The art of memory

2012-01-14 08:48

A group of significant South African fine artists led by Johannes Phokela, Charles Nkosi and David Koloane are calling for the establishment of a South African version of the Museum of Modern Art in New York – featuring four periods and sub-genres of township art.

Initially this “Kasi Moma” will be mobile. The artists envisage that their coup de grâce will be an initial travelling collection of works of this genre, based on loaned and donated works of art. They hope to interest curators in hosting the exhibition in all major urban centres – including a stay of the works at the Union Buildings and the Presidential residence Mahlambandlovu next year.

They aim to have a permanent exhibition that will be wall-to-wall mirrors of our lives under apartheid, symbols of social repression and a window into the soul of a nation.

Cape Town-based art historian and scholar, Thembinkosi Goniwe says, “the very label ‘township art’ is a contested concept in need of rethinking. We need to debate the label while placing the collective works of art as a privileged sight to be re-analysed aesthetically, historically and in light of the politics of the time.”

South African visual art master Phokela says that plans are afoot to place “township art in its historical and theoretical context”.

South African “township art” is a much-debated 20th Century art movement notable for its inimitable depictions of the struggle of people in apartheid-era townships for survival. This art is characterised by vivid depictions often in a multiplicity of materials ranging from paint, wood, plastic, metallics and tin.

These interpretations of everyday life drenched in irony, sarcasm and the mocking of stereotypes of blackness, capture the art of defiance and parody and are a historical record of urban life of the time. They are an account of an epoch, lifestyle, time and mood that has begun to recede into history.

“Current scholarship, and art criticism of this genre is sorely lacking”, says Koloane. “The works and period are under-researched and lack specialised study. We need a rich catalogue of the works”, he says.

He adds: “This body of work needs to be placed and steeped within the liberal arts and linkages with other movements in the history of thought globally and locally need to be made clear. More needs to be done to study this movement, archive it, exhibit it and preserve it for future generations of South Africans and visitors to these shores.”

Painter Isaac Sikhakhane said, “whereas post-Second World War Afrikaans artists’ work – such as the work of Irma Stern, Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, Alexis Preller and others – is enjoying an international boom in sales and value and has been well situated within Modern Art movements, well studied and researched, township art is in danger of relegation.”

He concedes that the early masters of township art like George Pemba, Dumile Feni and Gerald Sekoto have “experienced an appreciation in terms of the prices their works fetch on international auctions in the Anglo-Saxon art world, later-day artists and works are undervalued.”

These artists hope to work with universities, curators, communities of artists, government and business to ensure that the work is captured, interpreted and preserved for posterity and thereby tear down years of inequity in the valuation of South African art.

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