political background of South Africa
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political background of South Africa
In order to understand contemporary art in South Africa, the political background of South Africa must first be understood. When Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president in 1994, apartheid officially ended. Yet because apartheid controlled the lives of black people so extensively, the end of apartheid did not result in the end of oppression or racial segregation. Although racial segregation and oppression were no longer legal, the ideas, beliefs, and practices of apartheid had been so deeply ingrained in South Africans, both white and black, that Apartheid did not simply disappear with the pronouncement of its legal demise. This is why, even after the apartheid regime ended, South African artists continued to produce work which dealt with elements of the old system of government.
Even though apartheid had existed for centuries, South African artists have not always focused on apartheid and themes of oppression and injustice in their work. One of the earliest and most influential traditions in South African art is the rock art paintings and engravings by the Sans people. Rock art often depicted landscape and people and incorporated geometric elements, and this tradition is still influential in some contemporary art in South Africa.
Another tradition in South African art began during the colonial era with the arrival of the Dutch settlers in 1652. As the Dutch expanded their settlement in South Africa, they increasingly imposed Western culture on the native South Africans, which affected art traditions. Before long, art was seen as a method of recording daily happenings in South Africa for the colonial masters, claiming that their work depicted everyday life in South Africa.
With colonialism drawing to a close at the end of the 19th century, South African artists began making works of art that illustrated the true realities of life in South Africa. The two most influential artists at the time were Jan Volschenk (1853-1936) and Hugo Naude (1869-1941). Volschenk was a self-taught painter of landscapes, and his work is often described as primitive. Naude on the other hand left South Africa to study art in London. When he returned to South Africa, Naude intially intended to be a portrait painter, but found himself very drawn to the outdoors and painting landscapes. Volschenk and Naude were considered the first native South African professional painters.
Following in the footsteps of Volschenk and Naude, South African artists soon began to look to art as a way to communicate ideas and experiences. “The orientation of local paintings had begun to shift from perceptual description of the landscape to the mechanics of visual expression and the search for personally valid methods of communicating experiences.” (accessed at http://www.panafricanartists.org/overcomingmaps3/south_african_art_en.htm) South African artists were now dedicated to modern art and they promoted the idea that art can be more than the romantic picture-postcards the the community of South Africa was used to seeing. Because of this new perspective of art, South Africa was invited to the Venice Biennial in 1950 and the Sao Paul Biennial in 1957.
During the 1960s and 1970s, South African art became more significant and influential. In the 1960s, some South African artists started realizing that the nature of their identity as South Africans had never been explored through the medium of art. In 1963, these artists formed the Amadlozi group, and the intention of this group was “to strip Africa of its mystique and to come to grips with the un-romanticized reality.” (accessed at http://www.panafricanartists.org/overcomingmaps3/south_african_art_en.htm) The Amadlozi group included artists such as Cecil Skotnes (1926-) and Sidney Kumalo (1935-). These artists emphasized the concept of “Africanism” in their artwork for the first time in the history of South African art. Beginning in the 1970s, the work of some black South African artists and white South African artists began to merge as both groups focused on similar content in their work. Although some black South Africans were still interested in pursuing the exploration of the African style, white South African artists and several black South African artists were now using art as a way to express their joint social concerns about Apartheid. And by the 1980s, South Africa was fully immersed in the most important tradition in South African art – contemporary art.
Apartheid was a “social and political policy of racial segregation and discrimination enforced by white minority governments in South Africa from 1948 to 1994.” Apartheid actually originated during the colonial period, but when it became the legal structure in 1948, it “systematically expanded and enforced the privileges of white South Africans…at the expense of the black majority… black people – a group that included Africans, coloureds, and Indians – lived in an essentially totalitarian and dehumanizing environment in which their every move was restricted…and they were reminded daily, in big ways and little, of their relative powerlessness.”
Because apartheid created racial divides in society in general, mainly the separation between whites and blacks, this separation affected all aspects of society and culture, including the visual arts. Although the two groups sometimes intermingled and even made work the addressed similar ideas, the culture of contemporary black South African art was separated from the culture of contemporary white South African art. Fortunately, this split within the contemporary art scene in South Africa did not discourage black artists from making art.
