Writing Art History Since 2002

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Above Nadine Gordimer’s writing desk is a Teke mask, from the Congo. It’s been hanging there, since she steamed up the Congo River in 1960. The mask is flat, with curvilinear and geometric designs, says Karel Nel, whose expertise on African art is sought by Sotheby’s. “It’s always been in front of her,” he says of the mask, reminding her of where she is, in Africa.

Two precisely carved masks from the Chokwe tradition hang in the entrance hall of her modest white Sir Herbert Baker two-storey. “They have a ferocious beauty,” he says. Gordimer bought the masks on the eve of Congolese independence, long before Kuba cloth and Teke masks became tourist fare. “There’s an acutely observant eye there,” says Nel, whose artwork is on the cover of her latest book. “If you read her writing, she’s intensely visual.”

In her 50 years of marriage to Reinhold Cassirer, the art collector and gallerist, Gordimer has had a complex and passionate relationship with the visual arts —; opening exhibitions and introducing catalogues; featuring artists both as characters in her novels and on the covers; and collaborating with artists on books. Many of the artists who gathered round her table at gatherings and Sunday lunches, from William Kentridge to Sam Nhlengethwa, came into her life through Cassirer. Yet her oldest friendship with an artist, the photographer David Goldblatt, began through her writing.

“Gordimer’s writing became more influential in my processes of visualisation than other photographers,” Goldblatt says. Some of his most seminal work, collected in On the Mines and Lifetimes: Under Apartheid, were collaborations with Nadine Gordimer; she authored the essays for both books.

Goldblatt’s Johannesburg studio has a row of mining hard hats on a top shelf. He grew up in the mining town of Randfontein, where his father ran an outfitter’s store. In 1948, while in high school, he remembers reading Gordimer’s first collection of short stories, The Soft Voice of the Serpent, many of which were set in a mining town. “It was enormously influential,” Goldblatt says. “For the first time, someone was writing about a place that I knew intimately. She made vivid in words what I knew from experience.”

Portrait of Nadine Gordimer by David Goldblatt

Dressed in denim shorts and boots, his hair still brown and thick, the 74-year old photographer does not look his age, besides a slight stoop. He looks fulfilled, as if he owes his youthful looks to his vocation. And regular gym. Goldblatt came to his vocation late, and has the intensity of somebody who had to catch up on lost time. The way Goldblatt states the exact date – September 15, 1963 – when he handed over the keys to his father’s shop and became a full-time photographer, “with no clients, no experience,” it’s clear that it was the most significant decision of his life.

He took photographs, he says, “With no clear purpose other than to try and pin down on film some of the things important to me as part of my environment.” That environment was “showing visible signs of dying,” as the deep-level mines, central to both his and Gordimer’s childhoods, became unprofitable. He photographed rock dumps, ore trains, amputated headgear, tailings wheels, steam hoists, concession stores, shovels —; the captions to his mine photographs are like poetry.

“While I was doing this,” he says, “I had Gordimer’s writing in my mind. We are cut from the same cloth.” Eventually, he asked the writer Lionel Abrahams to introduce him to Gordimer, and left a “parcel of rough prints” with her. A few days later she called him, agreeing to write an accompanying essay. She went out with Goldblatt a few times, as he took photographs. “She’s an exhilarating observer,” he says. Years later, he still marvels at “the way our observations coalesced.” It’s reflected in the synchronicity between his work and Gordimer’s rhythmic essay, The Witwatersrand: a time and tailings. Sentences like “The shaftheads are the totem objects of the extinct frontier society,” and “The landscape that was made is being dismantled” reflect on the passing of an age that defined our country.

They published the collaboration in Optima magazine first, and it became part of their landmark 1973 book, On the Mines. It was the start of a long friendship, travelling on magazine assignments to Botswana, France, and the Transkei, before collaborating again on another book, Lifetimes: Under Apartheid. “We knew that there were cross-currents, cross-references, in subject matter between her writing and my photographs,” he says.

For Lifetimes, Goldblatt’s famous collection of in situ portraits – like the iconic ‘boss boy’ with his three-star arm band and penknife, or the nursemaid with her hand curled around the ankle of the farmer’s son —; they chose excerpts from Gordimer’s fiction, shuffling them around, “in clusters of images, clusters of words.” Since then, Gordimer has opened his exhibitions, more than once, and written one of a number of essays in Fifty-one Years David Goldblatt, a retrospective book on his work. “I’ve shown her just about everything that I’ve done,” he says.

The first person who Gordimer showed her novels after writing them was her husband, Cassirer, who made a living through his eye for art. Since immigrating to South Africa, Cassirer had been a linchpin in the country’s art circles. “He had a zest for life,” Goldblatt says, “He encouraged the things we did.” This characterisation of Cassirer as a man without bitterness is fascinating —; he came from a wealthy industrialist family, with an enormous collection of art, but their business was confiscated by the Nazis and they had to flee Germany in the 1930s. Their family-owned gallery had been one of the first to exhibit Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse in Berlin. In 1969, Cassirer established Sotheby’s in South Africa and was its director for many years until he opened his own gallery in Rosebank. Through that gallery, Cassirer fostered the careers of important artists like William Kentridge and David Koloane, and through that gallery, Gordimer established long relationships with artists who continue to seek out her opinion of their work, even after Cassirer’s death in 2001.

