Revisions: Expanding the Narrative of South African Art

Revisions: Expanding the Narrative of South African Art edited by Hayden Proud (SA History Online and UNISA Press, 2006), 360 pages,hardcover, ISBN 1-8744817-33-2

The exhibition has come and gone, but Revisions: Expanding the Narrative of South African Art, a lavish companion publication to an exhibition held at Cape Town’s Iziko SA National Gallery, demands to be read as a major text in its own right. Opened by arts and culture minister Z. Pallo Jordan in October 2005, the show ran for six months. The pomp is over now, but the question implicitly suggested by the book’s title remains pertinent: Does the historical narrative of South African art still need to be revised and expanded? And if so, does this book, and the private collection it reproduces, constitute a substantial revisionist project?The collector, Bruce Campbell Smith, thinks it does. To him, this collection, consisting hundreds of works by 80 black South African artists, many of which are little known, represents “a new history of South African art”, or at very least an important contribution to a more inclusive vision of painting in this country over the last century. Interestingly, the exhibition’s curator, Hayden Proud, who also edited the book, disagrees. Women artists, he points out in his contribution, are considerably under-represented, but, more importantly, a sense of “a broader and transformed concept of South African artistic production”- embracing the abstraction inherent in so-called ‘decorative’ or ‘functional’ art – is absent. The collection is less interesting in terms of its efficacy as a revisionist project, he feels, than as an expression of the personal vision of the collector.An enigmatic figure, Campbell Smith is also the quintessential collector. He lives alone in a large thatched cottage overlooking Long Beach, on the Cape Peninsula, where Cape sea otters can occasionally be seen flitting through the translucent shore break and the Sentinel dominates the horizon under a perennially grandiose sky. Inside his cottage, the atmosphere is close, gloomy, but evidence of the collector’s obsession is inescapable: framed originals are stacked nonchalantly against a corner wall; a familiar-looking sculpture occupies an inconspicuous, poorly lit, mantelpiece corner.It is easy to be entranced by the enthusiasm of the man, whose passions somehow frame the myriad images contained in this extraordinary book. Campbell Smith began collecting in the late 1970s. Starting out his adult life as a student radical – he was at one point imprisoned under the apartheid regime’s security legislation – he became an entrepreneur and made enough money to go into early retirement, thus able to concentrate on collecting. Arranged more or less chronologically in the book, the collection begins with watercolours by Simoni Mnguni and Gerard Bhengu, and ends with the generation of KwaZulu-Natal artists who pay homage to the memory of Trevor Makhoba. The book offers a compelling historical narrative even as it documents an idiosyncratic collection, one that clearly favours figurative painting.Interestingly, the collection includes paintings by early white women artists like Irma Stern, Maggie Laubser and Barbara Tyrrell, against which the portraits of Bhengu and Arthur Buthelezi resonate to create a context in which the sudden appearance of George Pemba’s 1940s portraits – so accomplished and unsentimental – is all the more startling. Paging through the beautifully reproduced images, one is struck repeatedly by canonical works: richly lit oils from Gerard Sekoto’s so-called Eastwood period, a mesmerising mining scene by John Koenakeefe Mohl, a playful crayon drawing of dagga smokers by Peter Clarke, Gladys Mgudlandlu’s township houses sinking into the Nyanga quicksand, a Van Gogh-like self-portrait by Simon Lekgetho, a fine selection of Dumile Feni’s iconic drawings. There is so much here that singling out is dangerous: Ezrom Legae, Azaria Mbatha, John Muafangejo, Cyprian Shilakoe and Billy Mandini (who gives the collection its striking cover image, a work titled The death of township art) are all well represented. The late Makhoba, a personal friend of the collector, is perhaps the artist best represented, in a series of visionary images.Whether Revisions in fact embodies the bold amendment of South African art history it claims remains a moot point. In any event, the fate of the collection itself is uncertain. As a whole, it is priced beyond the acquisition budgets of all but the most moneyed corporations, and its continued existence (in its present form at least) is not altogether guaranteed. On the evidence of this book, one can only but hope that this collection will find a home where ordinary South Africans will have access to it. It is too rich a legacy to languish unseen.
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