. The value of an (authoritative) national collection is beyond dispute. The institution, however, must adopt the humility of Uys and move from there to convince the public of the value of its endeavours. Instead of ranting about the lack of funding, Iziko SANG ought to patiently explain why they believe more money ought to be dedicated to the museum.
The quality and strength of the collection could form the basis for such an explanation, if the effort were to be made. If anything becomes clear from the work on display at the 'Decade' exhibition, it is that the National Gallery has made great strides towards a representative collection. The vitality of Thando Mama and Andile Dyalvane should lie at the centre of its message to the government, not the frustration of a depleted budget. Some seem to think that Iziko SANG is already strategising along those lines. Pollak curiously implies that the exhibition is
'an expedient exercise in public relations designed to persuade the government how "transformed" acquisition policies have regenerated the National Gallery and made it an effective instrument of social engineering.'14
Recalling his earlier complaint about the lack of celebration in the exhibition, this allegation seems somewhat odd. Surely, the social engineering preferred by the ANC is an unequivocal celebration of democracy: not a show in which the party's likeness to the apartheid regime is explored, or where Mbeki's controversial stance on HIV/Aids is attacked? Surely, some work has been included to create a collection that is acceptable in contemporary South Africa? But to judge the entire show on those grounds simply overlooks the complexity of the exhibition. The self-contradictory judgment 'too politically correct but not celebratory enough' found in both Pollak's and Melvyn Minnaar's reviews,15 gets to the heart of Coombes' dilemma.
The internal contradictions of 'A Decade of Democracy' illustrate that striking a balance between the inclusion of all South African 'cultural production' and work in the 'high art' paradigm is not easy. Bedford has received criticism from two opposing angles for her chosen approach; an approach which can only be inferred from the exhibition because it is never made explicit. Pollak questioned her focus on installation art and new media works (implicitly denouncing them as Eurocentric),16 while Powell questions the presence of more traditional African cultural objects 'in the context of the discourses of "Art" with a capital A.'17
To Pollak, I would like to say that denying African artists the right to work with materials not considered traditionally African is an unforgivable colonial attitude.18 The simple fact of the matter is that much of the global avant garde works with newly emerging methods of artistic creation: like it always has. Much of what is interesting in contemporary art will therefore, by default, be found in the field of new media.
Pollak's concern that the dominant visual discourse makes use of equipment that is financially well out of reach for the majority of South Africans should be taken seriously. What he fails to mention in his article, however, is that apart from the alleged eight sculptures and 30 paintings out of 300 acquired works, the exhibition included a wealth of ceramics, linocuts, beaded works and embroidery. Moreover, all of the painters and sculptors that Pollak suggests should have been included, work in a tradition for which the required training is equally financially unattainable for the majority of potential artists. Pollak's criticism is not as much a defense of the disempowered as it is a thinly guised aesthetic conservatism.
In response to Powell I first need to point out that the 'lonely Ndebele beaded apron' he apparently saw on display at Iziko SANG never existed. While tensions originating in the art/craft binary are present in the exhibition, a tentative rationale exists for most works outside the high art paradigm included in the exhibition. Andile Dyalvane's headrests, for example, go above and beyond the traditional notion of the headrest. Dyalvane, a Xhosa-speaker, has adopted the form of the headrest from a culture that is not his own, and explored its potential in a new medium: stoneware.
A similar account could be given for the Javusa by Josephine Ghesa. The complicated position that works in African traditions negotiate is illustrated by the inclusion of Rebecca Mathibe's exquisite ceramics in both the 'Decade', and the upcoming 'Ilifa laBantu (Heritage of the People)' exhibitions. Contemporary art and traditional cultural production are, it would seem, not mutually exclusive.
Granted, the Zulu palm fibre baskets that looked so elegant in the Lieberman room seemed a bit out of place. No apparent reason exists why these particular baskets received attention over all others. Given the nature of this country, however, it is inevitable that in an inclusive collection, not everything fits together neatly. Moreover, it is questionable whether the opposite - omitting the baskets from the national collection - would be any more desirable. It looks like Pollak and Powell will just have to get used to the art that now claims its rightful space in the National Gallery.
The confusion among critics is due to the lack of elaboration on the difficulties of incorporating work from outside the Western high art tradition. Clearly, the 'national collection' needs to reflect the nation to which it belongs, but what does this mean? Should it provide a representative overview of all cultural production in South Africa? Or should it just collect work from vanguard artists working in the different artistic paradigms?
