South Africa’s Post-Apartheid Artists – Galvanized for Change
By Teboho Mokoni, arts and culture critic, Johannesburg
11.15.2016: At the Post Its No. 1: Post-apartheid /|Postcolonial opening at Constitution Hill last week, a former political prsoner recounted, for an audience that numbered in the hundreds, his and his family’s struggles to remember but also overcome his experiences during apartheid. An artist armed herself with an AK 47 in a spellbinding performance about the power of anger — over others and over her. Ayanda Mabulu’s shocking depictions of South Africa’s President engaged in a sex act with one of the country’s most powerful businessman — who scandalized the country with their seeming disregard for the difference between government and the pursuit of profit and personal gain, were displayed. Nelson Makamo, one of South Africa’s most important artists, entered what he calls a new phase of his career with portraits that depict his traditional subjects, children, in a far more melancholy light. And Ndabuko Ntuli’s 3D sculptures were forged from the discarded trash he brought back from his native Kwazulu-Natal. Even as newspapers and television stations here report on the waves of controversy that these artists – a group of eleven whose work is showing at Constitution Hill now through the end of the month have inspired, a quieter controversy is growing: have these artists — some of the country’s best, been too drawn into politics? Is this group exhibition doing harm to the intensively personal visions that some of these artists have spent their careers cultivating? And if so, what does this mean for the state of South African art amidst growing dissatisfaction in the country?
“There is nothing more important than this struggle,” Ayanda Mabulu commented in a recent conversation at the exhibition at Constitution Hill following a museum-sponsored public dialogue with the artists. “I don’t like beautiful things. I like powerful things. And art is a struggle to represent — a struggle for power with power and how it wants to represent reality.”
That reality is South Africa’s ‘past,’ and the question of its status in post-apartheid South Africa. The younger generations in particular have turned against a status quo that ended apartheid, but did not pursue the more radical reforms that those outside the ruling party are increasingly calling for. The refrain that ‘this is still apartheid’ is not a new saying here. These artists have explored this oft heard comment in depth — and placed their investigation of whether apartheid and colonialism persist on display at Johannesburg’s largest museum.
It’s easy to see how art critics might take affront at a show whose group statements about the endlessness of apartheid and colonialism seems to interrupt attention to these artist’s individual paths through their careers. But many are also saying that through their collaboration with one another and social researcher/curators Matthew Nesvet (who lived in New England while attending boarding school in Massachusetts) and Asanda Madosi, their works have changed — and for the better.
Nelson Makamo’s portraits of children no longer depict them at play — now, they stare out at a future that is almost blinding in the force of its challenge to the newer generations of South Africans born after apartheid — but still into uncertainty and crisis. Bev Butkow’s figures with fists in the air embody the power of the female form — galvanized by their memories of the past and the iconic ways that politics and social change can be intensively personal. Artists Neo Matloga and Pebo Mokoena’s both show the faceless figures of post-apartheid as they struggle for a humanity in the communities they are wrenched away from as Mokoena’s works portray laborers in distant places fashion themselves into ‘respectable’ — meaning employable by the powers that be, subjects.
Whatever one thinks of portraying a government’s corruption through the metaphor of a sex act between a notorious political patron and client-president, as Ayanda Mabulu does, and whether or not one wishes for a country’s young artists to pursue distinct paths of individual self-expression or a more collaborative ‘movement’ of artists who are critical, political and often not polite, “Post Its No. 1: South Africa” seems to have elicited public attention in ways that few exhibitions to date have. At Constitution Hill, the number of visitors crowding the museum to see this show is unprecedented — and these visitors do not shade toward white and wealthy in the way that visitors to galleries including the established Goodman to the upstart Kalashnikov do. Perhaps the curators may have exhibited these artists more as individuals, and less as members of a generation exploring different ways to move past the past. Or perhaps asking a social question of a group of artists — as curators Matthew Nesvet and Asanda Madosi did, broadens not just the reach, but the power to inspire public conversation about continuity and change. In either case, the answers these artists visualized to the question of whether apartheid and colonialism are a part of history or facts of the present are not to be missed. The show that everyone’s talking about in Johannesburg (which unconfirmed rumors say Constitution Hill will extend through at least next month to accommodate all the visitors) may not just be a media circus in passing, but also mark a lasting shift in South African art to socially and politically engaged concerns at the forefront of Johannesburg’s burgeoning arts scene.
“Post Its No. 1: South Africa” continues through July 24 at Constitution Hill Museum, Braamfontein Johannesburg. Go to facebook.com/PostItsArt or PostItsArt.org for details. The exhibition will continue at a yet to be determined museum in Europe that explores those country’s claims to being “post” Holocaust and “post” migration, and at an exhibition in the United States that explores claims that country is “post” racial and “post” slavery — and how like apartheid and colonialism, all of these institutions in those countries may not yet have passed into history.