Hidden voices: art and the erasure of memory in post-apartheid South Africa

  • Posted on April 24, 2013


Panel discussion E-vite  Panel discussion E-vite

Why have some artistic voices remained hidden after the end of apartheid in 1994? This was the topic at a panel discussion at Iziko South African National Gallery (Iziko SANG) in which I participated, along with artists Vuyile Voyiya and Dathini Mzayiya, and art historian Julie McGee. Held on 16 February 2013, the discussion was hosted by Iziko Museums of Cape Town and the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR), University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the panel was chaired by Heidi Grunebaum, Senior Researcher at the CHR. What prompted the discussion on hidden voices in the present in particular was ‘Uncontained: Opening the Community Arts Project Archive’, an exhibition of once marginalised art at Iziko SANG by mainly black artists.*

Panel discussion on why some artistic voices have remained hidden after the end of apartheid in 1994, Iziko South African National Gallery, 16 February 2013. Left to right: Heidi Grunebaum (chairperson), Julie McGee, Dathini Mzayiya, Vuyile Voyiya and Emile Maurice. Photo: Carina Beyer Panel discussion on why some artistic voices have remained hidden after the end of apartheid in 1994, Iziko South African National Gallery, 16 February 2013. Left to right: Heidi Grunebaum (chairperson), Julie McGee, Dathini Mzayiya, Vuyile Voyiya and Emile Maurice. Photo: Carina Beyer

What the debate around hidden artistic voices in the present asks us in the first place to is take into account the virtual exclusion of black artists by the art establishment from the South African art canon under colonialism and apartheid. It then asks us to address whether this legacy persists in the post-apartheid present and, if so, why this is so.

In spite of my misgivings about, and disillusionment with, post-apartheid South Africa because it is so wracked by social and economic depravation – South Africa is an unfinished revolution – I am not one to believe that nothing has changed over the last few decades, not least on the cultural front. Some curators have in fact been deconstructing the white art canon through exhibitions and accompanying texts dealing with the black artistic voice since the 1980s. The first of these exhibitions was Ricky Burnett’s ‘Tributaries’ from 1985, followed by ‘The Neglected Tradition: towards a new history of South African art (1930-1988)’, curated by Steven Sack for the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) in 1988. Other examples of exhibitions in the re-writing history mould are Hayden Proud’s ‘George Pemba Retrospective’ (Iziko SANG, 1996), Clive Kelner’s ‘Thami Mnyele & Medu Arts Ensemble Retrospective’ (JAG, 2009) and Marilyn Martin’s ‘A Vigil of Departure: Louis Khehla Maqhubela 1960 – 2010’ (Iziko SANG and Standard Bank Gallery, 2010). By addressing black exclusion, all of these shows have contributed hugely to opening up the story of South African art in the 20th century.   


Henry De Leeuw, untitled, 1987. Linocut. 41.9 x 30.2 cm. Collection: Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape
Henry De Leeuw, untitled, 1987. Linocut. 41.9 x 30.2 cm. Collection: Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape

This, of course, is not to say that there isn’t still much work to be done to draw the black art archive into the mainstream. There is in fact still a long road to travel if we are to give real substance and meaning to cultural restitution in the aftermath of colonialism and apartheid. Numerous artists still await proper recognition and credit for their contributions to the story of South African art through exhibitions and texts by curators at art museums. The list seems endless – Billy Mandindi, Mario Sickle, Mpathi Gocini, Henry De Leeuw and Dathini Mzayiya, to name only some of those who were associated with the Community Arts Project (CAP). Then there is also Percy Sedumedi, who taught sculpture at CAP in the late 1970s, and who showed with Fikile and others at the height of the Soweto Uprising of 1976. Writing about Sedumedi on his passing in 2007, Terry Grove, with whom the artist stayed in Silvertown, Cape Town, has this to say: “Why must great artists who have contributed so much die unsung and largely unrecognised? What is wrong with this new South Africa that we cannot honour such courageous and visionary figures?”   

Grove’s picture of contemporary South Africa is that of an uncaring and negligent society in respect of its black artists. I think he is right to a large extent, but before exploring what makes us such, however, we need to give credit to those curators who, since the 1980s, have done such great work in regard to cultural restitution, like Burnett, Proud, Kelner, Martin, and also Elza Miles, another major player in the quest to recover the black artistic voice through exhibitions and books/catalogues.


