Writing Art History Since 2002

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Colonial chic has been around for quite a few decades, with earthy monochromes, starched linen, dark wooden figurines, mosquito nets and slow G&T’s on ample porches adorning magazine covers into the wrong side of the naughties.

Recent years have, however, seen a revival of this trend with designers, artists and stylists from Cape Town to Milan gushing over woven and printed tribal patterns, quirky, hybrid designs in wax-resist fabric and the ingenious repurposing of the colonial photographic archive. The contemporary tribalesque is, however, a renovated or nouveau-colonial chic, and some might say harder to define and get right.

So what makes the contemporary tribalesque different to yesteryear’s colonial chic? To put it simply, it’s more Shonibare than Blixen, more Dak’art than Exposition Coloniale. The trendsetters create the look by cleverly juxtaposing elements of the more demure colonial chic with the visual clamour of our unique afro-cosmopolitanism, signature design pieces, tribal art and archival material.  Think wooden body masks above Barcelona chairs in patent leather, Stark’s Miamiam cutlery against the quirky designs of a bright chitenge wrap, vintage ethnographic photographs next to your Subotzky and Hugo investment pieces.   

The more delicate strand of this contemporary tribal revival, the repurposing of archival material by designers and artists, is perhaps for more distinguished tastes, but featuring prominently at the 2012 Frieze Masters, Documenta and this year’s Venice Biennale, you’ll definitely be giving your interior the hallmark of the cutting-edge with one or two such statements. 

The recently most covetable local find, albeit for the serious collector, must be Andrew Putter’s series of photographs titled Native Work: An Impulse of Tenderness, shown in March at Michael Stevenson in Cape Town, and as part of the group show ‘Imaginary Fact: Contemporary South African Art and the Archive’, where it represents the Rainbow Nation at the Venice Biennale. Native Work is the product of Putter’s M.A in Fine Arts at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, where he worked under the supervision of Professors Pippa Skotnes and Carolyn Hamilton.  The series comprises 21 black-and-white photographs of contemporary black Capetonians in tribal or traditional costume. These are displayed alongside colour photographs of the same sitters dressed for the formal portraits in outfits of their own choice.


The black-and-white photographs transports one to the romantic tribal past, shot in the iconic style of photographer Alfred Duggan-Cronin, who criss-crossed Southern Africa from the 1920s to record the fast-vanishing traditional culture of indigenous peoples. For Putter, Duggan-Cronin illuminated his sitters in a manner that communicated “a quiet stability and monumentality – even a sense of ‘timelessness.”i  Native Work pays homage to Duggan-Cronin and is a contemporary affirmation of traditional Southern African inheritances. The series, explains Putter, is “the result  of a resourced, white, gay, apartheid-era subject revelling in the stylistics that emerged in the early-mid twentieth century intersection of ‘native’ cultural production (costume, adornment, etc.), phenotypic, bodily features typically inferiorized by the colonial-and apartheid-machine, and the beautifying, ennobling effects of Duggan-Cronin’s use of photography.”ii   

Putter’s classical compositions, dramatic lighting and the striking contrast of the sitters’ dark skin against the stark white backgrounds have produced some truly statuesque forms that echo those of Duggan-Cronin. Gorgeous pictures are not all that the two men have in common: both went to great lengths to find suitable specimens, and played an important role in styling their phantastic costumes and props. Over the course of three decades Duggan-Cronin travelled to remote villages to document traditional custom and costume, carefully seeking out those karosses, beaded aprons, faces and bodies that best exemplified each of the different South African tribal groups. 


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ERRATUM: The editor formally apologises to Annemi Conradie, author of  “Contemporary Tribalesque: Evermore the Rage.” The essay was published, in Art South Africa Volume 12 Issue 1 (print edition), without the final consent of its author. In this edition the following errors have been corrected:

1. The restoration of in-text references and end notes. 

2. The re-inclusion of a paragraph excised without the author’s permission.

3. The inclusion of the correct illustration, absent in the print edition. 

The editor takes full responsibility for these errors and acknowledges that the article as it appears was published without the author’s consent. 


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