“The first story I read of hers was about a maid who served a family on Sundays, on her legs all day. I had relatives who worked as maids in the suburbs, who went through the same experience,” says Koloane, who is a co-director of the Bag Factory in Fordsburg. “That struck me as a remarkable story. The fact that it was written by a white woman — how could she be so observant?” Koloane speaks in a slow, deep voice, sometimes obscured by the rumble of trucks outside, and uses a large magnifying glass to read numbers in his address book. Gordimer wrote the preface to Koloane’s 2002 retrospective Taxi Art book and her description of his studio, down to the saxophone against the bicycle wheel, was still accurate when I visited him recently.

“A few days ago David Koloane showed me his latest work,” Gordimer writes. “Standing among cityscapes and even a stark charcoal sketch of dogs, were what he calls his ‘assemblages’ — found objects, mounted on rough wooden boards. They seemed to me to encompass memory and history as well as a tactile fascination with three-dimensional form. An old saxophone against a worn bicycle wheel — one’s imagination can take many different flights from that, bringing back an era, perhaps, of townships jazz fast-pedalling along on the only kind of vehicle the poor could afford.”

It was in that era that Gordimer set her novel Occasion for Loving, about a black artist who has an illegal affair with a white girl. Despite the gap between her life as a white writer and her fictional character, Gideon Shibalo, the artist, is one of her most convincing characters. His authenticity probably stems from hanging out with the Drum crowd in Sophiatown and the open house that she and Cassirer kept, where black artists, writers and politicians were frequent guests. Shibalo’s sense of failure and inability to work after the white girl chooses safety over love portrays the frustration black artists felt in the early 1960s at their half-lives. One Pretoria artist I spoke to from that era, Ike Nkoana, found his work smeared with shit after an exhibition.

That era is over though, in part through the efforts of figures like Cassirer. Gordimer established scholarship in his name, funding studio time for emerging artists at the Bag Factory or an advanced diploma at the Wits School of Art. Though memorial scholarships can’t replace Cassirer’s presence, which many artists miss. Famously, Cassirer was the one who persuaded Kentridge to continue when he felt he was failing as an artist. Cassirer also played a large role in resuscitating interest in Sekoto, long after the artist had left for Paris for good. Gordimer, though, has offered encouragement in her own way. Both Koloane and the collagist Sam Nhlengethwa have illustrated covers of her books, and Mozambican artists illustrated a collector’s edition of her short story, The Ultimate Safari. And when Nhlengethwa, who exhibited alongside Sekoto, goes to events at Gordimer’s house she draws him aside to tell him how proud she is of him — they are both from Springs. “Writers don’t only listen, they look,” Nadine Gordimer told me in an interview with her about the collection of short stories she edited, Telling Tales. Pressed for time, she still spent several minutes enthusing about the book’s cover, a reproduction of Nel’s Elegies to the Forest, a sheet of baobab tissue that he collected in Madagascar and embellished with red pigment, rubbing into half of the surface. Nel used to exhibit in Cassirer’s gallery. At the end of the interview, she took one of the Chokwe masks off the wall in her entranceway so I could look closer. At first glance, other than the traditional clay pots she collects, the masks are the only art downstairs. But the walls of her home have been emptier since the death of Cassirer. She would always jokingly differentiate the small Degas bronze horse in their bedroom, the Manet portait of Bertha Morrisot, the Toulouse-Lautrec, the Daumier, the Rodin drawing, the Coubert, as “Reiny’s art,” says Nel. Cassirer left much of the art to his children (some from a previous marriage) in his will, but Gordimer sometimes misses them now because the paintings remind her of him.

Whenever Gordimer returns from her travels abroad —; often five or six times year —; she has intense discussions with Nel around the art they have seen. They have often seen the same show and share, for example, their impressions of the remodelling of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “Our shared conversations around Reinhold and art have brought us closer in recent years,” says Nel. As much as Cassirer’s death was a loss to the art world, it is a loss Gordimer feels far deeper. A few months ago she told Nel that only now she realises the “profound beauty” Cassirer brought to her life. That beauty remains.

One of my final questions to Gordimer, who is 81 years old, was whether writing brought her peace, solace from the everyday. She sighed happily. “It is the constant factor in my life, through everything else that has happened to me. I’ve been very fortunate that I had, in my second marriage, 48 years of the most wonderful relationship. So, what is left to me now that my man is dead? The answer is what has been with me all along, the only thing, is my work, my writing. Which is this endless discovery until the day … it stops.”

Henk Rossouw is the Johannesburg-based Africa correspondent for Washington’s The Chronicle of Higher Education and a freelance writer on the arts for Newsweek International, New York

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