09.02 - 09.01.2023
We thought a lot about the politics of knowledge production after visiting When Rain Clouds Gather: Black South African Women Artists 1940 – 2000, curated by Dr. Portia Malatjie and Nontobeko Ntombela at Norval Foundation in Cape Town. The exhibition was important for putting us on to over 120 works by 40 artists, many of them unknown. It is not common to be schooled like this. This is a much-needed reflection on the influential but unacknowledged contributions of Black women to South African art history in the 20th century. The curators pay homage to these artists, whose works span from early modernism to the contemporary, offering a cross-generational communion that has never been seen before at this scale.
Feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker’s framework of epistemic injustice was useful for thinking through the meaning and magic of this exhibition. She defines two kinds of epistemic injustice: testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice. The first occurs when we attribute credibility based on prejudices about the speaker, such as gender, social background, ethnicity, race, sexuality, accent and so on. Given the systematic exclusion of Black women artists during apartheid, this notion of injustice becomes relevant in terms of the silenced voices, undervalued aesthetic contributions and disregard of authority.
Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word. Hermeneutical injustice occurs when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experience. As a collective pool of knowledge, South African art history is riddled with the gaps resulting from Black women’s exclusion. Here, we think about the underrepresentation of experiences, insights, methods, and chosen mediums of artists themselves. Then same for curators. Gallerists. Art writers. This exhibition posits questions about the art industry and academy, forcing us to ask, what does it mean to have so many unknown, under-studied artists?
This is something quietly addressed by Bongiwe Dhlomo-Mautloa’s 1956 painting depicting a single wooden headrest, a representation and reminder of the many headrests by ‘unknown’ artists in collections and exhibitions. Many of these artists are often assumed to be men, further excluding women from this ‘unknown’ space. Like Dhlomo-Mautloa’s headrest, every artwork in this exhibition feels like a singular spectre, representative of multitudes. As if the group is itself a hauntology, a show of repressed histories.
We spoke to Ntombela via Zoom to learn more about the exhibition, a generative conversation that left us both thrilled and dismayed. On the one hand, the curators have gifted us with a truly vast learning opportunity. On the other, it was disheartening to learn that some collectors blatantly ignored them when trying to source works until Norval Foundation stepped in. Resultant questions of access were also triggering. During a walkabout through the show in February, Ntombela and Malatjie described their efforts to loan a work by Esther Mahlangu owned by a European collector. Bringing the work back to South Africa involved a massive transport cost that proved to be out of budget, even for a private foundation like Norval. The curators came up with an alternative solution: to hire a photographer who would shoot the work at the collection, to be projected in the exhibition space in Cape Town. Unfortunately, even that solution proved too much for the collector who set out a series of requests and demands, dictating how the work would be shot and shown. The curators finally chose not to show that piece in the exhibition. The works in this exhibition are national treasures. To be materially prevented from bringing them home is upsetting enough. To be told how to exhibit reproductions is infuriating. This insight into the ways in which both cultural workers and audiences have been and continue to be denied material and ideological access to Black South African artists whose work has been extracted from the continent is important.
But another obvious access barrier is that this exhibition is hosted by an inaccessible institution. The entrance to Norval Foundation is R180 per person, and its Tokai location means that most visitors likely arrive by private transport. This is an exhibition with no precedent in South Africa. We need to think about ways for its gravitas to be amplified beyond the class line. Here’s why: in addition to the 40 artists shown, the exhibition also includes another 33 artists whose work could not be sourced but who are still named and who will also be included in the forthcoming catalogue. This is a suggested curriculum, an imaginary dream line-up and a living archive, with sufficient flexibility and humility to encourage both expansion and revision. The latter was proven when two women visited the exhibition and recognised their grandmother’s painting, included without acknowledgement. They contacted the curators, who subsequently updated the labelling. Who’s to say what other artists might be identified if the institution catered to a different kind of clientele? Or if the exhibition travelled to a more easily accessible institution, like the South African National Gallery? First prize would be a free institution, but the reality is that only a place with funds can host an exhibition of this magnitude. That said, if this is the dream line-up, what’s the dream institution?
