The Fine Arts in South Africa: Towards Straddling the Great Divide

By Glenn Ashton · 20 Apr 2011

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The fine arts in South Africa are not yet representative of our not-so-new democracy. Nor have they gained their own voice in the broader art world. While South Africa has stamped its imprint on the world of opera and film, with diverse products like U-Carmen eKhayelitsha and District 9, while our theatre and culture has fed the world, the fine arts continue to stagnate in a foetid and untransformed backwater, hemmed in by stale commercial and academic influences abetted by indolent state oversight.

The fine arts inhabit a peculiar space. They revolve not around what is beautiful but what is deemed to be beautiful by a narrow coterie of cognoscenti. This is both a global and a local problem. If art is felt to lie outside the definitions and parameters of the fashion of the time it is immediately sidelined by the gatekeepers of good taste, of faux intellectual discernment.

While South Africa certainly has its luminaries like William Kentridge flying our flag around the world, true transformation and representivity have yet to impact the sector. Some change has come, but far too little. This is not for lack of trying – cri de coeur from people like Sharlene Kahn and her provocative “Doing it for Daddy” article, which exposed how white women had taken over from white men while maintaining the status quo, raised a stink until the old guard closed down that particular thread of discourse before retreating back into their laager. Others have spoken out, yet the power brokers of white privilege remain entrenched.

The old guard, drawn from narrow academic roots allied with an even more limited commercial incestuousness, have restricted the revitalisation of the sector since 1994. The public interface with fine arts is compromised by arts journalism being dominated by sycophantic voices that communicate in an obscure code that, perhaps intentionally, fails to speak to a broader audience. There is an audience out there, despite what the insiders think, capable of embracing art for arts sake and uninterested in worshipping self congratulatory, cerebral and intellectual art dressed up as culture.

The rate of change within the old institutions that have traditionally governed the sector has been glacial. Inbred cross-fertilisation and self-reference continue to exclude. Even the state remains baffled and apparently incapable of dislodging the gatekeepers.

This is all neatly evinced by the continued commercial domination of a troika of galleries: the ostensibly progressive Michael Stevenson and Linda Goodman (Givon) galleries, together with the unapologetically old-school Everard Read. These largely remain the gatekeepers of commercial success and failure. One either toes their line or remains a struggling artist. The auction world is equally narrow and untransformed. 

This perpetuates a commercially and intellectually elitist, incestuous art world which feeds upon itself while remaining arcanely impenetrable to most outsiders and emerging artists.

The fate of the SA National Gallery (SANG) is symptomatic. Only recently did it discard its relict (female) apartheid era artistic demagogue in Marilyn Martin and gain a more representative director. Riason Naidoo’s inaugural curatorship at SANG, where he re-hung the fusty, colonial space of the National Gallery was the architectural equivalent of opening up the building to the Cape Doctor that howls around this edifice. 

Naidoo’s “Pierneef to Gugulective; 1910 to 2010” introduced the public to a huge amount of largely unknown material borrowed from numerous private collections, galleries and museums to supplement the limited representative work held by SANG.

The reviews of this important shifting of the space of our national gallery were mixed. Progressives loved it, reactionaries hated it. All quite predictable, really. Discussions held around the opening up of this national space highlighted the defensiveness of the old guard and continued isolation of new voices.

The fine arts should reflect the psyche of the nation juxtaposed against its zeitgeist. Instead most mainstream fine art remain either contrived tropes, pretty pictures or incomprehensible abstractions. Where are the representations of us, Africa, the human race, the space we inhabit, here, now? Mainly hidden from view.

But it is not only the fault of the fine arts establishment that it has not managed to change. It is the role of the state to encourage change; this has been absent.

The fine arts remain the Cinderella of the pantheon of “Art and Culture,” a portfolio once incomprehensibly relegated to a sub-department under the political control of a ministry of Science and Technology! Instead of re-capturing the cultural post-apartheid artistic space, the fine arts were left in limbo by government minders. Crafts, culture, dance and traditional culture are all headed to the ball while the Cinderella of the fine arts remains in limbo, hidden from view, waiting for her fairy godmother.

