The history of black artists in South Africa is very fragmented – few artists are recognised and rewarded for their various contributions to the discourse and the art history canon. However, when we begin to thread these fragments together an awe-inspiring beauty unfolds, allowing us an opportunity for critical engagement and celebration.
Standard Bank Art Gallery is showcasing a retrospective of black South African artists working between the period of 1970 to 1990, titled ‘A Black Aesthetic’. The show draws primarily from the Fort Hare University Collection (as well as a few works from the Johannesburg Art Gallery and Standard Bank Corporate Art collections), including paintings, drawings and sculptures.
Many of these works have been sitting in storage, not shown or accessible to the public – this exhibition, curated by art art historian and gallery manager Dr Same Mdluli, therefore situates itself as a revelation of sorts.
Dr Mdluli is particularly tactful with regards to how she chooses to use the gallery’s physical layout to chronicle South African art history. Gerard Sekoto, George Pemba and Ernest Mancoba form a triangle in the centre of the gallery. These three modernist masters not only contribute to modernist aesthetic and frameworks but also pave the way for varying artistic practices to come. Mancoba, of course, was a significant character working at the centre of European modernism in the late 1940s with the avant garde art collective CoBrA (the artist group founded by Mancoba, Karel Appel, Asger Jorn and Constant Nieuwenhuys). His work (often untitled) models expressionist sensibilities and experiments with form while favouring abstraction.
The history books would have us believe that Europe is at the centre of the development of modernism, with influences moving from the West to the ‘periphery.’ This show challenges the assumption that knowledge moved unidirectionally by pointing towards different points at which South African artists were in fact in conversation with other artists across the world. Louis Khehla Maqhubela was employing cubist principles in form, geometry and colour, while referencing the likes of Swiss-born artists Paul Klee (particularly Maqhubela’s mixed media works; Composition with Goat, 1972 or Man and Horse, 1974). Picasso is influenced by African art and later referenced back by Dumile Feni, specifically through Feni’s African Guernica– a haunting work of charcoal on paper commenting on the violence and traumas caused by the Apartheid government. Through this work, Feni created a new language, appealing to a sense of empathy from those engaging with his work. These languages, conversations and responses create ever expanding circles of knowledge.
David Mbele, David Magano, James Salang, Jo Maseko, Tommy Motswai and Velaphi Mzimba documented the different realities of life in various townships while at the same time releasing themselves from labels and expectations of ‘township art’ through the use of different mediums and styles. We see painting and drawing that use rhythm, balance and movement to express daily life. These works remind us that representation matters and that self authoring is empowering.
Included in the exhibition is a timeline. This timeline acts as tool to examine critical moments in history by situating important developments that contributed to the unfolding of history – the cultural resistance symposium, Thupelo workshops, The Federated Union of Black Artists, black theology, black consciousness, mythology and African cosmology. ‘A Black Aesthetic’ leaves an impression and compels us to review, contemplate and celebrate.
The arrangement of this show reveals gaps, spaces and silences in between, allowing us moments to pause, reflect and question. For instance, the lack of women artists represented in the Fort Hare University Collection (and therefore this show) is quite apparent – Gladys Mgudlandlu is the only woman whose work is represented, pointing to silences and erasures along the way.
Dr Mdluli further arranges the works so that they unveil adjacent overlapping edges; Durant Sihlali, Sydney Khumalo and Ephraim Ngatane (artists and former teachers of art) are grappling with post-modernist ideas in a corner on the top floor of the gallery. Cyprian Shilakoe and Dan Rakgoathe tussle with African mythology and spirituality on the bottom floor of the gallery while Thami Mnyele, Fikile Magadlela, Julian Motaung, Harry Moyaga, Leornard Matsoso, Nat Mokgosi, Paul Sibisi, Madi Phala, Lucky Mbatha and William Zulu interrogate the intersection of art and ideology. The space is also punctuated by zones of intimacy with works positioned at the back of the gallery to create a quiet meditative mood.
‘A Black Aesthetic’ succeeds as a transgressive cartography of South African Art history. It ruptures the linear Eurocentric, racialized and patriarchal understanding of modernism and modern art. The exhibition is a cathartic purge of old and tired ideas of representation. It provides apertures and possibilities of expansion and deepens our understanding of history and erasures through probing questions on who can lay claim to aesthetics in art.