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Mario Pissarra on Imbacu

The Proffessor,Gerald Sekoto (date unknown), oil on canvas, presented by theDepartment of Arts and Culture Collection: Iziko South African NationalGallery.From the outset I welcomed this exhibition since exile (imbacu in isiXhosa) has received scant attention from South African curators and art historians, despite being perhaps the earliest form of resistance practiced by our artists. I was also curious whether Loyiso Qanya’s curatorial debut represented a shift within the South African National Gallery (SANG), an institution that has done little to create meaningful curatorial opportunities for trainees.Comparatively modest in scale, imbacu turns out to be bold in its scope. Notably, it transcends traditional interpretations of exile by positing that the prohibitive restrictions imposed on black South Africans amounted to exile of a special type. Hence the figure of the migrant worker, an ‘alien’ in his or her own land, looms large over the exhibition through works by Lucas Seage, Sue Williamson and Samson Mudzunga. Extending this theme of dispossession imbacu includes images that allude to forced removals and imprisonment, as well as torture and death in detention. There are also several representations of prominent political activists, Chief Albert Luthuli and Steve Biko, both of whom were restricted (and in Biko’s case, killed). Indeed, in terms of narrating exile through imagery, <i>Imbacu<I> does more to explore and test the boundaries of what could be termed ‘internal exile’, than it does in representing the experiences of exile as it more commonly understood – expulsion or self-imposed separation from one’s native land.In contrast with the unorthodox emphasis on internal exile, imbacu adopts a more conservative approach in its representation of exiled artists, since there are well known examples of artists who left the country between the late 1930s and the late 1980s. Even though limited to art in SANG’s collection, imbacu excludes examples of artists who experienced punitive measures, not least restricted movement, because of their political activities or moral convictions (for example, Omar Badsha and Willem Boshoff). Brett Murray, who left the country to avoid military conscription, is also overlooked. Despite these shortcomings, imbacu provides a useful opportunity for reflecting on the blurred boundaries between migration and exile, serving to highlight that even the notion of external exile is a construct, subject to divergent perceptions.Another interesting feature of the work representing externally exiled artists is that, certainly at first glance, none of it seems to be about the experience of living in exile. In fact they appear to have been included simply because they were made by exiled artists. However, there are cases where exile can be read as subject, although it is possible that this may not have been the intention of the artists themselves. For example Albert Adams’ Figure Study VI, where the regimented stripes of a jacket are contrasted with the amorphous absence that appears in place of a face, powerfully represents violent rupture, dissolution, dispersal and loss of identity, qualities that characterised exile for many. Similarly, Ernest Mancoba’s dematerialised figure in an untitled work can be read as representing a liminal state of being and is suggestive of the psychological and spiritual alienation of exile. In contrast, Gerard Sekoto’s forms are more defined, but his use of bright colours does little to conceal the melancholic tone and painful nostalgia that envelops his untitled family study, dated circa 1980.I am less convinced by the claim (featured in the text accompanying the exhibition) that imbacu takes Biko as its point of departure. Exile (external or internal) preceded Biko by decades; there is also the anomaly that Luthuli is as present as Biko. I suspect that imbacu’s already busy agenda has been conflated with the unrealised project of commemorating the 30th anniversary of Biko’s death, a project deserving of its own focus. Perhaps this is the result of ‘curating by consensus’, since Qanya was supported by SANG stalwarts Marilyn Martin and Joe Dolby; this may have inadvertently diluted the focus.Overall, imbacu succeeds in problematising the notion of exile in the South African context, and creates a space to facilitate deeper understandings of exile as a critical current in our art history. Mario Pissarra is the director of the Africa South Art Initiative, an organization that develops critical resources on art in Africa ()

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