In the late 1960s, the first group of professional black South African artists, known as the Polly Street Group, began making their way to the forefront of the local art scene. The Polly Street Group acquired their name because the artists were using a hall in Polly Street Recreational Centre as an art workshop. Many of the artists in the Polly Street Group focused on the use of vibrant color and energetic movement within their compositions, and the most common media included watercolors, pastels, and oils. Due to the apartheid regime, the Art Centre was closed in 1960 because many people did not want black people to have access to cultural facilities in the cities.
As groups and schools of black South African artists were emerging across the country, there were also several individuals that were very successful in their own right. Dumile Feni (1939-1991) first began making art in the 1960s, working as a painter and sculptor with no formal art training. Like many black South African artists at the time, Feni work addressed issues related to apartheid, oppression, poverty, and township life. Feni used symbolism and imagery that illustrated destructive life experiences because of apartheid until his death in 1991.
Besides Feni, there were several other influential and revolutionary black South African artists working at the time. Lucas Seage (1957-) was one of the first South African artists to use recycled materials in his work; Jackson Hlungwani (1923-) was one of the first South African artist to create art that was site-specific. Willie Bester (1956-) has been described as the “doyen of assemblage,” combining photo collage, machinery, debris, and painting into his artwork. Feni, Seage, Hlungwani, and Bester were all focusing on social concerns in their art, which was typical of many black South African artists both during and after apartheid.
Just as there are several black South Africans making artwork related to and protesting against apartheid, there are also many white South African focusing on the same issues in their work. Beginning in the 1970s, white artists joined their black colleagues in the fight against the apartheid regime and used their artwork as a medium by which to illustrate their objections. While there are a handful of contemporary white South African artists that do not specifically focus on apartheid, most white artists in South Africa include political and social aspects of life in South Africa in their art. Some internationally acclaimed contemporary artists who emphasize social, political, and historical concerns of South Africa include Jane Alexander (1959-), Guy Tillim (1962-), Minnette Vari (1968-), Penny Siopis (1953-), and William Kentridge (1955-).
Contemporary artists David Goldblatt (1930-) and Sue Williamson (1941-) both use their art as an instrument to protest the apartheid system. Goldblatt and Williamson focus on aspects of apartheid, and the general culture of South Africa that are often forgotten, overlooked, ignored, or suppressed. David Goldblatt has been one of the key artists in South Africa for over five decades, depicting the social and political situation of the country through photography. Until 1999, when he made the shift to color photography, Goldblatt worked solely in black-and-white, using the medium of photography to portray the landscape and the people of South Africa, emphasizing the grave effects of apartheid. Goldblatt’s photographs tackle the political and social issues of South Africa in a manner that is simplistic yet extensive. Another contemporary white South African artist who has worked in the medium of photography is Sue Williamson. After emigrating from London to South Africa at the age of seven, Williamson began her career as an artist in the 1980s working in a variety of media including photography, installation, and printmaking. Similarly to Goldblatt, Williamson addresses political, social, and historical concerns of the South African society, focusing on memories of South Africa under the apartheid regime.
With the end of apartheid fifteen years ago, South Africa still faces many challenges and systematic injustice. The feelings and experiences regarding the political and social situation of South Africa are expressed in the work of contemporary black and white artists. Working in a variety of media, including printmaking, painting, photography, and installation, contemporary South African artists continue to fight for equality in their country through their artwork.
“I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending – an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.”
“Certainly politics has always been on my mind, politics in the broadest sense. The Transported of KwaNdebele, was certainly the most explicitly political, while In Boksburg was a more oblique and muted engagement with politics. In all of the work I have done though I have been engaged with the consequences of our actions and of our values.”
“My brand of idealism, that had its roots in the time I started photographing in South Africa during the apartheid years of the 1980s, has dimmed. There was right and wrong, it seemed clear to me on which side I stood. One would forego, what I might now call subtlety, for the sake of making a statement about injustice. The world’s press set the tone and timbre of the reportage it would receive, and I for one was bought by it. Perhaps that is why I now look for ways to glimpse other worlds, which I attempt to enter for a while. But one cannot live them all, and usually I am left with a keen sense of my own dislocation.”
“In my recent work I use ‘found’ objects including found film. I am particularly interested in the things people leave behind by force of circumstance; things which embody very specific memories and experiences, yet have wider social and cultural resonance. These objects are complex subjective traces of emotional investment not always easily expressed. Being ‘found’ and often made and treasured for intimate and private reasons, these objects are emblematic of a merging of private and public worlds.”
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