What strikes me in the first place about these curators who have done such sterling work is that they are all white, which, of course, is a reflection on who has controlled the circulation of knowledge about black art. But what is also important about these white curators is that they are all older generation figures who lived through the apartheid era. What bothers me here is this: what will become of re-writing art history when this generation of curators is no longer around? Will it mean the death of drawing marginalised black artists into the mainstream? 


By contrast to the work of some older generation curators, it is problematic that I can only think of one new generation curator working in the field of recovering history in respect of the black voice, although I am not entirely familiar with the entire curatorial landscape in today’s South Africa. This curator is Nontobeko Ntombela, whose 2012 exhibition at JAG, ‘A Fragile Archive’, explored the representation and positioning in history of some self-taught black women artists, such Gladys Mgudlandlu and Valerie Desmore. Apart from Ntombela every other young curator I know about seems more interested in contemporary art – today’s cutting-edge video, installation and experimental work – rather than in securing a place for the marginalised artistic black voice in the present and expanding the South African art canon.   


The point here is that without a strong consciousness about the past and its importance for informing the present, we will never win “the struggle of memory against forgetting,” in the often-quoted words of Milan Kundera. The problem is that the more we move further away from our apartheid past, the more disinterest in the past and amnesia takes over. This is not only because apartheid is beyond the lived experience of the younger generation, and therefore not of particular concern to young people, but also because the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a state strategy to close the book on the past – to forget about apartheid iniquity and move on. The result, in all probability, is that, as new generation curators take over the reigns in art museums, the many marginalised black voices in the visual arts will continue to languish in obscurity.


Billy Mandindi, ‘Cape of Storms’, 1988. Linocut. 38 x 26.5 cm. Collection: Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape Billy Mandindi, ‘Cape of Storms’, 1988. Linocut. 38 x 26.5 cm. Collection: Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape

What we need to do, it seems to me, is to strengthen the idea that cultural memory is important and vital for building a nation through curatorial programmes that train curators, not just as curators, but as visual historians. Why, I must ask, are no curators as visual historians – as far as I know anyway – coming out of a programme like the African Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies, run by Robben Island Museum and UWC? When I checked the programme’s website, this is what I found: “Do you want to be involved in changing the way Africa is depicted through its heritage agencies, monuments, museums and tourism agencies? If you do, this creative and exciting programme is for you.” Now that sounds pretty inviting, and yes, of course, the work to build a post-colonial African identity is ongoing. But why have I not seen a single exhibition that deals with the issue of refiguring the South African art archive by a graduate of the programme? Something’s wrong here.

Just as the exhibition landscape has transformed, thanks to the work of a handful of older generation white curators, so have public art collections, like those of Iziko SANG and JAG. Today these collections are a far cry from the days when they reflected Eurocentric biases and the master race, or ‘herrenvolk’, ideology of colonialism and apartheid as many black artistic voices are represented in these archives. So when Hayden Proud, Curator of Historical Painting and Sculpture at Iziko, writes that “SANG has been successful in making inroads towards addressing the huge backlog of marginalised art histories in South Africa,” he is correct. Yet many of the works by black artists acquired by Iziko SANG in its quest to create a more representative and egalitarian collection are rarely shown on exhibitions, if at all. I’m thinking in particular of those by artists associated with CAP, like Sophie Peters, Velile Soha, Patrick Holo, Vuyile Voyiya, Lionel Davis, Vuyisani Mgijima and Billy Mandindi.


What this suggests to me in the first place is that curators at Iziko SANG are not sufficiently rotating works from the museum’s collection for use in exhibitions and seem to be over-reliant on exhibiting the more iconic works from its archive, such as Jane Alexander’s ‘The Butcher Boys’ (1985/86). There also seems to be an over-dependence on exhibitions by outside curators.


