By listening, we would understand what was, not what we thought was, and “we would thus be less reformative and more transformative, of ourselves and correspondingly more creative of life generally.”… If practitioners took the time to learn, they would see consciousness of and in time and learn how to represent and improve it in space. “We would be in the position of making the present historical.”
– (Magaziner on Selby Mvusi, 2018: 22)
The trouble began with the Athi Mongezeleli Joja review in the Mail & Guardian. Writing on Dr Same Mdluli’s now-closed ‘A Black Aesthetic’ at the Standard Bank Gallery, the text considered possibilities for ethical curatorial approaches to colonial collections, as well as possible readings and representations of BC’s relationship to South African art production[i]. It was molded around a sticky complaint regarding what the writer framed as the show’s lack of ‘rigour’.
Living temporarily in Finland at the time, this text – which outlines its own framework for curating Black modernist work, beyond just this show – piqued my deepest curiosity. Through immersion in the mass of written material on the show and ongoing conversation with an actual viewer at home, I became drawn to the way that remote reading and removed viewership acted to displace my interest from the exhibition’s image content, to the aesthetics of the exhibition’s discourse. In the vast majority of writings on ‘A Black Aesthetic’, I noticed a series of strange repetitions, understanding more and more deeply that Joja’s review had been an outlier. Ultimately, I think it was this outlying nature that moved Dr Mdluli, the curator, to respond to him publicly in writing, resulting in a significant art historical exchange between the two thinkers, that is deserving of a lot more content-analysis than I will do here.
Joja’s review was based around the broad conversation of curating colonial collections in the contemporary moment. His argument proposed that ‘A Black Aesthetic’, an exhibition widely advertised as the largest showing of black art in South Africa “since democracy”, did not do enough “nitpicking” in its encounter with de Jager’s large collection of Black modern art. Professor E J de Jager, an anthropologist, was in charge of the University of Fort Hare’s collection from 1965 onwards, acquiring work exclusively from black (men, it seems) artists, where ‘blackness’ was mobilised as its apartheid categorisation, rather than in its BC manifestation[ii]. Works from the Fort Hare Collection (referred to by Joja as the ‘de Jager Collection’ because of his overwhelming influence) made up the majority of Dr Mdluli’s ‘A Black Aesthetic’, and Joja’s interest is in the colonial text that underwrites such a collection. Joja argued that the particular problems pervasive in De Jager’s ethnographic acquisitional impulses were not addressed substantially in this contemporary re-articulation, and so fermented into the life of the exhibition. These ‘problems’ can be seen as forms of Black negation that manifest in the collection – and the show – through erasure, misnaming, and miswriting.
So whilst a number of reviews only whispered on the edge of these silences, arriving at symptomatic questions like, “where are the women?”, “where is Peter Clarke?”, or “Is this Black like Biko or black like apartheid?”, Joja’s thoughts – in his first text – were useful in their location of these erasures within a broader colonial history of white-on-black aquisition. The review’s historical conscientisation laboured to visibilise hidden political layers in collections that may not have been immediately obvious to those less interested/ invested. Mdluli’s response text, entitled Black Art: It’s place in the sun (also published in the Mail and Guardian) played a different role, displacing the centrality of the exhibition as the main object of enquiry, and favouring discourse around the role of audience in the making of a show’s success, the problems of elitist art criticism and how it interacts (or doesn’t) with this audience – via Koloane – and a criticism levelled at Joja’s patriarchal tone, which emerged most chaotically in his response to Mdluli’s response, published on africanah.org.[iii]
So Joja, initially, was able to begin a breakdown of some of the loaded conceptual claims surrounding the exhibition – ideas that make sense in the context of the catalogue, but less so in critical feedback from art writers. This was important because many of the mantras surrounding the exhibition – ‘the show problematises the idea of township art’, ‘the show puts Black artists on the modernist map’, or ‘the exhibition allows the historical emergence of artists not previously written about’ (and then proceeding not to mention any names except Mancoba, Feni and Sekoto)’ – failed to acknowledge the way that the exhibited Black men (and Mgudlandlu), often working as artist-pedagogues, were clearly invested in the Black art-theoretical project themselves, making their work in accordance with a diversity of political and intellectual motivations.
For instance, Thami Mnyele, included in the show, talked about ‘township art’ at length, describing it as “an art of negation”. Highly critical, he berated many of his contemporaries for their “sentimental caricatures of a primitive community of people who were satisfied with their ‘way of life’” (Mnyele, 2009: 24). Mnyele’s judgement call exposes a couple of things in contradiction to A Black Aesthetic’s oversimplified statement that de Jager’s naming of ‘the township art movement’ was problematic, and should be un-done. Primarily, it shows us that we absolutely cannot ascribe the definition of ‘township art’ solely to white discourse, because in one important sense, Black critical reference to ‘township art’ was a crucial part of defining what BC cultural practice should look like. I believe that the acknowledgement missing in the ‘discourse-aesthetic’ around the exhibition is this very fact of agency. ‘Township art’ has been used in different ways, and its definition, by BC-leaning cultural workers, like Mnyele, should never be discounted from the mix, and neither should the possibility that politically-aware Black artists were, at times purposefully making this kind of work in order to serve a white audience, and gain financially. Why then, would we locate this theoretical work completely outside of the lives of the Black people to which we refer, pretending to believe in a weird, harmonious Black art socio-political relation, a smooth unity, where Black people were not arguing, being problematic, and working into completely different political – or not – projects?
