South Africa’s forgotten heroes, revived


CROWD pleaser: Judus Mahlangu’s etching ‘Baptism’ (1975). Photograph: Standard Bank Gallery.

AS YOU ENTER the architecturally sacrosanct-seeming space of the upstairs level of the Standard Bank Gallery, Dumile Feni’s Guernica hits you in the solar plexus. It’s like a series of overwhelming chords in a familiar requiem. Hung in the back of the space, this magnificent drawing in ink and charcoal reaches through the circular vestibule to you, regally. This is the tone on which A Black Aesthetic, an exhibition curated by Same Mdluli begins.

Of course, it doesn’t quite begin there. You cannot help but see the strong linocuts and etchings and sculptures in the two flanking galleries spaces downstairs and there, work of the ilk of Dan Rakgoathe, Azaria Mbatha and Cyprian Shilakoe ring fierce and true. But in your hunger and lust to see everything on this show, you promise yourself to return downstairs and look again.

Overall, it’s an astonishingly fine exhibition, drawings as it does from the bank’s corporate collection, the works housed in the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the collection of the University of Fort Hare. Formerly understood as a ‘black university’ this Eastern Cape institution became the place where a lot of art by relatively unknown black artists was rabbitted away, never to be seen again.

Until now. While the catalogue for this exhibition is still underway and will be available in some weeks, you know already that this is an exhibition of immense importance to the South African idea of artmaking. It pays tribute not only to unknown voices, but to an aesthetic that has oft been shunted into cliché.

And while the chauvinistic idea of distinguishing art as of value by the colour of the artists’ skins might make you shift a little uncomfortably, Mdluli has focused unwaveringly on great pieces. It is here where you see Ernst Mancoba’s Black Mary, a beautiful, humble yet proud sculpture, as you encounter some riveting George Pembas and pieces by Gerard Sekoto, which make you remember his challenges in exile.

Julian Motau, who died full of promise at the age of 20, is represented with his strong charcoal drawings as is political activist Thamsanqa Mnyele, who too died young, leaving a fabulous legacy of achingly fine lines and impressions in his drawings. And this might call you to think of Ezrom Legae’s magnificent drawings of chickens, around another corner.

The works are not chronologically or thematically ranged, but rather are placed in a way in which they ‘talk’ to one another, linking visually and singing of line work. And it is here where you see a beautiful array of watercolour landscapes by artists such as David Phaswane Mogano, SI Hlatshwayo and Mhlobo Malgas – names not well known in the litany.

John Muafangejo enjoys a place of honour with his distinctive black and white linocuts that feature text. African Expressionist Gladys Mgudlandlu too is given a lot of wall space with her wild and melodious pieces that speak of brutal line work and  muscular birds and landscapes.

The project is one that fits into trendy hashtags about decolonisation, but there is a lot more to the thinking behind this material, which is unabashed in showing clichés alongside expressions of politics and poverty. Many of these artists emerge from under the pall of draconian legislation, not allowing you to forget that the twenty years between 1970 and 1990 saw arguably apartheid cruelty and disorder at its peak.

Clean lines vie with messy ones as you stand at Lucas Sithole’s Mazimtoti, an extraordinary head of a horse in wood, simplified devastatingly, with echoes of European modernists such as Brancusi. Judus Mahlangu’s etching Baptism on the other side of the gallery shows a mastery of the sugar lift etching and the composition that is about crowd, song and direction.

And then, there’s an undated sculpture made in jacaranda wood by Kenneth Molatana called Ngwale, which will grab you by the hairs on the back of your neck. This open-mouthed screaming figure is direct and crude as it is refined and magnetic. As you stand in the line of sight of this work, you gaze also at the wall, where there’s a timeline for this collation of work. Bringing together the values of educational institutions such as Soweto-based Funda, the Federated Union of Black Artists (Fuba), the Culture of Resistance Symposium, Thupelo workshop and the Bag Factory, in the face of increasing racist legislation, this timeline holds the threads of this exhibition with authority. The timeframe is clear and you know you are in good research hands.

Many of the works of these artists have been part of South African university (and perhaps school) curricula for several decades. But many have not. This exhibition is a cornerstone for what art made by artists who are black – and who by virtue of that fact, approach the issue of making art from several clear perspectives – is all about. The only pity about this show is its limited run.

  • A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists is curated by Same Mdluli at the Standard Bank Gallery in central Johannesburg until April 18. Call 011-631-4467.
  • The gallery is hosting walkabouts at 10:00 on March 30 and April 6.

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