By Ashraf Jamal


What does the art of a nation look like? What can or must it tell us about our story? Does that story, or meaning, occupy the artwork like an explicable nugget? Which stage in a country’s history are we collecting – Its present? Recent past? Or, are we travelling much further back in time, 77000 years, say, to the early cave engravings? Whatever the focus, which can be as purposefully historical as it can be quirkily unique to the collector, nevertheless will signify – tell a story.

What interests me is the contemporary moment in South Africa, the art of the recent past, and what it tells us about our nation’s vision and purpose. It is certainly easier, with hindsight, to know the past than to anticipate our future. False prophets abound, but, in truth, for all our optimistic hopes and plans, no one can ratify the future with any degree of certainty. To speak of art collection and curation as a signifier, therefore, is to do so speculatively. We cannot speak in a single breath of this contemporary moment and its impact on the future. Such a presumption is impossible to fortify.

There is a riddle which asks – What is always coming, but never arrives? The answer to this riddle is – Tomorrow – ever portentous, never graspable, because we are only ever, and always, living in a shifting present tense. And yet, art, while contemporary, can sustain a greater bandwidth than the period in which it is made and initially shown. Life is short, art is long, the saying goes. This salutary reminder of our mortality, is also one which acknowledges the endurance of what we create, whether collectively or singularly.

South African art is of course very diverse, given the fact that the country’s origins connect a continent to two oceans, and, as such, is transcultural and transcontinental. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s vision of the Rainbow Nation is premised on this great diversity. As a vision the Rainbow Nation is the epitome of celebration and hope, a belief in unity after a divisive history under colonialism and apartheid. Sadly, it is typical, these days, to consider this vision in tatters – a grim reminder that we cannot consolidate our hope, suppose any definite future. Another typical, and reasonable supposition, is that over the past thirty years we have neglected to attend to the needs – whether of people or systems – and, as such, arrived at a societal and infrastructural collapse. In such a context, art assumes a rarefied significance, despite that fact that it is a democratic instinct and taste, which all of us, given the time and opportunity, can embrace.

Against the rarefaction of art, against its privileged status, I wish to consider art in the public domain. If museums remain immensely significant, despite their current neglect – the Tatham in Pietermaritzburg or Johannesburg Art Gallery – it is because they are the reservoirs of a national treasure. There are also privately owned museums, dedicated to the public, such as The Norval Foundation and Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, which are designed to answer the questions-urgencies-emotions of our times. The solo shows of work by Berni Searle and Maggie Laubscher at Norval, for example, consider the fate, rites and rights of woman artists, of different generations and ethnicities. This focus is in keeping with a global concern with the place of woman artists in history, with a revisionist call to rethink the art historical canon, as well as its museological management – greater diversity in the workplace.

Across the world – despite the rise in demagoguery and neo-fascistic systems of governance – we have witnessed a heightened attention to the needs of those who have been disenfranchised. South Africa is no different in this regard. If The Norval Foundation is especially exemplary in this regard, it is because it chooses a deep-dive, to focus on individually helmed shows that allow us the opportunity to embrace the greater spectrum of an individual artist’s work. Berni Searle’s focus on ‘colouredness’, the volatility of a fixed identity, the place of the indigenous and exogenous, local and trans-local, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, migration, indenture, the African diaspora, are clear pointers to an international consciousness, in which colonialism has a crucial role to play, one that is not only oppressive. Searle’s multimedia works, her strident yet flexible self-identification, allows for a personal in-road for the audience. As such, the exhibition is enabling, inviting, tender. The same, for very different reasons, can be said of the Maggie Laubscher show. Here, it is largely painted portraits that we see. The colour palette is bold, inspired by the Fauvists and German Expressionist movements, which refuted the literality of what is conventionally seen. Colours triggered heightened subjectivity. It is this more personal touch – bold lines, blocking, colours – which give us a more personal sense of the artist’s vision.

One cannot discount the immense importance of art – notwithstanding infrastructural collapse and the neglect of certain museums – in the understanding of our society. In this regard I wish also to consider the curatorial vision of ArtBankSA. Its remit is more capacious, more eclectically inclusive. Here the vision hinges on a great bandwidth, a focus on emergent artists, and the ability to convey the enormous diversity of a nation. Based in Bloemfontein, Oliewenhuis its core museological arm, the resource is also dedicated to sharing its holdings nationally and internationally, for to showcase South African art requires not only its collection but its visibility.

A forthcoming show celebrating Woman’s Day – ‘She wears many hats’ – captures the eclectic mix which informs the ArtBankSA collection. It is not only the wide range of materials used by artists, but also their formal diversity, the complexity of their influences, which underscore our understanding. For any visitor, whether local or foreign, it is this range of vision and emotion that is striking. Consider Vuvisile Adoons’ oil on canvas, ‘Oom Klaas’ (2020), in which we see an elderly man collecting water. Certainly, we are reminded that water is scarce, and, far more than electricity, vital for human survival. In this oil on canvas, however, it is dignity that is celebrated, and humility – access is never simple, value precarious. In Mandisa Buthelezi’s photograph, ‘Maidens of the Nazreth Baptist Church’ (2019), it is not only faith we embrace, but photographic abstraction – the vision is stylized, youthful, edgily beautiful. Nhlanhla Chonco’s mixed media painting of an accordion player (2019), is more a vibrant sketch than a painstakingly considered appraisal, and, as such, noteworthy for its dynamism and its consecration of street art. Zakhele Hlabisa’s 2018 acrylic portraits of Mama Albert Sisulu and O R Tambo (2018), are commemorative historical records, and yet, they also express the painter’s personal touch. Thalente Khomo’s photographs are modishly experimental, Collen Maswangany’s relief sculptures made of wood, cork and acrylic, similarly stylized. Or, Thabo Elton Motseli’s elegiac linocut portraits (2020) and Irvin Nlewanyana’s ‘Blindness’ and ‘Voiceless’, resin and bronze casts (2020). While Sphephelo Muguni’s mixed media works hark back to the great painters of yore, his ‘Same Trolley’ and ‘African Roses’, dynamically pictorial.

Unlike the Norval exhibitions I’ve discussed, dedicated to soloists, the ArtBankSA collection is a hugely fertile resource for any curator, locally or globally. The very few artists I’ve mentioned, oftentimes not widely known, are the triggers for a more soulful revisioning of the South African story – one which embraces both the rural and urban contexts, the stories of people from all walks of life. As pictures, put simply, they tell us about the rich complexity of our world – what we see, how we see it. What the ArtBankSA collection succeeds best in achieving, is a resistance to convention and solidification. There is a great openness of vision, a tolerance and a love that encapsulates the spirit embodied in Albie Sachs’s seminal essay, ‘Preparing ourselves for Freedom’. In short, despite the hardships we are currently experiencing, ArtBankSA has chosen to maintain a heightened optimism – against all odds. Here, I am reminded of the spirit of Pablo Neruda’s poem, ‘Spring is Rebellious’, which, during the early years of our emerging democracy, inspired our quest for cultural freedom:


Life transcends all structures, and there are new

rules of conduct for the soul. The seed sprouts

anywhere; all ideas are exotic; we wait for

enormous changes every day; we live through

the mutation of human order avidly; spring is


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