Writing Art History Since 2002

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As the panellists reviewed by Gideon Unkeless [‘Mandela’s Ego’, ASA, vol. 8(2)], we felt obliged to reply to what we’ve concluded was a dismissive and vacuous review. Although we acknowledge that a reviewer is under no obligation to present what he or she heard in glowing terms, we are also concerned that Unkeless gave the impression that our contributions that evening were so banal as not to be worth a fair exposition. We have therefore taken the opportunity to present a summation of our contributions that evening, while also correcting some of the errors that Unkeless made in quoting or summarising our views.

Hlonipha Mokoena: The title of mypresentation was ‘The Black Interpreters’. I borrowed it from Nadine Gordimer’sbook published in 1973 and for which David Goldblatt designed the cover usinghis photograph of young black boys playing violin. This was the connection Iestablished between my talk and the exhibition: the basic argument I presentedwas that the concept of “black interpreters” captures the current dilemma ofblack South African youth and artists. The reference to “farm animals”, whichUnkeless turned into the crux of my talk, was actually a marginal point about aconversation between a white man, or settler, and one of John William Colenso’sstudents in 1859. The drawings I projected were intended to illustrate thepoint that Colenso’s student didn’t actually draw animals – wild ordomesticated – but that they turned their gaze to the natural landscape ofNatal (imagined or real) in an act of interpretation. I posited that the youngSouth African artist should look to them as “black interpreters”, especially tohow their historical naivety in imagining themselves as artists is equivalentto Njabulo Ndebele’s injunction that the task of the post-apartheid writer isto transcend protest literature and its representation of the spectacle andmove towards a “rediscovery of the ordinary”. Gabi Ngcobo: I titled mypresentation ‘Paradise or Paradox’, a title borrowed from Moshekwa Langa’sdrawing which I set as a backdrop to kick start a discussion on thecontradictory nature of the post-apartheid South African landscape. As Unkelesscorrectly states, I did show slides of the artists he mentioned, although hisreview does not help place this in a critical context. The first two slides Ipurposely showed back to back were used to draw on historical comparisons toreflect on the dilemma of the landscape; Haarde Kool Bome” byJH Pierneef and Gerard Sekoto’s Soko Majoka (Sixpence aDoor). The emphasis here was show earlier examples of how the South Africanlandscape has been imagined and approached via these two artists, and how thecontemporary post-apartheid landscape is being approached by a youngergeneration of artists. I then quoted Virginia MacKenny’s description of Langa’spractice as “demarcating his own space by overwriting existing spaces”, whichUnkeless also fails to mention. The idea of a post-South Africa is an idea that I havebeen interested in since reading Steven Nelson’s essay ‘Post South Africa?’ inthe exhibition catalogue, Personal Effects: Power and Politics inContemporary South African Art Vol.2 (2005). It is a proposal I haveexplored on numerous occasions, including in the essay I contributed to thecatalogue for the exhibition Flow (Studio Museum, 2008):”Perhaps the international movement for post-South Africa-ness,” which Nelsonreluctantly advocates for as “a deconstruction of South Africa as a mode ofreception in the international art world,” is one of the spaces to develop inorder to engage critically the “post-” fevers that have engulfed therepresentation of South Africa in the west.” This was not a “slip”, as Unkelesssuggests in what seems to me like an opportunistic moment to take up the ideafor himself. Similar to my Flow contribution, the idea of a post-South Africa was intendedto move my discussion from the entrapment of the rhetoric of binaries in thediscussion of contemporary South African art.

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