When a well known South African art critic last week bemoaned the decaying state of a once-venerable art museum in a major South African city, she was accused of seeing things through the myopic eye of her ‘privilege and its archaic association with art’, blind to the ‘social deprivation of our citizens.’ It was another indication of the battle going on in a country searching for its new identity after apartheid. When there is so much poverty and suffering, can we justify giving precious resources to things of beauty, like paintings?
The word ‘privilege’ has almost become synonymous in public discourse with the word ‘white’ and is used as a racial jibe. Populist politicians like EFF leader Julius Malema, call for lessening white influence in national life, and decry the influence of ‘white capitalists’. European values imported as part of the colonialist era are slated; 2015 was a year in which statues of arch-colonialists like Cecil John Rhodes were torn down – to the applause of some and dismay of others.
Amidst this difficult search for where this country is heading, it is easy to understand the anger of the people attacking colonialist vestiges, which to them represent white racism. Their rage is a legitimate part of the mixture of forces from which will emerge a new society. But South Africa has been a ship without a rudder for years, since Mandela’s potent push for a non-racial, liberal society. Self-serving incompetents now pretend to be leaders.
During the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1970s, ‘80s and beyond, pioneering white artists and mentors like Bill Ainslie, Sylvia Glasser, Lionel Abrahams and Barney Simon – among many others in visual art, dance, literature, theatre and music – were passionate about finding and nurturing young black artists as part of their protest against apartheid, and their vision of the new South Africa they hoped would come afterwards. For them, the making and cherishing of art would be intrinsic.
They went into impoverished townships looking for talented youngsters and provided spaces and facilities for them. Some of these protégés are now pillars of the cultural scene, such as Vincent Mantsoe, Mncedisi Shabangu and Gregory Maqoma to name but a few.
But something has gone wobbly along the way. Huge questions are being raised about the things the country should be doing. So what kind of society are we building?
A hint at an answer was provided in 1986 by Mandla Nkosi, a black artist from Soweto then in his early twenties. He lived in a shack with his mother until he was discovered by white artists. They arranged for him to move into a back room in Ainslie’s art school in Saxonwold, a white suburb of Johannesburg. This was when apartheid was in its last violent throes. A state of emergency had been imposed by the government, and widespread violence raged between township blacks and security forces.
Nkosi’s paintings portrayed these confrontations. His huge black, white and red collages hung in the hall of the art school, depicting larger-than-life figures of police with dogs and guns fighting with outraged black people. The combatants’ faces were twisted and anguished.
He was asked what this meant as an artist. Was his art inevitably political, did he have to be part of the political struggle?
He answered yes, of course his art was partly political. His experiences made it unavoidable. But his goal was beyond, in the realm of beauty, where one does not have to choose sides between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people and be defined by the ‘struggle’.
“I paint about anger, injustice and conflict. But I also like to paint a rose!”
After living at the art school for two years, a wealthy white family offered Nkosi a room in their house. Sadly, he was killed a few years later.
Art, beauty and things of the spirit are not about Verwoerd, colonialism and the legacy of the apartheid killing machine. There are many cultural institutions like the art museum mentioned above which are in decay, and denigrated as bastions of white privilege and colonialist culture. They should be embraced and re-dedicated by new visionaries, and merged with the vibrant energy of contemporary South Africa.
If we lose the ability to celebrate the rose because there is poverty and suffering, and because there was apartheid and colonialism, we will have lost the battle for a good society.
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist and author based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was Editor of the SA Jewish Report for 16 years, from 1999-2014)
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