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Vermaak | Entertainment > Visueel | Visual > Artikels | Articles > A glimpse into the bumpy life of South African modern art

A glimpse into the bumpy life of South African modern art

Ferdinand Kidd - 2007-07-02
The latest exhibition in the Stellenbosch Modern And Contemporary Art Gallery is entitled "Abstract SA Art from the Isolation Years Volume 1".

It includes works by artists such as Armando Baldinelli, Bettie Cilliers-Barnard, Christo Coetzee, Paul du Toit, Charles Gassner, Sidney Goldblatt, Sidney Khumalo, Erik Laubscher, Simon Lekgetho, Renée le Roux, Aileen Lipkin, Louis Maqhubela, Judith Mason, Dirk Meerkotter, Douglas Portway, Fred Schimmel, Larry Scully, Cecil Skotnes, Edwardo Villa and Gordon Vorster.

The first aspect of this particular list that strikes one is that the artists are mostly white males. However, before criticising this fact, one must take into account the historical period or time frame during which these works were produced. The works were almost all made during the 1960s to 1980s in South Africa – this is after all what the title of the exhibition implies. An exhibition of English “high colonial’’ art of the 1600s will also mostly, if not only, consist of works by white males. It was only after they (the artists exhibited at the SMAC) were firmly established that they could help produce a new generation of black abstract artists, such as Louis Maqhumbela, Sidney Khumalo, and David Koloane.

However, an exhibition of art from the same period, but by artists that were not necessarily so well supported, might have been a bit more exciting. And although this particular exhibition is not as refreshing as the (Doug) Gimberg/ (Christian) Nerf/ (Ruth) Sacks/ (Ed) Young exhibition that was held in the SMAC in March this year, it is quite nice to see art from the apartheid South Africa that does not directly deal with it. In this sense this exhibition is quite unusual. One might then suggest, like M A Nolte does in his article in Die Burger, “Was hulle in isolasie of in ontkenning?’’ (p 10, June 25) that they might not have been in isolation as so much as in denial. This point, however, could be the subject of an entire article, and one on which the viewer must make a personal decision.

Because of the lack of international exposure and isolation, almost all these artists received their training overseas, especially in Europe. Some, like Fred Schimmel, Charles Gassner and Eduardo Villa, grew up and received their training there and only settled in South Africa later in their lives. Others - like Christo Coetzee, Paul du Toit, Erik Laubscher, Bettie Cilliers-Barnard and Ernst Makoba - were born here and then went abroad to receive training. As a result they created, although European-inspired, a unique school of South African representational abstraction. One must note that it developed much more slowly, later and more sporadically than in other countries. Local art buyers were obviously also cut off from Europe, and therefore did not always understand or comprehend the then Avant Garde. The first exhibition of abstract art in South Africa was only held in Johannesburg in 1950, and the art market was very slow to accept it. Thus it was very hard to make a living from contemporary art in South Africa during the apartheid years, which meant that only artists of particular skill and perseverance could operate properly during that time. This, in turn, meant that the art that was produced of a high standard as the skill of the industry, was a lot more concentrated.

The work can therefore be seen as deeply influenced by the socio-political situation in South Africa. Because of the instinctive and often subconscious nature of abstract art, influence manifests in a rather interesting way. It is not a rational, well thought out reaction to its circumstance, but rather a look into the minds and collective mindset of the artists. This becomes especially evident if one compares it to art produced in Europe during the same period.

The exhibition, on the whole, is fairly successful and certainly the first of its kind I’ve seen. It provides a glimpse into the roots and earliest stages of the often bumpy life of South African modern art, and hopefully, like the title implies, there will be more in the months to follow.

Get a glimpse of what is on offer in this exhibition’s catalogue.

Read Muller Ballot’s introduction to the exhibition.

More info on the exhibition, “Abstract SA Art from the isolation years”.

Contact Laetitia van Waesberghe at the SMAC Art Gallery by phoning 021-887 3607 or emailing info@smacgallery.com