Dashiki Dialogues – What‘s South African art?

2012-02-03 14:00

What is South African about South African art?

A few of my art scene friends and I once hit a snag on this question. We were in fact convinced it’s arguably the most fundamental cultural question since 1994.

So we started searching for an apparent unique trait that connects all the cultural experiences and artifects with our collective identity.

We believed it existed because anyone who’s ever wandered far enough from our borders has felt a peculiar disconnect of sorts.

It’s that thing you miss when you are in grey London or funky Philadelphia, or that thing you rediscover when you are back at OR Tambo International Airport from some far-flung country. But is it real or imagined?

So as we walked in Sunnyside, Tshwane, under the romantic drizzle of purple droplets of jacaranda blooms with boerewors rolls in hand, arguments grew.

“To ask for authentic national identities in the age of internationalist airports and globalised tourism packages is unfashionably parochial, narrow and outdated,” some argued.

Especially in Africa, whose borders were designed by colonial ghosts in Berlin in 1884.

After all, what’s the real difference between the Batswana in Gaborone and Mahikeng, or the Ndebele in Pumula township in Bulawayo, and our Tweefontein in KwaNdebele.

So the nation itself might be historically inauthentic, one of the boys offered, arguing that, except for carrying similar official documents and sharing a language at times, we could be anywhere in the world.

But wait, don’t those sounds known as marabi, kwela or kwaito speak with an unmistakably local flavour?

Even if traditional Mande music of Mali and the American blues share similar traits with the traditional music of ours – like the five-note minor scale and the 1-4-5 chord progression.

Ok, for the uninitiated, these numbers refer to “doh-fah-soh” in the diatonic scale (d-r-m-f-s-l-t-d).

In visual art, Trevor Makhoba’s oil on canvas, Umuzi Wezinsiwa, could only be fathomed by someone born and raised here. So though we can’t name it, or find words to articulate its form, there’s something that connects our material culture.

In its name, just last year Irma Stern’s painting titled Arab Priest sold for R34?million at Bonhams auction house, bettering the R26?million record set by her Bahora Girl in London in October 2010.

Gerard Sekoto’s Yellow Houses in District 6 cost R6.7?million, breaking the previous R6?million record. However, Sekoto ultimately settled in Paris, while Stern’s wanderlust took her all over the world. Hence we must ask, who do they really belong to?

As our dashikis grew sweaty damp from a long stroll, the dialogue found a loose conclusion. The set of traditions that define our uniqueness also connect us to the broader world.

<strong> Follow me on Twitter @Percy_Mabandu </strong>

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