Writing Art History Since 2002

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South African national Gallery Cape Town

Visiting the SA National Gallery (SANG) to review the exhibition ReVisions: A Private Narrative of SA Art, I wandered first, and at the outset idly, though with increasing interest, through two other exhibitions on show. One was a selection of the SANG’s museum holdings, entitled Old Masters: New Perceptions. The other was the Dumile Feni retrospective, travelled down south from the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG).The first exhibition might well have been subtitled: Two Centuries of Parochial Mediocrity. It is an extraordinarily compelling collection of the second rate and the overblown, of the deservedly obscure and of the mildly, Burne-Jones-level famous – on a not particularly good day. This it struck me, moving though the exhibition galleries, is the inherited core of public collections in this country. As the pitch for the exhibition on the SANG website notes, “… most of the items on show are private bequests and gifts to our national collections”. The works, flotsam washed up in the colonies, would never find their way into the public collections of the first world, simply because they are just not good enough. But, and here is the rider, it is close enough to the art that would find its way into the major museums and carries enough of the imprint of such artworks to remind the subscriber population of European culture. It is all a bit like the view from Plato’s cave in relation to the real thing.Now, the implications of all this are not uninteresting in themselves, and the cultural register it established for public collections remains an issue of vital significance in understanding the mainstream history of South African art. Remember those endless acres of wall space in major public museums around the country devoted to the kind of work in Old Masters, segueing gradually into work produced in the colonies, either in imitation or under the influence of same, and positioned in some kind of continuing dialogue with same. That was art in the bad old days, and it remains inscribed in public collections to this day.Brooding thus brownly, I moved, with some relief let it be said, into the new South Africa, in the form of the Dumile Feni retrospective, my perceptions still conditioned by thoughts about collecting and provenance. A good number of the best (read biggest, most resolved, most finished) pieces on display were from the collections of public museums, including SANG and JAG. But in the context of the exhibition as a whole, these made up a very small part of the oeuvre. More importantly, they delineated almost nothing of the continuing narrative within the retrospective. The museum pieces came across as precisely that, museum pieces, punctuation points in a discourse, not part of the developmental discourse itself. By contrast, the fullness of the show, the sense of depth, richness, resonance and complexity was manifestly gleaned from a handful of private collectors, or collections, including (interestingly and significantly enough) that of Bruce Campbell Smith. It was here that the range, the depth, the complexity of Feni’s work shone through.And here is the point: It is only the private collectors who have engaged over a significant period of time with black artists, like Feni, and their work. The public museums only emerged from the unenlightened morass of apartheid cultural policy (or lack of same), at best 15 or 20 years ago. Until then local art was largely overwritten by western legacies and underpinned by a usually pathetic attempt to locate South African art in degraded parallel with art movements abroad. There was, with hardly any exceptions, no comfortable place for urban black artists in this scenario. Subsequently, the game has been one of catch-up as regards the formerly neglected traditions of the formerly disadvantaged, a filling up, usually without any meaningful budget, of at least the more embarrassing absences in the collection. Enter the private collector as culture hero. The private collector, and there are several such in South Africa, typically engages on a different level and in a different way, focusing on fairly narrowly defined aesthetics and/or cultural problematics. More than this, the passage of the private collector through the cultural domain follows and is predicated on a kind of argument, a validation of the art in the collection through the act of collecting, and thereby a more or less aggressive attribution of value. The private collector is anything but neutral; it is more or less implicit in the act of collecting that the substance of the collection is presented as being important.In the case of Campbell Smith, as a collector of typically undervalued art by black South Africans from the latter years of apartheid, all of the above is true in spades. But there is also more to it than that. There is also the virtual inscription of an alternative art history in the act of collecting, an argument or narrative that runs through the work, and in running touches on issues like development, influence, zeitgeist and cross-reference.To a significant extent the historical parameters are those established by Steven Sack in his groundbreaking Neglected Tradition exhibition in the mid 1980s – the attribution of centrality within the emerging tradition to artists like John Koenakeefe Mohl, Gerard Sekoto, George Pemba and Feni. But Campbell Smith goes further, establishing a dialogue of perception in a series of ethnographic portraits and tribal studies, mainly from the early part of the twentieth century. In what develops into a fascinatingly complex and nuanced meditation on the layering of sameness and otherness, the exotic and the familiar, versions of the African physiognomy by black artists like Simon Mnguni, Gerard Benghu and Arthur Butelezi are juxtaposed with Barbara Tyrell, Maggie Laubscher and Irma Stern. In a way, this part of the collection is its ground zero, where the basic problematics are set out.But Campbell Smith also goes a long way down the cultural road in other directions, with substantial sub-collections of more eccentric and/or genre artists like the late Billy Mandindi and Trevor Makhoba on one side, and the mainly animist rural sculptors of the former Gazankhulu and Venda homelands on the other. That the various lines of development are held together and enter into meaningful dialogue with one another is maybe the most important testimony to the substance of the collection, and the value of its contribution to the emerging history of South African art.Ivor Powell is an art critic and former journalist currently working as an investigator with the Directorate of Special Operations

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