Dashiki Dialogues: Contesting high art and low farts

2012-04-27 15:30

A general glance at the South African visual art landscape should worry anyone interested in how our fine arts reflect our collective public identity.

I’m talking about how the work that currently defines our contemporary canon of art defines a sense of who we are as a nation.

Like if we wrapped up all of these paintings, photographs, sculptures, happenings and so on, then sent them out for consideration by a panel of Martians, what impression would the work give them?

Particularly if compared to the art landscape that defined the 1970s or even the 1990s to a degree.

The aesthetic bias of the current body of work would generally come out ideologically one-sided.

It worries me that a diversity of voices once guaranteed by the vibrant community art projects from the so-called “marginal” areas is visibly absent.

These are the communities former president Thabo Mbeki once termed “the second economy”.

The last time I remember an artist who came out of such projects and won one of our prestigious annual competitions was in 2000. Klas Thibeletsa’s oil painting titled Step Daughter Unwelcomed won him first prize at the Sasol New Signatures.

He was trained at the Mmabana Cultural Centre in the North West. Mmabana was part of the former Bophuthatswana Bantustan’s projects that have since become redundant. I wonder why.

Anyway, I must also note that there are rare stars like Mbongeni Buthelezi, who has forged a unique technique of using burnt plastic to paint. He came out of Funda Centre in Soweto, a type of resource that is fast becoming extinct.

We have to mourn when valuable places like FUBA (Federated Union of Black Arts) close their doors.

A fate shared by Tshwane’s Arts for All, which began its life as Art For Africa in the building that has since been commandeered by Unisa’s Centre for African Renaissance Studies.

The general absence of these centres and the artists they produce has left traditional institutions of higher learning to monopolise the ideological space.

Their liberal bias goes uncontested in our cultural economy.

I hope the energy displayed by the bourgeoning service delivery protests will ignite a new wave of community cultural workers.

The global triumph of neoliberal markets and what can loosely be termed a post-apartheid social fatigue with community politics have left our visual culture lacking representation.

We live under uncontested dominance of university-produced artists. The problem here is that most are not social rebels but are aspirant, if not already middle-class art professionals.

One could even say that the black among these produce art that has little real sociopolitical significance in the so-called black middle class.

I’m uncertain if they are interested in balancing the dominant liberal bias. Hence a robustly contested dialogue in our cultural space can only colour our dashikis with an authentic claim to unity in diversity.

» Follow me Twitter @Percy_Mabandu

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