Further, Selby Mvusi’s inclusion in the show, alongside my frustration at the exhibition’s seemingly unified discourse made me think more about the idea of writing ‘history’, and what this action exposes around our beliefs, or non-beliefs about time, and our role in its unfolding. From 1965 until 1967, alongside British architect Derek Morgan at the University of Nairobi, Mvusi worked on the making of an experimental architecture/ design curriculum, which was embedded in his understanding of an African ‘time consciousness’. Mvusi was said to be “deeply suspicious of Africanists who were obsessed with the passing of the past”, and believed that design as a medium could function as “the plastic realization of time-consciousness”, manifesting interesting, present relationships with objects in time (Magaziner, quoting Mvusi, 2018). He concerned himself with history and creative production that emphasised the perpetual nature of the unfolding present, both preceding and echoing much Afrofuturist philosophy around Black temporality, that was (re)born in the 90’s, and in the west. Mvusi was neither invested in an embrace of some purist and past African mode of being, nor in the perpetual trap of ‘catching up’ with the west. He was fascinated by what was already at play between, despite, and outside of these things:
In a critical passage Mvusi theorized what would happen if Africans’ contemporary “thought-processes” were taken seriously and not dismissed as either inauthentic or archaic. Contrary to those who saw only binaries – developed/underdeveloped, rural/urban, African/Western, traditional/modern – Mvusi insisted “underdevelopment is not monolithic. Neither is it exclusive nor static. It is itself active and dynamic, and is forever pacing development.” To be poor and rural and African was not to be behind; it was to be. The chronology of progress was a fiction. “We are never going to be ‘developed,’ we will only continue to grow, or else die.” (Magaziner, 2018: 22).
What we see unfold between Joja and Dr Mdluli itself articulates the kind of trouble that easily manifests when we read – and write! – art histories in, and with the present. Their interaction shows that there is no use in pretending to put the addressed problems of ‘A Black Aesthetic’ to rest, where today the very same de Jager dynamic is still at play between Black art (by women too) and white institutions and collections. This predicament of white patronage, whilst having moved on – in some cases – from the aestheticisation of the township in particular, is still defined in large part by unshifted power, and thus, the whims of contemporary white fantasies of blackness. Maybe, like Mvusi, we could recognise the reproduction of this white-on-Black colonial discourse underdevelopment as necessarily a place that also contains active and dynamic Black life, in need of love, growth and new birth, rather than just inclusion into the canon.
Most of all, I am hopeful that Mdluli and Joja’s back-and-forth functions as a disturbance in the writing of this exhibition’s history. The notion of ‘a Black aesthetic’ – an aesthetic of trouble, contradiction, mutual disappointment, creativity, failure and violence, which we see in this interaction – is always underwritten in the work of such a show, and seeing its presence surface is potentially crucial in the writing of more interesting, less white-centric art historical literature. It seems that this ‘Black aesthetic’ is as much bound to disrupt any smooth discourse-aesthetic, as it is to disrupt – and break – itself. Maybe, in trying to understand what has come before us, we should be available to encounter disruption, and chaos, and unresolvable difference; ready to visit past political projects, and find them still living, ready for disappointment and surprise, and ready to acknowledge that – even if we are invested – we are just small and insignificant, parts of an unknowable, troubled Black aesthetic.
[i] On the 5th of April, Athi Mongezeleli Joja wrote a review of “A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African artists: 1970-1990” entitled “A Black aesthetic lacks rigour” in the Mail and Guardian. Dr Same Mdluli, the show’s curator responded with a text, “Black Art: It’s place in the sun”, in the same publication on April 26th. Joja responded then to Mdluli’s text on africanah.org, with a third article using the show’s name as a title.
[ii] De Jager, beyond the control and influence he had on the University of Fort Hare Collection, is famous for curating the 1992 show Images of Man: Contemporary South African Black Art and Artists, the largest exhibition of black artists in South Africa, which showed work from the collection.
[iii] I refer here to a strange moment in which Joja mistakes patriarchy as a “contingently mobilised category”, rather than a systemic reality that is often more intimately operable and domestically pervasive than race. Herein, he is seemingly willing only to take its existence seriously when women, in this case, Dr Mdluli, prove its presence with robotic consistency. The effect of this negligence, especially in a discussion that ultimately attempts to deal with coloniality, is somewhat undermining to the work of the writing.
de Jager, EJ., 1991, Images of Man: Contemporary South African Black Art and Artists, Fort Hare Univ. Press: Alice
Joja, AM., 2019, A Black aesthetic lacks rigour, online, Available: https://mg.co.za/article/2019-04-05-00-a-black-aesthetic-lacks-rigour
Joja, AM, 2019, A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists (1970-1990), online, Available: https://africanah.org/a-black-aesthetic-a-view-of-south-african-artists-1970-1990/
Magaziner, D., 2018., The Foundation: Design, Time, and Possibility in 1960s Nairobi, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 60(3): 599-628, doi:10.1017/S0010417518000208
Mdluli, S, 2019, Black Art: Its place in the sun, online, Available: https://mg.co.za/article/2019-04-26-00-black-art-its-place-in-the-sun
Mnyele, T., 2009, Thami Mnyele + Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective: Johannesburg Art Gallery, Clive Kellner, Sergio-Albio González (eds), Jacana Media: Johannesburg