Text by Yolanda de Kock

Learning through art: The Museum as classroom is an annual exhibition hosted at Oliewenhuis Art Museum. This exhibition aims to serve as a platform for school learners, educators and art enthusiasts to appreciate artworks and important genres discussed in the Grade 10 – 12 Visual Art Curriculums.

Artworks from the Oliewenhuis Art Museum’s Permanent Collection were handpicked to optimise the learning experience for the learners as they have the luxury to view works in the museum and not only from the handbook. The selection of artworks portrays a vibrant South African art historical narrative.

Art and politics will always have a strong relationship. The exhibition explores how prolific South African artists visualised historical, political and social backgrounds, evident in the art they produced. These ideologies are evident throughout different timeframes of art making. The early twentieth century saw the emergence of the first generation of modern black artists in South Africa. It is noticeable that from the earliest art-making in South Africa (as early as the 1900s), art has been influenced by political undertones, whether by tumultuous political events or artists just trying to exhibit their work in art galleries.

Preference was given to white 20th century masters in museum collections that thrived on colonialist influences in these museums’ founding collections. The absence of the work of black artists, or the art of any other race, is evident in museum collections today. Unfortunately, this is the aftermath of colonialism, apartheid, and white supremacy.

In the Grade 12 Visual Arts Curriculum textbook these historical complicities are underscored and discussed. It is imperative that a focus and understanding of South Africa’s complicated history should be recognised and acknowledged, in exchange for understanding the present and our future. Unfortunately, our earlier resistance artists did not have the luxury of voicing themselves entirely without disruption due to apartheid restrictions. For that reason, the works of Julian Motau, Dumile Feni, and Ezrom Legae are extremely important. These artists recorded their surroundings with very little resources and training.  They were the leading resistance artists from as early as the 1960s. The work of these artists reflects their daily struggles; poverty, malnutrition, displacement, and, ultimately, the brutal, dangerous, and inhumane circumstances they lived in.

These artists were infuriated by their inescapable plight. Their work resembles a unique African modernism and today is immensely sought after in public and private collections. Dumile Feni, also referred to as the ‘Goya of the township’ is a pioneer example of this timeframe.  Feni did not shy away from showcasing the crude environment in which he lived. His artworks and chosen subject matter clearly show his frustrations by merging people and humans in his drawings, gruesome depictions of death and poverty. Anitra Nettleton noted that “most of Dumile’s pre-exile works transcend narrow racial and class-bound interpretations. In South Africa Dumile worked with a set of formal devices very reminiscent of early twentieth century European Expressionists reinterpretations of ‘primitive’ art… In these drawings he developed a vocabulary of distortions of the human anatomy, working within a framework that exploits visual deviations from the ‘norm’ of human anatomy and spatial organisation as psychologically and somatically disturbing phenomena” (2011: 15-17).

Resistance Art as a theme is underlined and emphasised within the Visual Arts Curriculum. Our leading artists, such as Dumile Feni and Julian Motau, set a sturdy foundation for the contemporary artists who delve into the same genre of Resistance Art today.  Manfred Zylla, Willie Bester, Norman Catherine, Penny Siopis and Pat Mautloa  work within this genre.

These artists took the theme further and kept on pointing out the inequalities of the world, its socio-political matters, and continue creating art that is candid about society. In their overview of Resistance Art in South Africa, (Louw, E. & Beukes, M. and Van Wyk, L.2013) these researchers pointed out that “The Soweto uprising of 1976 sparked a new commitment by many artists to moral and political responsibility with the belief that art had a conscious role to play under conditions of oppression in South Africa. An increasing number of artists, both black and white, began to see art as a means of portraying their view of political and social issues in South Africa and art became a way to voice the injustices in South African society” (2013: 113).

The 1980s was a particularly turbulent political time in South Africa. In this era Manfred Zylla became a prominent artist. He was highly critical of apartheid. The era of Resistance Art drew closer to 1994, but Zylla continued to work within this paradigm of social change. In his book, Manfred Zylla: Art and Resistance (2012) he explains that he grew up in Germany, living through the ravages of World War II and its aftermath. Zylla has created works concerned with globalisation, pollution, global warming capitalism and crime.

: Manfred Zylla, 2011, Hungry for Dollars, Mixed Media. Photo Credit: Oliewenhuis Art Museum’s Archive. Oliewenhuis Art Museum Permanent Collection

Gender politics are an important part of the Visual Art Curriculum. Gender inequality and gender-based violence are ongoing and brutal reality. There is an ongoing genocide against women, children and the LGBTIQA+ community. The works of female artists that are shown in this exhibition points out gender disparity and racial divide. These themes are evident with the art of Penny Siopis, Diane Victor and Nandipha Mntambo.

Nandipha Mntambo, 2012, Chimera, Cowhide, resin, polyester and mesh. Photo Credit: Kobus Robbertze. Oliewenhuis Art Museum Permanent Collection. In the background are the works of Diane Victor, Nomusa Makhubu, Pat Mautloa and Norman Catherine.

Chimera (2012) is an artwork produced by Nandipha Mntambo, created with cowhide as a medium. The hairy skin in female form is used, Mntambo says, to ‘challenge and subvert preconceptions regarding the representation of the female body’ and to ‘disrupt perceptions of attraction and repulsion’.  The artist is also interested in how the human figure merges into animal, and that we tend to forget that “we are all animals as well”.  Choosing to work with cowhide, her work is automatically linked with African rituals and traditions. However, Mntambo states that “Cowhide is the material I have chosen as a means of expression. It is a product of my artistic thinking. I wanted to be a forensic pathologist and I really love chemicals and understanding the chemical process… I don’t know if that is the only reason, but my beginning of using cowhide was a very private, strangely spiritual experience of having a dream I cannot really remember. But I do remember there were cows in the dream. This is why I chose the material. I enjoy exploring how a chemical process can give me a certain amount of control over this organic material” (Simbao 2011: 15).

Learning through art: The Museum as a classroom showcases the work of artists that are debating, dialoguing, and resisting.  As Marilyn Martin stated, “it is our own task to rewrite our own history and to develop a hybridized canon on our own terms” (1996: 15).

The exhibition can be viewed from 22 June until 20 August 2023. Oliewenhuis Art Museum is located at 16 Harry Smith Street, Bloemfontein. It is open to the public from Monday to Friday between 08:00 and 17:00, and on Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays between 09:00 and 16:00. A R10 parking fee will be charged but entrance to the museum is free. For more information on Oliewenhuis Art Museum please contact the Museum at 051 011 0525 (ext 200) or oliewen@nasmus.co.za. Stay up to date by following Oliewenhuis Art Museum on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for all upcoming exhibitions and events.

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