Writing Art History Since 2002

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Warren Siebrits Johannesburg

Loosely curated shows seldom yield more than a handful of notable paintings. Similarly, perfunctory introductions to catalogues often don’t contain more than a few meaningful words. The recent Paintings – Past and Present show at Warren Siebrits included two notable paintings: Thomas Nkuna’s Railway Workers, Newtown (1989) and John Koenakeefe Mohl’s Miners carrying their tools near Springs (circa 1973). The most significant words in the catalogue are: “diverse”, “eclectic”, “stylistically nuanced”, and, above all, “materialist”. In this instance, the two paintings signify a subtle relationship between art and labour, and the word, “materialist” connotes more than a facile Marxist maxim about material base/economic superstructure dichotomies.These paintings raise issues about the role of the artist in society, which, according to both Marx and Engels, is that of a thinker, an educator, an “unfolder” of social truths, a revealer of the inner workings of society, and, above all, an ideologist who pierces the veil of false consciousness. A better Marxist maxim in this regard would have been, “It is not men’s consciousness that determines their existence, but on the contrary their social existence [that] determines their consciousness”.The fact that both artists portray labourers does not make them good old Marxists, however. Little is known of Nkuna’s political and ideological leanings, but conjecturally it can be surmised that living in a typical mining hostel, and his subsequent death by being thrown from a moving train, with the label sell-out around his neck, is no coincidence. Mohl’s ideological persuasions are even more difficult to penetrate. We do know that he identified with the working class, being at various stages in his life a dockworker, house painter and coal miner, and that he often portrayed the working class in his art. At one stage he was considered to be the “court painter” of statesman, educationalist and art patron Tshakedi Khama of Botswana. Mohl’s brief was not to depict heroic battles, but rather to show in his art how history unfolds itself in the landscape.At this point it is appropriate to reference the second important word/phrase in the catalogue introduction: “stylistically nuanced”. Mohl’s style is somewhat redolent of the social realist style of the art under Stalin. His is a conflation of class and race. According to him, “a very high percentage of our talent lies buried. It is for Africans to unearth it, train it, and enable it to make its full contribution to the culture of our country. What is more, African artists will be among the foremost interpreters of our people to the other races” (1944). The indeterminate social class of the artist, combined with his empathy with the working classes, has enabled Mohl to shape the consciousness of an entire era.Wilhelm van Rensburg

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