View Exhibition .....
The Neglected Tradition: Towards a New History of South African Art (1930 - 1988)
edited by Steven Sack
Publish by Johannesburg Art Gallery
In 1987 when I was first approached by Christopher Till of the Johannesburg Art Gallery to curate an exhibition of art by 'black South Africans, I spent much time consulting artists, educators and members of community-based organizations to establish whether such an exhibition was indeed necessary or viable. There were some misgivings about separating a particular racial group, however, in virtually all cases, the idea was positively received because it was felt that the basic research needed to be done before an integrated history of South African art could be written.
As I began the preliminary research for the exhibition, the significant gaps in museum collections with regard to representation of art by black South Africans became apparent. I became painfully aware of how insubstantial, unreliable and frequently conflicting the available written information is. I also discovered how much work has left the country. It quickly became obvious that while some progress towards researching and writing about black artists could be made, this would only be a first step. While I have included work by 100 artists in the exhibition, I am certain that future research will reveal artists whose work and influence has been overlooked. This exhibition and accompanying catalogue then, with the essay, list of works on exhibition; biographies and bibliography (all of which may contain inaccuracies and omissions) should be seen as a resource, a departure for further detailed research that will hopefully yield a more balanced and comprehensive history of South African art. I also hope that this exhibition will serve as a catalyst for re-examining prevailing notions of the nature of 'black art' and indeed the very definitions of art, which have in many cases been, adopted unquestioningly from Western art traditions.
Anyone who has consulted the written histories on South African art will know how little information there is on the art of black South Africans. And yet these artists have been recognised and known by their own communities and by art lovers in South Africa and abroad. It is in the ' official ' histories and art museums that this art has not been fully represented. It is for this reason that the exhibition has been titled: The Neglected Tradition.
In the need to reassess this history one is compelled to make crucial decisions. Does one write about black art as a separate category or does one insert it into the 'mainstream'? Should it be displayed separately or incorporated, without concern for racial categories, simply in terms of artistic categories? The inclusion of certain white artists on this exhibition is based on their integral relationships with the historical development of black South African art. They are also chosen because of the shared relationships in which they have been involved that have taken place across the boundaries of apartheid. Regarding black art as a separate descriptive category simply does not acknowledge the complexity and variety, as well as the degree, of cultural interchange that takes place. Jabulani Ntuli is a topographical artist and Gerard Bhengu and George Pemba have produced a large body of illustrative work; Koloane and Ainslie, Maqhubela and Cattaneo, Villa and Kumalo, Sibiya and Skotnes, Shilakoe and Rakgoathe, Qwabe and Muafangejo: there are too many parallels and reciprocities for the history of black art to be seen as a separate category of art. Many connections must be drawn - towards a new history of South African art.
The 1930s have been chosen as a starting point because this was a period in which important changes began to take place in the production and sale of black South African art. In this period the pioneers of a contemporary tradition arose: a meeting between two cultures; changes in patronage; changes in material and social conditions; new educational influences - these are the issues that are explored in this essay.
I started out intending to look at fine art produced by black South African artists. The black fine art tradition has commonly been identified as beginning with Sekoto. The challenge was to uncover the tradition that predates Sekoto. I went on to establish that in fact a number of earlier figures dating from the 1930s have been ignored, in particular John Koenakeefe Mohl and Ernest Mancoba who both predate Sekoto. But, in addition, I found myself looking at folk art, ecclesiastical art, curio art, commercial fine art, and craft (made possible to a significant extent through time spent in the Killie Campbell Africana Library, in Durban).
Finally the essay sets out to explore some aspects of the forces-economic, political, religious, educational and personal - that underpin the artworks on the exhibition.
The fact that the artists in this exhibition represent a largely 'neglected tradition' was nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the effort to compile a reasonably accurate and complete set of biographies. In the first instance, no detailed biographical survey of this important group has been attempted before .... READ MORE