In the light of such questions, it becomes clear that the call leveled at the South African museum sector by scholars Keyan Tomaselli and Mewa Ramgobin in 1988 to expose the museum audience to debates surrounding the museological and curatorial practices rather than provide 'clear cut single issue answers' is just as relevant today.19 The National Gallery has chosen particular works from a variety of paradigms, and the subtitle to the exhibition, 'South African Art 1994-2004', suggests canonical value, as well as the status of 'art' for all included objects. Yet, at no point in the catalogue does Bedford discuss the reform strategy for which she has opted.
The position of Iziko SANG is a special and difficult one, and it has valuable insights to share about the translation from theoretical debates in contemporary African art to the reality of museum practice. Unfortunately, the lack of an essay in the catalogue addressing these issues is most likely the result of the absence of a coherent, visionary curatorial strategy.
The centralised Iziko committee-based acquisition policy should be partly blamed for limiting the ability of individual curators to develop a sound purchasing policy. Moreover, the dire financial situation of the institution puts limits on human resources, resulting in insufficient research and theoretical discussion. Regardless, the future vitality and relevance of the institution depend on how transformation is approached. No matter how impossible with current resources, a coherent, visionary curatorial strategy is absolutely essential to the survival of Iziko SANG.
The naïve answer to Coombes' dilemma, 'of course it is preferable to openly deal with the complexities of society', is probably the right one. Pluralism is one of the values at the core of democracy, alongside and intertwined with freedom of expression. That the art in 'A Decade of Democracy' has no unanimous celebratory nature is in fact in itself a celebration of democracy; art critical of government has not always been allowed in this country.
I stand by my labeling of the answer as naïve, however. The attitude of the institution (or, at least, the director) and part of the art establishment limit the exhibition's appropriateness for the 10 years of democracy celebrations. And while the art itself is perfectly suited to the occasion, the lack of openness about curatorial debates reduces the value of the show yet further. Let us hope that Iziko SANG will be more welcoming to 'Amandla' cries in 2014, with a humbleness inspired by Uys.
Let us also hope that the audience will be presented with a vision that acknowledges the theoretical and practical difficulties of creating a national collection for such a culturally diverse country as South Africa. But for now, my critical side notes should not be interpreted as invalidating the exhibition. 'A Decade of Democracy' could have been more appropriate, but it is still pretty good; courtesy of Mama, Geers, Dyalvane, Zulu, Bester, Phokela, Ghesa and many more of the wonderful artists South Africa has produced.
Joost O. Bosland is a researcher who has recently completed a diverse period of fieldwork and study in South Africa. He will take on the mantle of ArtThrob's New York correspondent from January 2005.
Bedford, E. (ed.),A Decade of Democracy: South African Art 1994-2004, Double Storey (Cape Town, 2004).
Coombes, A. E., History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa, Duke University Press (Durham, N.C., 2003), pp.1-19, 149-295.
Minnaar, M., 'Fine and irritating art to be seen,' Cape Times, June 25, 2004, p. 5.
Powell, I., 'A Decade of Democracy: South African Art 1994-2004,' Art South Africa, Vol. 2, Issue 4/Winter 2004, pp. 62-64.
Pople, L., 'Afrika-renaissance in kuns,' Die Burger, June 7, 2004, p. 8.
Pollak, L., 'Alarming Art,' This Day, June 3, 2004, Arts, p. 9.
Roper, C., 'Decade of contradiction,' Mail & Guardian, April 8, 2004, Friday, p. 1.
1 L. Pollak, 'Alarming Art,' This Day June 3, 2004, Arts, p. 9.
2 E. Bedford (ed.), A Decade of Democracy: South African Art 1994-2004, Double Storey (Cape Town, 2004), p. 5.
4 A. E. Coombes, History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa, Duke University Press (Durham, N.C., 2003), p. 206.
6 C. Roper, 'Decade of contradiction,' Mail & Guardian, April 8, 2004, Friday, p. 1.
7 Bedford (ed.), p. 5.
8 I. Powell, 'A Decade of Democracy: South African Art 1994-2004,' Art South Africa, Vol. 2, Issue 4/Winter 2004, p. 62.
9 M. Martin, 'The Horn of the national art museum's dilemma,' in Bedford (ed.), p. 60.
10 Powell, p. 63.
11 L. Pople, 'Afrika-renaissance in kuns,' Die Burger, June 7, 2004, p. 8.
12 Powell, p. 62.
15 Ibid, and M. Minnaar, 'Fine and irritating art to be seen,' Cape Times, June 25, 2004, p. 5.
17 Powell, p. 64.
18 Recall the debates surrounding the Polly Street and Thupelo projects.
19 Coombes, p. 152.