Writing Art History Since 2002

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In this brave new world of global media kings and high gloss publications, what has replaced the homebrewed cultural zine of yesteryear? Perhaps the angry poets and leftfield editors with ink stains on their fingers have turned to blogging — the new digital vanguard?

If we look at publishing in South Africa today, Tony Morphet’s words uttered back in 1996, when it looked like the legendary Ravan Press was about to vanish completely, seem somewhat prophetic: “Big capital, long-term planning and strict accounting have taken the place of hunch, energy and networking.”

So big capital in publishing actually took the place of something? These days you’d never guess. Grit, social outrage and blurring of generic boundaries seem to have been replaced by market specialisation: how to make your home look pretty; how to make yourself look pretty; how to buy a pretty car; how to travel safe and pretty. One slick, seductive aphrodisiac to the advertiser. Take a walk into a bookshop in a mall near you and ask for the South African literary magazines section. (You might have more luck with Martian horticulture.) They do exist, but good luck finding them.

Strange to imagine that we have an amazingly rich heritage of literary magazines: journals like The Purple Renoster, The Classic, Wurm and Izwe. The extraordinary thing is that these publications didn’t confine themselves to poetry or literature. Art works by Cecil Skotnes brushed up against writing by musician Dollar Brand, poems by Oswald Mtshali and photographs by David Goldblatt. It’s no coincidence that an exhibition of these ‘literary’ magazines is due to be held at an art gallery, Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary, in March 2005. The relationships between literature, art, music and drama were what gave these journals their unique energy — literature and the visual arts in particular.

Twenty magazines published between 1956 and the mid-1980s will be exhibited and discussed in a catalogue “as a lens through which our recent past can be viewed”. Works by over 30 artists associated with five key publications will also be on show. The project is being convened by Warren Siebrits, Lunetta Bartz and Michael Gardiner, who has done extensive research in the field. Gardiner will hold a series of public talks and there will also be readings by writers associated with the magazines.

The contents pages of the journals to be exhibited read like a veritable who’s who of South African artists. Prints by artists like Wopko Jensma, Gerard Sekoto, Dumile Feni, Peter Magubane, Ezrom Legae, Walter Batiss and Cecily Sash frequently appeared in these richly plural, rough and ready publications. In old editions of Staffrider you’ll come across works by artists like Pat Mautloa, Bongi Dhlomo, William Kentridge, Sam Nhlengethwa and Paul Stopforth. They’re a rich archive of a bold and dangerous time in South African history – a record of artists and writers taking expressive risks and playing games with the censors.

In the mainstream media there was no forum for radical ideas that challenged the state. So amid great division in the country and with limited funds small creative collectives came together to produce these gutsy publications, graphically remiscent of early 20th century Russian prints or German expressionism. Printed by hand on cheap paper, the magazines have a raw DIY aesthetic, but also a sense of urgency. A far cry from the glib irony and obsession with surfaces that has emerged in an era of ease, Apple Macs and desktop publishing.

To get a sense of the times out of which they emerged, the year of The Purple Renoster’s first appearance (1956) was also the year when the infamous Treason Trial began, when the first international conference of Black writers took place in Paris and when, at a national literary conference at the University of the Witwatersrand, Guy Butler was rapped over the knuckles by his academic colleagues for proposing that universities should pay attention to local literature in English. There weren’t any South African English-language literary magazines until the Renoster came along.

“The voices that spoke through The Purple Renoster [edited by Lionel Abrahams, who died last year] came from many kinds of experience,” writes Gardiner. “At first, it was dominated by perceptive and intense writings from an educated middle class… South Africans living abroad used the magazine to speak to communities they had left behind. Then there were voices of people were compelled to live inwardly but who directed their writing outwardly from black townships, so that poems from Duduza, Alexandra, Soweto and Mpumalanga (in Natal) sounded to white ears like voices from far off places that would not and could not visit in any other way.”

Siebrits and Gardiner met back in 1996 when their friendship was sealed by a shared interest in the life and work of Wopko Jensma, a pivotal figure in the literary magazine scene. “I had this little shop window in Rosebank called Metroplex and my first show was Wopko Jensma,” Siebrits recalls. “He was a graphic designer by profession [and] worked for Nationale Pers. But he was also a phenomenal artist and a poet who wrote in a mixture of English, Afrikaans and African languages. He was always on the edge. He battled for money and yet gave his possessions away. He was a truly free spirit, yet it was under duress that he was able to do some of his best art and writing. I’m convinced that some of his best work is outside of his collected works, published throughout these journals. It’s the same with Ingrid Jonker. Some of her best individual pieces are published in these journals.”

Siebrits describes these literary publications as “treasure troves”, adding: “They give you a very good synopsis of the times. You can see the difficulties confronted not just in society across the board or by the creative communities, but particularly by African writers and artists who were completely marginalised. The editorial was phenomenal. Without them you’d struggle to find examples of these people’s work. They played a really important role.

“For me the most impressive of all the literary journals in terms of the combination of photography, art and writing is The Classic, which was edited by Nat Nakasa and later by Barney Simon,” says Siebrits. “That’s really the big one for me. Everything they selected editorially had a certain vision. They published the work of Dumile, for example, and there’s a Dumile retrospective at the Johannesburg Art Gallery this year. I’ve learned so much about what I’m doing here in the gallery from The Classic.”

The Classic’s founding editor, Nat Nakasa, was a man ahead of his time — a young idealist who thought and lived out of the box. Reading his writing, the tragedy of his fall from a seventh storey building in New York on June 14, 1965, the reality of eternal exile truly hits home. Were he around today, one wonders what publication would accommodate his free-range ideas and tastes.

Itch? Maybe. Certainly, it is forging a space for itself outside the mainstream mould. But its cover price tends to contradict the rootsy socialist ethic to which a publication like The Classic was committed. Chimurenga? Possibly. Although, the revolutionary iconography of the publication might have troubled Nakasa who was more of a wandering social analyst than a fist-waving activist.

What would have encouraged Nakasa and his cohorts at The Classic is the idea of Itch and Chimurenga appealing to writers of fiction and non-fiction, poets, scholars, musicians and journalists alike. In this deeply Catholic, collaborative sense both contemporary publications are natural heirs to earlier literary journals, which went beyond words to integrate text and image as vehicles of public defiance and personal expression.

Alex Dodd is an independent writer and editor

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