African artists’ works can stand up on their own and be judged on their own terms

Bongani Madondo with his 2 children Liyema-Toure (8) and Cuba (4) enjoying the artwork during an interactive talk through the David Koloane: Chronicles of a Resilient Visionary exhibition at Wits Art Museum.
Bongani Madondo with his 2 children Liyema-Toure (8) and Cuba (4) enjoying the artwork during an interactive talk through the David Koloane: Chronicles of a Resilient Visionary exhibition at Wits Art Museum.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo \ Sunday Times

The Black Aesthetics exhibition and creative discourse around it was undoubtedly one of the few significant cultural landmarks this year.

In fact, it was supposed to mark a historical turning point in the elevation of black arts but it shed more emotional heat than intellectual light on the meaning of the historical role of black artists.Black artists have always been condemned by history to define themselves and reflect their world experience in their own terms.

This pioneering project was initiated by leading female African art historian Dr Same Mdluli, who manages the Standard Bank Art Gallery and was curator of the much-vaunted exhibition at the gallery.

In a pivotal move, she followed up by opening up opportunities for her peer and contemporary curator and academic, Dr Bonginkosi Goniwe, to mount a vivid and memorable exhibition on the highly talented David Koloane, A Resilient Visionary.

Many of those who have been to both have confessed to being gobsmacked and described it as a “must-see”. Apparently, it was the first time in the history of black art, whatever that means, that all these black artists have been at the same place at the same time.

There was even talk to take it to the people, presumably in the townships. Nice as it is,the idea won’t fly as the people have other bread-and butter issues to worry about. What made me uncomfortable about the underlying tone of the exhibition was the idea of“displacement” of black artists and the desire to rehabilitate black artists’ work into the mainstream.

The aim of the exhibition was to “reposition their expression within the larger white South African art historical narrative”. If my understanding of this premise is correct, black artists were dislocated and felt lost. This was simply because they were neither acknowledged recognised by the mainly white mainstream.

Presumably, this white acceptance will, posthumously, make them feel at home and have a sense of belonging and ownership in elite spaces, now. I think we must problematise the meaning or interpretation of Black Aesthetics, especially in this specific context.These black artists,including Dumile Feni, Winston Saoli and Gerard Sekoto, among others, have always been here, living,struggling, working and triumphing in an alternative world to one created for and by racist whites.

For example, an artist like Feni did what he did and was not necessarily affected or discouraged by material conditions. At the risk of condoning racism and material poverty, Feni drew wherever he was –be it a township matchbox house or an apartment in New York or the UK.

The same with Soweto based Saoli, who produced high-quality work that turned him into a global star. Bold and daring creatives like the creative mastermind Sekoto turned their back on apartheid to pursue their dreams and ambitions inartistic world capitals like Paris.

They were prophetic artistic voices that boldly defied apartheid and refused to be defined by its parochialism.In fact, they did not wallow in self-pity because they were rejected by blind and myopic racial reasoning.It is a serious indictment that leading art historians and curators now want to locate and redefine what they consider Black Aesthetics within the confines of a history and system that rejected and wished to destroy it.

The most significant and positive development from this exhibition was to “reopen the debate on the meaning of Black Aesthetics” and its essence. But if we measure the existence and worth of black artists by being integrated into a traditionally white racist and untransformed space that discriminated against them, then we have no business to talk about or reflect on their work as Black Aesthetics.

Frankly, this understanding and interpretation is both disappointing and lacking in appreciation of the essence of Black Aesthetics, which, by their nature, are radical and grounded in black self acceptance and self-worth. Black art has a right to exist and define on its own terms.

It should have no preoccupation with white mainstream acceptance. These are artists that –irrespective of their material poverty and spiritual richness – lived to fulfil their life purpose. They blossomed to create works that reflected an exclusively black reality of defiant people making the best of the bad.

They were witnesses and prophetic voices that spoke about a past that had a bearing on the present and future. What was outstanding about them was their resilience and defiance to reject limitations imposed by apartheid.

It did not really matter whether whites loved or hated them.Now this academic development to locate Black Aesthetics in an untransformed world of racism and inequalityism is placed.

Black Aesthetics has never been about being defined or interpreted through the white academic lens. Black Aesthetics impermanently grounded in Black Consciousness that espouses alternative values to the unjust and unequal status quo.Essentially, it was/is about being true to yourself and that which stirs in your soul.

Thus, a proper understanding of these artists and their significance in history demands that they be judged on their own terms without exaggerated efforts to make them “feel at home” in a world that rejected them. If we love and appreciate their self-sacrifice and willingness to serve history and posterity through their work, they must remain unbound and unbought with no sophisticated efforts or subtle co-option to integrate them into a racist and unequal world.

There is no reason to believe that this is what they desired except to assert their human rights to be unconditionally accepted as artists in their own right. It is hoped that Black Aesthetics will stretch the spectrum of debate and encourage a spirit of self determination.

Black artists can stand upon their own to be judged on their own terms.

■ Memela is a journalist,writer, cultural critic and public servant. He writes in his personal capacity

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