Everard Read, Johannesburg
Away from the sexy, dramatic, horrific and fertile state of South African urban life, a whole other existence churns for many citizens. Between the scatterings of bright lights that make up Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban the landscape often seems harsh, not just for sustaining life, but theory as well. How, when your connections to capitalism are the general dealer and the Shell garage in your small town, and the same shop-worn banknotes circulate between the same 300 people until they (the banknotes and the people) begin to fall apart, can you have much of a sense that Frantz Fanon once wrote a book about you?
Even before Fanon, Gustave Courbet was onto this in the France of in the late 1840s, when his uncompromising canvases began to challenge the dominance of urban experience in culture. Above all else, even beyond his avowed desire to precipitate ‘the burial of Romanticism’, Courbet’s contribution to visual art was that he crystalised in paint the experiences of French rural life, the peasants, the workers, the petty clergy, the animals. Almost diametrically opposed to his contemporary Charles Baudelaire’s belief that art had a responsibility to capture the fleeting experiences of ‘modernity’ (a term which the poet coined), Courbet seemed to have been saying that rural life was an original state of human existence, one which we would do well not forget in the ceaseless march of progress. The rural peasantry was also without the infamous affectations of the Parisian haute classes, least infected by its ideologies, and represented the best chances for Courbet’s beloved Paris Commune to succeed.
Oddly, for a South African landscape painter working in a fairly traditional idiom of Realism, Walter Meyer’s latest show at Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg seems to tread similar ground. Meyer inserts an extra layer, updating the ideas for a contemporary South African moment.
The ‘Hinterland’ in the title of the show is not a new subject for South African art, or literature for that matter. Pauline Smith’s The Beadle from 1927 is set in the Klein Karoo; one can imagine Meyer driving through its plains now, scouring the landscape for an image, a moment to paint. And while staring at the light, the fabric of life in some of Meyer’s intimate works, one hears distant echoes of Herman Charles Bosman’s Groot Marico of yesteryear.
The shock of Meyer’s work is subtle, but it is there: it lies in his slow revelation that much of the romanticized rural idyll is gone, and maybe was never there at all. Even the scrappy, dusty hamlets of the interior have been largely reduced to ghost towns, as abandoned vistas are populated only by broken windmills (Near Smithfield, 1990) and sagging gates (Murasie, 2001) and the odd Africanus dog forced to eke out an existence from what remains (Putsonderwater). Meyer’s trick is to paint the results of human presence far more than he ever paints actual people; certainly, his land- and townscapes are more successful at expressing human psychology than his portraits have ever been. In this show, when people do appear (Tsabong Street Scene, 2003) they are silhouettes, markers of a certain kind of presence, lean and desperate like the Africanus as they move through the palpable air of town streets and intersections.
If the works in photographic artist Roger Ballen’s first two books, 1986’s ‘Dorps’ and 1990’s ‘Platteland’ created the perfect foil for Afrikanerdom’s quasi-Biblical claims of the Afrikaner ‘nation’ being a chosen people, presenting as they did the tragic and forlorn ‘arme blankes’ (poor Whites) left high and dry by the National Party’s gerrymandering in the interior, then Meyer’s images serve as testimony to how many these ‘inwoners’ (residents) have been compelled to move away from these areas, or have simply died and not been replaced by their own offspring. According to a report by the South African Institute for Race Relations, published in 2004, around 1.4 million rural South Africans moved to Gauteng alone between 1996 and 2001, much of the period during which Meyer produced this body of work. The rate of urbanisation in SA is 65%, as opposed to the global average of 55%. As Lize van der Watt puts it, ‘Whereas [JH] Pierneef’s work bolstered the master-narrative of Afrikaner Nationalism, Meyer’s mirrors the fracturing of that narrative…’ One could readily add the word ‘dissipation’. And, of course, it isn’t just Afrikaner identity that is breaking and dissolving.
The story of significant depopulation of rural areas in SA is also the story of a shift in the mind-set of South Africans. While new ideas become possible in cities, much seems lost when people move: identity, language, ideas around the land and cycles of life. The psychological state of migrants to cities is often one of bewilderment, anxiety and a constant sense of dread. The slow-burn of Meyer’s work seems to be in the realisation that he is updating colonial ‘empty land’ myth, which Pierneef was only too happy to continue: the fallacy that South Africa’s interior was mostly devoid of inhabitants, and thus the land was there for the taking. The absolution this idea gave settlers and their descendants was powerful stuff, and great impetus in turn to the ‘chosen race’ mythology. Meyer’s land- and townscapes, by contrast, are not so much empty as emptied out. These are not even Edward Hopper’s quiet weekend shop-fronts or proto-fashionable-ennui interiors: they’re just abandoned, neglected and tragic.
That Meyer is not a member of the chi-chi avant-garde is clear, and almost to be expected in this brave new city’s art market clamour. Even this review is probably eliciting its fair share of eye-rolls, unabashed in its focus on an artist who is, on the face of it, a traditionalist. But Meyer’s works speak eloquently about structural change, glacial-paced shifts in the ebb and flow of people and capital around the country. For this alone, not to mention his frankly phenomenal visual skill, he retains a deserved place on the contemporary scene.