Writing Art History Since 2002

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Iziko South African National Gallery | Cape Town

left Chokwe-Songo, Angola Staff Pantinated wood right Baule, Cote d’Ivoire Waka San (colon figure), Patinated wood, beadsLaunched concurrently in two adjoining rooms of the South African National Gallery (SANG), Voice Overs and Ilifa LaBantu Heritage of the People both celebrate traditionalist art forms associated with African communities. Drawing on material from the past as well as the present, notably the widespread production in southern Africa of household items and other utilitarian art forms, they complement each other in several interesting ways. Yet they also differ from one another in a number of important respects. While this difference is evidenced, most obviously, in the intention of the curators, it is also revealed in the quality of some of the artifacts on display.Voice Overs is a richly evocative exhibition that has a distant genesis in a show mounted at the Grahamstown Festival in 1999 that sought to showcase ‘treasures’ from the Standard Bank Collection of African Art, currently housed at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. In putting together the 1999 Grahamstown show, the Wits-based curators entered a lively debate about what constitutes a ‘treasure’. As Anitra Nettleton observes in the accompanying catalogue, they were forced to accept that “even within a collection of extraordinary objects particular objects may be treasured more by some stake-holders, and for different reasons, than by others”.It was fairly easy to move beyond this acceptance that aesthetic appreciation varies from one person to another to a decision to embrace the postmodern notion that “meanings are constructed around objects and are not inherent in them”. Building on this idea, the curators of the present exhibition invited fifty-four people that had some or other connection with the Wits Art Galleries to select a work from the Standard Bank Collection and to write a brief accompanying text explaining their decision. Those approached included academics from a wide range of disciplines who either teach – or taught – at the University, respected artists and art historians who studied at Wits, curators associated with the Wits Art Galleries, and acclaimed graduates of the institution such as William Kentridge.By encouraging the participants to produce voice-overs, a notion “borrowed from the documentary/advertising conventions of film-making, where an authorial, or authoritative voice speaks simultaneously with the action, lending it a particular significance and imposing a particular interpretation on the viewer”, the curators succeeded in putting together a truly fascinating exhibition that invites us to interact not only with the wealth of material on display, but also with the often very different factors informing the aesthetic interests of a diverse group of people. Although united by a common passion for African artworks, it is clear that the appreciation this group has for particular forms or objects is often rooted in complex memories, personal interests and private experiences. Not surprisingly, the success of Voice Overs can be attributed as much to these voice-overs as to the artworks they accompany.The works themselves clearly demonstrate that African creativity, both past and present, is generally very thoughtful, at times wonderfully whimsical, and always remarkably inventive, even in cases where the chosen items conform to long-established artistic canons or traditions, such as headrests and beaded garments. Also remarkable is the extraordinary range of materials used in the production of this art, and the innovative techniques employed by artists who in many communities have been forced to rely on and transform readily available natural or recycled materials from their immediate environment.The aesthetic – but also emotive – power of these African forms is evidenced, probably most obviously, in the voice-overs of practicing artists like Deborah Bell, William Kentridge, and Peter Schütz, all of whom chose works that have either inspired, or can be seen to relate to their own production. Bell’s first encounter with a Yoruba house post from the Standard Bank Collection was so profoundly spiritual that, years later, “the experience of that moment resurfaced and became the touchstone” for much of the work she produced thereafter. For Kentridge, a Fon Asen (votive offering) brings to mind the miniature universes revealed in snow globes and the playful vision of artists like Paul Klee and Jean Arp, in whose work “a leaf can stand for a tree” – images and ideas that echoes through Kentridge’s own recent theatrical productions. Schütz chose a caryatid stool from the Democratic Republic of Congo, in part because the pose of the kneeling figure is at once submissive and controlling, a combination of “giving and serving” that is central to his current work, “which deals with extraordinary people, namely saints”.Like Voice Overs, Ilifa LaBantu celebrates African art forms, in this case by grouping particular types of objects such as headrests, staffs and axes, thereby encouraging the viewer to compare the different ways individual artists have interpreted – or extended – the artistic canons inherited from their predecessors. In this sense, the exhibition provides a fascinating journey into and through the often complex formal solutions carvers developed for the production of utilitarian household objects and prestige items like chiefly staffs of office. Given the exhibition’s invitation to the viewer to marvel at the aesthetic power of functional art forms, Ilifa LaBantu complements the aims of the Voice Overs show.But unlike Voice Overs, it focuses entirely on southern African art and also has a very conscious didactic purpose: mounted in the tenth anniversary year of South Africa’s democracy, Ilifa LaBantu urges us to take pride in our (South Africa’s) historically neglected artistic heritage which, until quite recently, was confined to the dusty shelves of ethnographic museums. Sadly, though, it was only in the course of the 1990s that the SANG belatedly began actively to collect work of this kind. It is a shocking indictment of publicly funded art institutions that most of them failed to purchase or display traditionalist art forms produced by indigenous communities prior to the unbanning of political organizations in 1990.Although the SANG’s pre-democracy acquisitions policy was certainly not unique in the South African context, there can be little doubt that the indifferent quality of some of the works displayed in the Ilifa LaBantu show can be attributed to the fact that this national institution first began to acquire traditionalist southern African art forms at a time when prices were escalating and much of the material still available in the field as late as the early 1980s had already been snapped up by private collectors and the Wits University Art Galleries. One has only to compare the extraordinary quality of the headrests displayed in the Voice Overs show with some of those included in <I>Ilifa LaBantu<I> to realize that the Wits collection, begun in the 1970s with funding from the Standard Bank, is truly remarkable. Originally intended as a teaching collection, it is immediately evident from the treasures chosen for the Voice Overs show that the Wits collection is in fact a national asset. As Belinda Bozzoli rightly points out in her Foreword to the Voice Overs catalogue, the University of the Witwatersrand is privileged to house this remarkable artistic treasure.

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