South African ART -- Signs

Edwin Meulensteen

Modern Art and Cultural Development in a Changing Society

In the imagination of most viewers African art is associated with traditional artistic artefacts – masks, carved wood sculptures, mostly coloured, stelae and various cult objects which can be seen at exhibitions and often attract the interest of collectors. However, today African art is not merely represented by the classical tradition.

The visitors to the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum will have a marvellous opportunity to view the exhibition of contemporary South African art to be launched at the Museum on September 9, 2007.

South African Art is an exhibition curated by Edwin Meulensteen, who during his time spent in this country had an opportunity to acquire first-hand knowledge of various forms of contemporary African art. The collection of almost thirty artists on view has been selected in cooperation with the Iziko South African National Gallery and several leading art galleries in South Africa.

The evaluation and perception of South African art is impossible without taking into consideration the country’s long struggle for freedom during the period of apartheid. In the new conditions, society and art are seeking their identity and discovering the future prospects through the prism of their past. All of these themes and issues are deeply reflected in the work of South African artists. No matter how diverse the work of the exhibiting artists is, as regards themes and techniques, there is a strong inner link represented by figurative subject matter reflecting everyday, often painful, problems of ordinary people. Many of these artists are among the leading figures of contemporary South African art, representing older or younger generations. Naturally, traditional African art has played an important role in designing contemporary artistic programmes – tendency towards the stylisation of geometrical shapes or narrative rendering of motifs. This is demonstrated by Shaka Zulu, a painted and carved wood panel by Cecil Skotnes who is regarded one of the fathers of South African modern art. The work of the highly recognised Esther Mahlangu, who modifies traditional painting in a modern manner, was shown at the Centre George Pompidou. Willie Bester's famous resistance art Prime Evil was shown in the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona. Zwelethu Mthwethwa vibrant pastel work was shown in the Tabu Museum of Art in Tokyo.

The existential perception of reality is transferred into portraits (Marlene Dumas), genre scenes (Norman Catherine, Conrad Botes), expressive figures (Robert Hodgins) and is also reflected in the problems of HIV / AIDS (David Goldblatt). The boundaries between accepted notions of craft and art are explored when beads, ceramics and enamel depict animals hung by their feet, transported from mass fattening stations (Tamlin Blake).

The differentiation of South African art in various themes, genres and motifs can also be seen in the choice of materials. Paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, all art forms shown at the exhibition are executed with an undeniable sense of work in materials. From our perspective we would rather call them untraditional methods. But when we try to compare it to European art we find ourselves in different contexts. What was discovered as untraditional by European modern art, was a part of traditional African art. The stylisation of figures, work with wood and colouring, the use of textile techniques, grass, beads – all of them were materials commonly used. Therefore when artists use glass beads, enamel, varnish and coloured wood, the actual material cannot be merely perceived as an experiment, but as an attempt to put them into a modern visual context. Endeavours of exhibiting artists are directed towards similar results: to overcome or connect traditional means with contemporary artistic feeling. The difference of cultural contexts should not lead to mechanical comparison, but rather to a sensitive perception and understanding of their essence or to a comprehension of the message they send to the world through their art.

Eva Trojanová