Johannesburg Art Gallery | Johannesburg
Eric Mbatha,Walking and Talking, 1992, screenprint As its title suggests, Celebrating 30 Years of Printmaking in Soweto collects work by a group of printmakers from a specific geographic locality. Conceived by Khwezi Gule, curator of contemporary collections at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), the show traces its origin to a meeting he had with Kenny Nkosi-Mabuza, Peter Tobias and Mxolisi Ngcayiya, a group of artists from Soweto’s Mofolo Art Centre – they were hoping to show at JAG. After inspecting their work, which included paintings, sculpture, prints, ceramics and drawings, Gule settled on their prints. This exhibition presents the trio’s work alongside examples from an older generation of artists and printmakers, amongst them Charles Nkosi, Eric Mbatha, Durant Sihlali, Tony Nkotsi, Avhashoni Mainganye and Cyprian Shilakoe. But for Sihlali, all these figures studied at the Evangelical Lutheran Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift. Celebrating 30 Years of Printmaking in Soweto is not singly a celebration of the enduring influence of Rorke’s Drift on local printmaking, even if this is somewhat unavoidable; the show also brings together a range of artists and works representing Newtown’s Artist Proof Studio, as well as Funda and Mofolo art centres.Covering a range of printmaking techniques, from lino- and woodcut print to silkscreen, etching, lithography, dry-point and mixed media, the selected works are not limited to any single genre or theme. Abstract compositions sit alongside works offering social commentary – there are even works of pure mixed media experimentation. The hanging follows no distinct chronology, works by older artists interspersed with examples from younger, emerging artists. This, in my view, is a weakness. Although the selected works are of a generally high standard and reveal the technical competency of their makers, their jumbled display did not always allow enough space for appreciation and fuller interrogation.Highlights included Charles Nkosi’s politically motivated prints. Couched in the dominant black theology of the early 1970s, Nkosi’s crude woodcuts depicting the crucifixion use a biblical motif as a metaphor. The real subject is Steve Biko, Nkosi camouflaging his disgust for the apartheid system by adopting biblically resonant stories and themes. It was a strategy successfully employed by many Rorke’s Drift artists, amongst them John Muafangejo, Judas Mahlangu and Azaria Mbatha. Eric Mbatha, who is represented by a work showing six boys trying to ride a donkey, uses strong lines to convey his message. Mbatha’s etching, a portrayal of youth refusing to be broken, is a stirring depiction of resilience and strength. Avhashoni Mainganyi is represented by an etching and colour linocuts. They touch on a familiar and recurring theme in his work, Mainganyi’s disgust for prostitution. Of the younger printmakers on show, Osia Masekwameng’s silkscreen Security Strike (2006) takes a snipe at last year’s violent security strike. A graduate of the Artist Proof Studio, his work shares much in common with the local protest idiom, particularly work produced during the 1980s, but retains a contemporary relevance. In another work, Masekwameng shows a family of women returning home after the internecine conflicts that drove hordes of rural people to the cities. Celebrating 30 Years of Printmaking in Soweto shines a welcome spotlight on an exciting area of local artistic production. However, it also reveals the pressing need for further documentation of the subject and the necessity of more refined curatorial strategies. Perhaps the latter could be achieved in a project looking at how the older generation of artists represented here have influenced the younger ones. Another option would be to focus on emerging presses and young printmakers, (like Masekwameng and Stompie Sebide), and critically evaluate their progress.