We have the same syndrome at the UWC-RIM Mayibuye Archives, which also has a good sample of works by artists who trained at CAP, such as Vuyisani Mgijima and Mpathi Gocini, but which are never shown on exhibitions. The Mayibuye Archives employs quite a few archivists but, as far as I know, not a single curator. Nor is there a formal post for a curator at UWC, which has a substantial collection of artworks. What generally seems to be the case, and this is crucial, is that, while we are mindful of the need to build archives, we are far less concerned with using them to produce knowledge for the public through exhibitions. Put quite simply, an archive that is not used to manufacture knowledge for public consumption is a dead archive. Unless we alter our mind set in this respect, many black artists will continue to remain hidden. 


Another circumstance keeping the black artistic voice hidden is the state’s inadequate provision of funding to Iziko. The state’s deficient financial support to Iziko was in fact mentioned in the museum’s 2004/5 annual report, which referred to the need to “address the under-funding of Iziko by Government” through individual, corporate and donor sponsorships. Because Iziko is under-funded, only a relatively small proportion of its global budget is allocated to Iziko SANG, the nation’s art museum, for acquisitions. Without proper funding, Iziko SANG will simply not be able to address the backlog in respect of recouping marginalised voices.


In 2007 Iziko SANG’s frustration with inadequate funding for acquisitions led to the exhibition, ‘Why Collect?’, curated by Hayden Proud. Here one strategy was to hang empty picture frames on the walls to highlight the notable gaps in the Iziko SANG collection. Another was to quote facts and figures related to state spending in other sectors in comparison to that set aside for growing the art estate. According to the exhibition, R52 billion was spent on the Arms Deal and R13.3 billion in 2007 on the 2010 Soccer World Cup. But only a paltry R141,000.00 was allocated to Iziko SANG to purchase works of art in 2006.


In 2009/10 Iziko SANG’s budget for acquisitions budget was R300,000. In the following year it increased to R400,000, reaching R450,000 in 2011/12, after new Director of Art Collections at Iziko, Riason Naidoo, appealed to the museum’s executive for more funds. This might seem a lot of money to some, but it is hardly enough to buy a painting by Gerard Sekoto, for example, given that a work of his fetched R6.7 million when it was placed on auction at Bonhams in London in 2011. But in 2012/13 Iziko SANG’s budget stood at R0.00. Yes, zero, which of course means that no purchases can be made. Compare this dismal state of affairs to the state’s investment in 2013 of R29 million to rent a building for 20 years to house South Africa’s exhibitions at the Venice Biennale. I don’t dispute that the positioning of South Africa on the world stage is important but this will only benefit a small group of artists. But the issue here is that there is no comparable state investment in a project to address the shortcomings of the white art canon, particularly in respect of building collections. Clearly then, the state considers the recovery of South Africa’s art heritage to be less important than the country’s international image. That’s scandalous!


Around the time of the ‘Why Collect?’ exhibition, Proud lashed out at representatives of the post-apartheid state, accusing them of being ignorant about, and disinterested in, Iziko SANG, its role in transformation, and even the very purpose of collecting artworks – a core function of the museum: “There is little real understanding by Government of the role played by the Iziko SANG in providing recognition and career-enhancement for artists. This has been clear when Arts and Culture representatives have visited SANG in the past. Few of them visit the Gallery regularly, and there seems to be a poor understanding of the purpose of acquisitions and the relationship between the institution and the way it ought, if it had more funds, to more fully support the careers of emerging artist-practitioners, especially those from disadvantaged communities.”


If, following Proud, the state doesn’t understand why art acquisitions are important then, quite simply, it’s hardly likely to increase funding to Iziko so that more money can be set aside for the recovery of marginalised black artistic voices. The erasure of memory was one of the hallmarks of the colonial and apartheid eras. Given the post-apartheid state’s dismal record in regard to supporting the drive to preserve the nation’s art heritage – its black art heritage in particular – through building collections, I can only conclude that it is as much complicit in this erasure of memory as were regimes in the pre-1994 eras. If you ask me, Milan Kundera’s words from his Book of Laughter against Forgetting (1979) ring as true as ever in the present: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory… Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was.” History has a way of repeating itself and so much for Mandela’s “Never, never and never again”.


*For more on the exhibition, see Emile Maurice, ‘Curating Uncontained: opening the Community Arts Project archive’, Archival Platform website, 20 February, 2013.

Emile Maurice is an Archival Platform correspondent and a resident fellow at the Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s