This was recently emphasised by the Department of Arts and Culture monumentally cocking up the national submission of South African art to the prestigious Venice Biennale – which has a distinctly African focus this year - through engaging in an opaque, Chancellor House type of backroom deal. Perhaps the curatorial team was incapable of breaking the mould and could only mimic the closed, incestuous world of the fine arts? Whatever happened, it was certainly a long way from transformative, except perhaps for a few well connected individuals’ bank balances.

Being an artist is to inhabit an often lonely and challenging space. Malcom Payne, an art world insider, feels that artists must become more courageous and realise transformation by tackling it through their art itself. He suggests artists should create the spaces that are absent through collaboration, the formation of collectives and co-operatives. He is equally emphatic that museums, galleries and other existing institutions are not well placed to be harbingers of transformation.

Yet perhaps this represents a naïve worldview, shaped by historical relationships. The reality is that young artists have formed collectives and forged their own paths. Yet when established artists of merit like Ernestine White, Conrad Theys and Garth Erasmus remain excluded, we have to ask “why?” And let’s be clear, this is not only a racial exclusion, it is rather an exclusion of other, of holding the line against the art world’s version of the “barbarians at the gate.” 

There are essentially two varieties of artist in South Africa – those who have been educated within a limited number of institutions of higher learning in South Africa, who can be clumped together with those who are prepared to operate within this limited ambit and talk the same language as the critics, galleries and institutions. This is exclusivity writ large. Then there are the rest, prepared to challenge the status quo and to move outside the self-referential comfort zone. Should artists compromise their integrity for expediency? No, never; at least not in a free country.

So how to implement change in the fine arts? Who champions it if not the state? The blazing star that was Brett Kebble lit up the art world and briefly stood the institution on its head. Is there another champion? A local Medici, a Sexwale, a Motsepi? Redux the Jo'burg Biennale?

Perhaps the most transformative influence in the fine arts has been corporate. Besides the wild anomaly of Kebble, Sanlam, Absa, Sasol and other corporations have exerted a significant influence in granting access to otherwise excluded artists than have commercial or institutional bodies. However corporate leverage of social responsibility funding is a limited and imperfect mechanism for redress. 

The fine arts in South Africa still awaits its revolution. Riason Naidoo has begun to ring the change. He, and others, need support. The repositioning of our art history will bring new perspective and will shape the future. Active intent toward creating ties to Africa and the long history of African art must be nurtured, not condescendingly curated by non-representative insiders, as has been the fate of Khoisan art. The time is up for self-referential Eurocentric worldviews. It is now time to collectively usher forth a broader, more populist and Afrocentric church of fine arts at which we can all worship, which we can call our own, with pride.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Viva Riason Naidoo!
22 Apr


Way to go Glen...

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22 Apr

The Bedeviling of the Art Market

I think that what really bedevils the art market are the investors who buy artworks, not because they love them, but purely for investment. A while ago I spotted a framed drawing in somebody's house, and, as I drew near to have a closer look, the owner, without me soliciting any information of that sort on my part, informed me that that drawing was valued R XXXX. As a trained fine artist myself, I thought to my myself 'But that is not what first came to mind when I moved over to take a closer look!' It really grieves me that by far the majority of people in this country seem to look at art in no other terms, than materialistic monetary ones. It's like they have ceased to used their own eyes or trust their own judgment. And it is precisely because of this that that exclusive clique wields the power they do. I don't find the people of this country pay nearly as much attention to what the critics say when it comes to going to the movies or trying out a new restaurant or a new wine for instance.

And what passes as a Big Name in various circles is often laughably arbitrary. I have come to the conclusion that artistic merit has actually got nothing to do with it - just hang around long enough in the market place regardless of how much talent you have (that's the secret) and fame will eventually come to you. And pulling pranks, publicity stunts and gimmicks certainly doesn't hurt your career either, artists have found out since Andy Warhol and, lately, Banksy.

So I have come to the conclusion that serious aesthetic considerations, the product of quiet contemplation, have given way to noisy elitist capitalist interest. Art is still, after all said and done, the hand and foot maiden of the rich - since the dawn of history, that is.

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