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Visual Century: South African Art in Context 1907-2007

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Because it took so long to see the light of day, Visual Century generated much talk, speculation and anticipation. A great deal of publicity and hype accompanied the launch that took place in South Africa and in the USA - a most unusual occurrence for a local publication.The idea of writing an overview of South Africa art originated with Gavin Jantjes, who left the country in 1970 and now lives in Norway. Former minister of arts and culture, Pallo Jordan, liked his proposal and made money available for the research and development of the manuscript. Jantjes was the project director and Mario Pissarra was appointed in 2007 as project manager and editor-in-chief. Lize van Robbroeck assisted in creating the framework for the book, and each of the four volumes had one or more editors. In addition, thirty-three local and international experts were involved.


Visual Century is a beautiful publication, richly illustrated with full-colour photographs. As is to be expected from a project of this magnitude, the contributions vary in quality, but on the whole the research is sound, the texts are readable, and extensive footnotes, as well as a timeline showing developments in South African politics and international art, guide the serious reader to more information and sources.Numerous publications about South African art have appeared since the 1990s, but nobody has attempted to produce a comprehensive account from a post-apartheid perspective and in the context of national and international art practice and art history. The four volumes are arranged chronologically but the art is approached thematically.At the launch of Visual Century in Johannesburg, Verne Harris, head of the Memory Programme at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, referred to the publicity claim that the book " … makes a major contribution towards the construction of an inclusive national archive," and noted its potential strengths and vulnerability: "its own meaning and significance, and value, will ultimately become located in the contexts of its own production, and in the contexts within which it will be read and used." He suggested four fundamental measures by which the contribution of Visual Century to the realisation of a "decolonised post-apartheid" may be evaluated. I would like to venture a response to Harris's questions.1First: "Does it escape the totalising instinct of metanarrative construction? Is it challenging old metanarratives only by reproducing them or by generating equally claustrophobic new ones?" Harris applies the deconstruction test, and in terms of postmodern critiques of meta-narratives, Visual Century is successful: there are many writers, voices, stories and perspectives and a number of artists who have received little or no attention in the past are acknowledged and discussed. This plurality and the overlapping periods have, however, resulted in duplication. Although it is refreshing to encounter artists' work in more than one context, this, as well as the repetition of facts and events, becomes boring, particularly if one reads the volumes from beginning to end. My view on the second part of the question is partially expressed in my response to Harris's third and fourth questions.Second: "Does Visual Century resist - for it can never fully escape - the old colonial habit of relying on experts to ensure that learning takes place for non-experts?" Harris refers specifically to the positions of power in which experts find themselves and their almost "paternalist influence over when and how memory is constructed." The involvement of experts in such an ambitious project - for better or for worse - is unavoidable. Writers include art historians, museologists, curators, artists, art theorists, literary scholars, poets, urban geographers and cultural activists. This broad approach is reflected, for example, in Nessa Leibhammer's collaboration with Vonani Bila in the chapter "Re-evaluating Traditional Art in a South African Context". Paternalism is resisted through the inclusion of Bila's voice - whose oral history of aesthetic production is not mediated either by Western art- historical or anthropological controls and canons.Third: To what extent does Visual Century tend what Harris calls the "bruised places", the "colonial" silences, the secrets, taboos and lies that will not go away? For him, post-apartheid South Africa offers a less than fertile environment for the ideals of transparency, freedom of information and truth-recovery. And this is another test for the book: "How successful has it been at declining any dictate to turn away from these places, to pretend that they are not there? How courageous has it been in going to where it is painful, and where it is painful to go?"There are excellent articles about the bruised places and psyches of apartheid that expand our knowledge of our visual history and archive exponentially. But a major shortcoming is the lack of engagement with the failures and successes of South Africa over the past twenty years, a time of profound political change. Volume four, which covers the years 1990-2007, is particularly disappointing in this regard.In his contribution, "Great Expectations A View from Europe", Jantjes appropriately tackles government for its neglect of our visual artists and art. Andries Oliphant concludes his chapter, "Imagined Futures: Some