In addition to these timely provocations, this exhibition is also replete with a variety of mediums and materials, subjects and styles that Sinazo Chiya suggests points to:
A cultural richness that can presently only be guessed at, suggesting our shared visual inheritance would be exponentially richer if we were not looking at skill and mastery as characteristics of men but across different registers of critical and conceptual feeling.
How do we better uncover, understand and study different registers present in the exhibition? According to Ntombela:
The show is incredible for waking us up to how much we need to do. Not only have we never seen a show of this scale, in one room, but we also need to reevaluate the format. We have artists who show us patterns in South African history, but we don’t know them because they are fixed in a group.
Group shows often invisiblise artists’ idiosyncrasies and tend to collectivise themes. When we raised this contradiction with Ntombela during our interview, she responded:
In this case it was almost like a strategy, a declaration of how many [Black women artists] there are. To see if we can visualise, if we feel it in the gut, if we see the uniqueness of all these individual practices. This was a statement for us to say, there are so many of them, why aren’t they being written about individually? But I hope this is the last group show that I put together. We need to exhaust the form. And I mean group shows based on race or gender, not all group shows.
In this exhibition, Malatjie and Ntombela have exhausted the form, and in doing so, productively criticised how historical work continues to be shown in groups. Knowing the impossibility of offering an in-depth focus on each artist, they chose to demonstrate multiple prolific Black South African women artists between 1940–2000, raising the question: what if each artist in this exhibition, including those mentioned but not shown, was rigorously studied?
Malatjie and Ntombela’s curatorial strategy offers an interpretive framework, a tool with which to think about structural readjustment. Who gives testimony? Why? How? What does this mean for our social understanding of South African art history? Naming the exhibition after exiled writer and anti-apartheid activist Bessie Head’s first novel demonstrates this well. Architect Ilze Wolff writes about Bessie Head’s practices of structural adjustment, recalling her own grandparents’ house after they were forcibly removed from their Stellenbosch home to a standard apartheid government one (known as NE 51/9). The house had two entrances: a formal one through the living room for esteemed guests and strangers, and an informal one for family and friends through the kitchen. After publishing When Rain Clouds Gather, Bessie Head was able to build her own house in Botswana. At first glance, it was similar to the NE 51/9 model but for one significant structural change: only one entrance, through the kitchen. Wolff expands on how Head structurally adjusts our expectations of the standard-issue apartheid house by designing one that suited her own requirements, in doing so offering “a quiet yet powerful act of subversion.” The curation of this show mirrors that act.
During our conversation, Ntombela discussed the special case of Valerie Desmore as one of the artists in need of critical attention, explaining that few people have the language to address Desmore’s work because of the artist’s race complexity:
She has been let down twice: never reaching whiteness (during childhood when her family passed as white), but also somehow having post-apartheid Blackness elude her too (despite her self-identification as mixed race).
While the show certainly pokes at different conversations on Blackness, more pressing is how it addresses inaccuracies and discrepancies endemic to art history. How do we discuss changing valuation systems that continue to neglect artists like Desmore without falling victim to staid interpretive frameworks? Desmore could pass as white in the 1930s, but later as a teenager was racialised as Coloured, with no hope of acceptance in the South African art world. This motivated her self-exile to England in 1946 when she was 21. Desmore never returned to SA, she lived in the UK till her death. While developing her career as a visual artist, she positioned herself as mixed-race, but lacked recognition as Black. It was only in 1997 that she first experienced some type of visibility in South Africa when her works were introduced as part of the Black South African canon in the exhibition Land & Lives, curated by Ezra Miles at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG). In 2012, Desmore’s work was again included in an exhibition at JAG, this time in A Fragile Archive, curated by Ntombela. Both exhibitions controversially contested the widely held belief that Gladys Mgudlandlu is the first Black South African woman to have a solo show. Desmore had her first exhibition at Herbert Stanley Argus Gallery in Cape Town in 1942, years before Mgudlandlu.
