Jul 6, 2011
Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art
UnLike any other pubLication, Art in South Africa: The Future Present, focuses on art produced since the historic democratic eLection of April 1994 which put the African NationaL Congress in government and NeLson MandeLa at the heLm of a dramatically changed poLiticaL dispensation. In a sense it foLLows on from WiLLiamson's earLier pubLication, Resistance Art in South Africa which was Launched shortly before MandeLa's reLease in 1990 after his 27 years of imprisonment. The intervening six years have witnessed unprecedented changes in the country's poLiticaL and sociaL systems which in turn have occasioned significant psychic shifts amongst South Africans and presented major chaLLenges in reconstruction and deveLopment. This book takes as its premise the fact that "South African art is in the throes of reimaging itself". One of the distinctive features of South African art has been the prevaLence of socio-poLiticaL concerns in a country where many other forms of comment or opposition were circumscribed. The extent to which artists remain governed by this imperative or claim new Liberties to expLore more personaL issues or more aesthetic concerns is the question articuLated by the authors and is uppermost in the minds of most of us who take a keen interest in this subject. Are there major shifts in South African art? What are the new concerns? How are these being articuLated? Williamson and JamaL attempt to address these questions not through a broad survey as the title rather misLeadingLy suggests, but through consideration of the work of 40 contemporary artists in brief chapters on the artists. The intention of "curatorial guideLine" as Jamal puts it, "has been to consider artists who express durabLe questions". UndoubtedLy, some wiLL quibbLe with their seLection but, on the whoLe, it is fair and courageous, despite some surprising omissions. The major names are there, including artists who have made a name for themselves internationaLLy, such as Jane ALexander, WiLLiam Kentridge, David KoLoane, Kendell Geers, Joachim SchonfeLdt, MaLcolm Payne, Penny Siopis, Gavin Yonge, Willie Bester, WiLLem Boshoff and Sue WiLLiamson. Also included are the young (and not so young) turks who are estabLishing reputations nationally and internationally including Stephen Hobbs, SandiLe ZuLu, Jo Ratcliffe, Wayne Barker, Brett Murray, Moshekwa Langa, Lisa Brice, Jean Brundrit, Minette Vari, Hentie van der Merwe, Veronique MaLherbe, arid BeLinda BLignaut. The authors' commitment to promoting emerging artists is demonstrated through the inclusion of young artists Like Bridget Baker who onLy recentLy had her first exhibition. The inclusion, however, of artists known beyond Cape Town might cause certain readers to question whether there isn't a bias toward the artists of this city. The most striking feature of the book is its handsome production and design with excellent illustrations lavishly produced in fuLL coLor. Given the paucity of pubLications on South African art this is a rare visuaL treat. Not only are Local works increasingLy Leaving the country for foreign markets but many of the iLLustrations document instaLLations or performance-based works which even the most ardent followers of LocaL trends wiLL not have been abLe to witness. Amongst the most breathtakingLy beautifuL of these must sureLy be Clive van der Berg's fire drawings on mine dumps in Johannesburg and his message to the ArchangeL GabrieL written in fire on a Durban beach. Also featured are works from some of the most chaLLenging exhibitions to date which include "Scurvy" and "FauLt Line: Inquiries into Truth and Reconciliation" both staged at the Cape Town CastLe as welL as exhibitions which formed part of the Johannesburg BiennaLe in 1995. The writing styLe is informaL and accessibLe, if somewhat florid in parts. But the rigor of the art historian is absent. Thus, of Robert Hodgins' painting Madhouse with View ofTyburn we Learn onLy that Hodgins focuses on the challenge of getting "oranges right against those funny greens" (as the artist puts it). There is no mention of the fact that from the tweLfth to eighteenth centuries Tyburn (near present day MarbLe Arch in London) was the site of pubLic executions for which tickets were soLd at a high price. Given Hodgins' aversion to the faciLe reduction of South African art to the poLiticaL, the authors can perhaps be forgiven for not drawing paraLLels between the pubLic spectacle of the gallows at Tyburn and the wideLy teLevised proceedings of the Truth and ReconciLiation Commission but providing such information might assist the readers in drawing their own conclusions. The authors have generousLy aLLowed the artists to speak for themseLves which, on the whoLe, affords the reader invaLuabLe insights into the artist's concerns and working methods. In some cases, however, the resuLting comments are opaque or even pedestrian. One of the drawbacks is the very brief introductions by each of the authors. Readers couLd have benefited here from a Lengthier, more discursive introduction to map the broader theoreticaL domain, contextuaLize the artists under discussion and perhaps refer to some of the many artists omitted. The book concludes rather abruptly in the aLL too brief section on RandoLph Hatzenberg with the statement that "one Leaves Hartzenberg's saLt theater as one Leaves the Venice instaLLation and his Domestic Baggage paintings with "recurring questions". WhiLe this book wiLL aLso Leave readers with recurring questions, it wiLL undoubtedLy provide insights into contemporary South African art and whet appetites for more.