New Trends in South African Art", with the observation that the "… democratisation of South Africa has … not inaugurated a post-colonial utopia; rather it has lurched from apartheid to the brink of a full-blown dystopia." He lists some of the demons of our society: "… a health pandemic [has HIV/AIDS become unmentionable?], unemployment, intolerance, xenophobia and a plethora of other social, economic and environmental ills …" and imagines that the "… art of the future … should and will play a leading role in creatively engaging these problems in the continuing quest to humanise the world."The problem is that while artists have been doing this for some time now, Visual Century does not deal with the bruised places and pain of our democracy. Where is the chapter on HIV/AIDS and the extraordinary art that has been fuelled by it since the 1990s? Where is the environment, global warming and land art? How can this visual century be described without Zapiro's cartoons and other works that deal with contemporary issue and challenges?Visual Century concludes in 2007, but because the project took so long there are references in many texts to more recent articles and books, so there can be no excuse that, for example, the "secrecy bill" (which was in the making before its introduction in 2008) is not mentioned.Federico Freschi writes two articles on the decorative programmes in public buildings that promoted Afrikaner nationalism, but Constitution Hill and its groundbreaking architectural and art programme (one of our great success stories) gets but a mention (in the same sentence as Metro Mall and Faraday Market) in Zayd Minty's "Public Art Projects in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Visual Culture, Creative Spaces and Postcolonial Geographies", while the City of Cape Town's Memory Project is mentioned only in a footnote. What about the memorial projects and new museums that have been created since 1994?To fill this glaring gap I recommend Jonathan Noble's book African Identity in Post-Apartheid Public Architecture: White Skin, Black Masks. At the core are five public architectural projects: the Mpumalanga Legislature, Nelspruit; the Northern Cape Legislature, Kimberley; the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Johannesburg; the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication, Kliptown; Freedom Park, Pretoria. These politically prominent projects are notable examples of contemporary public buildings and what can be achieved through open and transparent competitions. They showcase different kinds of architecture in a variety of locations and set the scene for Noble's post-colonial perspective on political transformation and its ramifications for architecture in an evolving African democracy. The role of decorative themes associated with African idioms and experience, as well as the involvement of artists and craftspeople in the creation of new imagery and surface treatments, are explored in depth. This book and others like it, for example Art and Justice: The Art of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, do not get a mention and thus the implication is that the traditional boundaries between art and architecture are in no way challenged by Visual Century.This last point touches on Harris's fourth test: "To what extent does it enable readers, at one and the same time, not to be alienated from the future and not to be overly at home with it?" Harris believes that societies, and possibly individuals, learn most readily not from the past but from the future. Visual Century is a valuable resource and contribution to the literature on South African art, but there is little about the present, let alone the future (this includes the selection of images in volume four).There are exceptions: in his contribution "In Human History: Pasts and Prospects in South African Art Today", Colin Richards discusses, among others, works inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He affirms that: "… art is of profound and abiding human consequence - in power, in strangeness, in openness - part of the unfolding history of now." He goes on to argue that from 1990 art,… begins to give us a glimpse of what it might mean to be free, allowing us to imagine that the struggle of becoming fully human is never over. Insofar as a critical humanism links the aesthetic and the ethical, art and politics, it continues aspects of South African resistance art before 1990 while at the same time paradoxically beginning to free us from the obligations of that time.In "The Experimental Turn in the Visual Arts" Kathryn Smith reminds us of the numerous collective practices and public events that were spawned by the sense of freedom that came with democracy and the concomitant unfettered engagement with the international community. She explores the reasons that "The energy of the early 1990s art world has not been equalled in the subsequent decade", offering keen insight into what the future may hold. Accessibility will be the acid test for the future meaning, impact and value of Visual Century. The texts are readable, sometimes compelling, but how broad an audience will be reached? The hefty price tag of R1 500.00 will no doubt deter many an art professional or lover, student and artist. Readers will judge and time will tell.1. All quotations from Harris's text may be found on the UCT Archival Platform website Marilyn Martin is a writer, curator and art historian based in Cape Town.
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