Historical forces of discrimination in South Africa have meant that selective and arbitrary claims over Black artists’ productions are systemic and enduring, a claim that Sabine Marschall attests to, writing about how white patrons created selective criteria that only included certain Black artists in mainstream art institutions based on Western ideologies of what Black art should be, which explains why some Black artists became better known than others. Ntombela has also argued that selective support and influence of white patrons forced other Black artists to seek support from outside countries, as was the case with Desmore.
Athi Mongezeleli Joja’s critique of Desmore’s inclusion in When Rain Clouds Gather, Black South African Women Artists, 1940–2000, specifically the suggestion that her mixed-race heritage makes for a “methodologically awkward” and “historically shaky critical premise” is a necessary provocation. He reveals how Blackness continues to be contested in South Africa, and how race-based valuations often end up in the arena of cultural cherry-picking. Bessie Head is Black enough to be claimed as an icon, Desmore less so. Is this because we don’t know as much about Desmore’s politics as we do Head’s? Or because we need new ways of reckoning with race complexity in South African art history, without fixating on it? How can we as exhibition-goers, writers, artists and curators avoid prescriptive notions of identity that have contributed to the repression of these artists, and many more? We need new ways to engage with inclusion and exclusion, visibility and obscurity, to avoid nit-picking about who makes the cut.
Here, Tina Campt’s inclusion of Luke Willis Thompson in A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See (2021) is useful. She explains positioning Thompson (a mixed-race New Zealander of Fijian heritage who describes himself as Black, albeit not of the African diaspora) in a place where he is adjacent to (rather than identifies with) the forms of anti-Black violence that his work engages. Campt defines adjacency as:
The reparative work of transforming proximity into accountability; the labour of positioning oneself in relation to another in ways that revalue and redress complex histories of dispossession.
How can we cultivate this kind of adjacency to contribute to the collective resource pool of knowledge about these artists, and the countless others still unknown? For one, we can hold museums and galleries accountable to be more inclusive, both in what they show and what they charge. We can also demand a deeper engagement with historic exhibitions. We must insist and motivate for more public events, beyond symposiums, that blend critical engagement with art education. These works ought to be shared outside of the show, as publicly accessible materials that can counter institutional complacency.
The provocations offered by this exhibition are much more than demands for redress. They are testimony to the purposeful exclusions, disavowed narratives and systematic acts of forgetting that have historically constrained Black women artists in South Africa. When Rain Clouds Gather: Black South African Women Artists 1940 – 2000 is merely the tip of the iceberg of more ground-breaking exhibitions, more opportunities to write individual histories and develop conceptual tools to understand the experiences of Black women artists in South Africa, retrospectively and for posterity. Malatjie and Ntombela have built a home for the artists that they care about and for by starting a long-overdue process of repair. Their inviting and consultative research-based approach encourages both critical responses to this work and expansions on it. Much like Bessie Head’s house, that quiet yet powerful place of subversion, where the walls breathed “deep, dark, black peace”, this exhibition accommodates the ambiguity of activism, conflicting notions of value and imaginary futures. The walls of Malatjie and Ntombela’s home are restless, in flux, an ever-expanding site of contestation, critique and epistemic care.
When Rain Clouds Gather: Black South African Women Artists, 1940 – 2000 is on show at Norval Foundation until 9 January 2023 and brings together works by Selina Baloyi, Edith Bukani, Ros Buthelezi, Regina Buthelezi, Dudu Cele, Valerie Desmore, Bongiwe Dhlomo-Mautloa, Patience Dlamini, Emilia, Faiza Galdhari, Josephine Ghesa, Bina Gumede, Francis Halala, Bongi Kasiki, Noria Mabasa, Diana Mabunda, Rosinah Maepa, Esther Mahlangu, Venus Makhubele, Letisa Mashawu, Esther Maswanganyi, Sisanda Mbana, Elizabeth Mbatha, Katherine Mchunu, Gladys Mgudlandlu, Judith Mkhabela, Dinah Molefe, Ruth Motau , Alina Ndebele, Henrie-e Ngako, Rita Ngcobo, Gabisile Nkosi, Bonnie Ntshantshali, Sophie Peters, Helen Sebidi, Alvitha Sooful, Kedibone Sarah Tabane.