Healing a nation using art

2011-03-30 00:00

A POWERFUL new exhibition, showcasing the work of artists who refused to be forgotten and silenced during apartheid, proves that the creative arts have a huge role to play in overcoming the many social challenges that we face in South Africa.

Speaking about Home and Away: A Return To The South, which is at the Durban Art Gallery, the chief executive officer of the Ifa Lethu Foundation, Narissa Ramdhani, said: “While the first decade of our democracy correctly focused on redressing imbalances in the material welfare of its citizens, it has become clear that the neglect of the RDP of our souls has resulted in fractures in our society, as evidenced by high levels of crime, anger and violence, especially on the part of the youth.

“Ultimately, it is hoped that art will lead to a national healing of the country and its citizens. [We believe] art will not only educate our children about their cultural heritage, but will encourage them in their own creative thoughts and endeavours.”

The Ifa Lethu Foundation was launched in 2005 with the aim of locating and repatriating artworks created during apartheid to South Africa.

Asked why it is so important for the paintings and drawings to come home, Ramdhani said: “These repatriated collections form an integral part of our heritage resources, much of which found its way out of South Africa during the turbulent eighties.

“Repatriating these collections back to South Africa will serve to foster the process of nation building, seek to fill a void in this country’s art heritage and serve to protect and promote our national heritage.”

Many of the works on show at the Durban Art Gallery were in the hands of private collectors — journalists, diplomats and others — who bought them while posted in South Africa. The first donation of some 29 different works came from former Australian diplomat Diane Johnstone, who was posted to South Africa in the sixties and seventies.

“As our former Minister of Arts and Culture, Dr Pallo Jordan, has pointed out, this was not an act of plunder but an act of altruism in the purest sense,” Ramdhani said. “In buying the works of these black artists, former diplomats helped sustain and fund the painters and sculptors of the townships, especially around Pretoria, allowing them to continue recording life around them and contribute their skills to the struggle through protest art that was both graphic in its impact and poignant in its nuance. Hence the willingness by individuals to donate these collections has been generous and laudable.”

Since the collection was first showcased at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg during the 2010 Soccer World Cup, many of the artists whose work features in Home and Away have attended the exhibitions, among them Mike Mmutle, Nat Mokgosi and Sipho Ndebele. Their work and that of their contemporaries stands alongside that of international artists, whose paintings and drawings in the Art Against Apartheid Collection make up the second part of the Home and Away exhibition.

Both collections will be travelling overseas — first to Canberra in Australia in May and then to London, where they will be exhibited in October, under the custodianship of the British Museum. The final leg will include showings in the Smithsonian in Washington and the Presidential Palace in Santiago, Chile.

Asked how the foundation feels about the works going on tour, Ram­dhani said: “We are very excited about this. It provides us with the opportunity to demonstrate the cultural strength that resides in South Africa.

“Many of the artists in the collection have received little or no recognition and this international journey will accord them the place they deserve in our national heritage. The international interest in this collection and the enthusiasm to host the exhibition in many countries, demonstrates that South African arts and culture has found its place in the world.”

But the Ifa Lethu Foundation does not exist simply to showcase art. It also aims to empower South Africans. “The foundation is devoted to the direct empowerment of the creative industries. These include the visual arts, craft and fashion,” Ramdhani said. “Through our work of contributing to the economic empowerment of geographically isolated communities, we contribute to the process of creating a more entrepreneurial society in the country.”

This spirit is illustrated in an exhibition of fashion, which forms part of the Durban leg of the Home and Away exhibition. Durban designer Greg Wallis, who is in charge of the project, describes the initiative as “unique”.

“In attempting to incorporate the development element into its heritage work, Ifa Lethu has adopted the European model by bringing art and fashion together through its involvement in the development of this sector of the creative industries,” he explained. “While education of the youth of South Africa is a focal area for the foundation, Ifa Lethu has found it vital to excite young people in a fashion line they will not only want to wear, but wear with pride in being South African, and in so doing, create excitement and demand for this new fashion product.”

Wallis added that the art at the gallery had inspired the colours, the lines and the design of the clothing range created by the group of young Durban designers.

• Today is the last day that Home and Away: A Return To The South can be viewed at the Durban Art Gallery in Smith Street.

DR Narissa Ramdhani is the chief executive officer of the Ifa Lethu Foundation, a Gauteng-based organisation devoted to the entrepreneurial development of creative practitioners in South Africa. She holds a Ph.D from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and an honorary doctorate from the University of Connecticut in the United States. Her previous positions have included directorships of research centres at the former universities of Durban-Westville and Natal and positions with Yale University, former President Nelson Mandela’s special projects and the African National Congress. These have resulted in her providing her related expertise to bodies such as the United Nations and countries such as Poland, Spain, Chile, the U.S., Germany and India.

During her tenure at South African and U.S. institutions, she held various fellowships, executive and non-executive memberships of national and international boards, and has chaired many national programmes and international partnerships and collaborative efforts.

Her passionate involvement in the economic empowerment of rural women and youth through her implementation of entrepreneurship programmes in fashion, craft and the visual arts over the past three years, has resulted in many successes for South Africa, such as the creation of business opportunities for women on the continent and beyond. — Supplied.

Many of the artists in the collection have received little or no recognition and this international journey will accord them the place they deserve in our national heritage.

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