A cultural heritage comes home

2011-02-21 00:00

A CULTURAL weapon to inform and empower all South Africans is how the chief executive officer of the Ifa Lethu Foundation, Dr Narissa Ram-dhani, describes the extraordinary travelling exhibition titled Home and Away: A Return To The South, which opened at the Durban Art Gallery yesterday­.

In her message in the exhibition’s catalogue she says: “Cultural heri- tage­ was employed as a weapon by all sides during the apartheid years — as a weapon of oppression by the state and as a weapon of resistance by the freedom movements.

“The Ifa Lethu Foundation has today seized the opportunity to employ cultural heritage yet again as a weapon­, but this time to inform, to empower all South Africans, to break down those cultural barriers that have caused so much pain and finally to teach young South Africans how to transcend adversity and heal the nation­.”

The artworks on show combine two impressive collections — those in the Ifa Lethu collection, which were created­ by South African artists during the apartheid years (1948 and 1990) and which were bought and taken away from the country by diplomats, journalists and collectors; and the Art Against Apartheid collection, which is made up of works by international artists in solidarity with the freedom struggle.

The works in the Ifa Lethu collection have been returned to South Africa­ as part of a repatriation process­, initiated following the launch of the organisation in 2005.

Its collection was kickstarted by a generous donation by Australian diplomats Bruce Haigh and Diane Johnstone of works in their struggle collection.

Ramdhani said: “Private collections are often inaccessible to the public and remain within collectors’ personal possessions. It is therefore remarkable how the foundation has been able to source so many works which were never in the public domain.”

Carol Brown, former director of the Durban Art Gallery and now an independent curator, who put together the Home and Away exhibition, said: “It examines the similarities and differences between the works produced by South African artists experiencing the oppression of apartheid and those from beyond our shores who created works in support of the struggle. Although produced from different perspectives, the two collections are united in their focus on human rights.”

She added that by putting the two collections together visitors would be able to see that the work produced by South African artists could stand alongside those made abroad and hold their own.

Among the artists represented in the exhibition are Fluoman, Dumile Feni, Eric Mbatha, Winston Saoli, Nat Mokgosi, Joe Tilson and Richard Hamilton.

In an article in the prestigious Art in America journal, art critic and writer Steven Dubin said of Home And Away: “Representing, literally, the return of the repressed, the Ifa Lethu cache offers a rich vein of material yet to be fully explored and holds the potential­ to substantially expand our perceptions about South African art history.”

And Pamela Allara (Associate Professor emerita, Brandeis University, United States) said: “The exhibition is a true breakthrough in many ways. I do think that one of the outcomes of the exhibit and its catalogue will be to begin to lift the cloud hanging over ‘township art’ and permit its genuine achievements to be acknowledged.”

Home and Away was first staged in Johannesburg at Constitutional Hill, before moving to the Iziko Museum — Michaelis Collection Old Town House, which usually houses the Dutch collection­. For its run in Durban there will be the added element of a showcase for a fashion design skills development project, run under the auspices of Ifa Lethu and managed by Durban­ fashion designer Greg Wallis.

Home and Away can be viewed until March 30 at Durban Art Gallery in Smith Street.

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