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The shape of a nation

The archives of an apartheid-era arts centre shed light on creative as well as political forces, writes Matthew Reisz from Cape Town

 

Velile Soha's Housewife Making Grass Mat

Black, white and beyond: Velile Soha’s Housewife Making Grass Mat

Uncontained: Opening the Community Arts Project Archive

South African National Gallery, Cape Town

Until 12 April

There has been much talk, across the universities of the world, of “a crisis in the humanities”. In an edited volume that accompanies this exhibition, the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape boldly claims to be “dedicated to the reconstitution of the humanities in Africa”.

Western Cape was established under apartheid for “coloured” students, says exhibition co-curator Heidi Grunebaum, “to produce a small class of black and brown administrators who would serve the state as teachers, theologians, city planners and so on”. Yet in 1987, continues CHR director Premesh Lalu, “it opened its doors to all students irrespective of race, took up a position on the democratic Left and engaged in a vast experiment in changing curricula and altering the politics of knowledge…It largely remains a black university, or what we in South Africa call a ‘historically black’ university, though with a small minority of white students, especially in the sciences.”

The centre, set up in 2006, has responded to the Department of Higher Education and Training’s Charter for the Humanities and Social Sciences, which was designed to develop a new generation of scholars, as well as to concerns across the continent about higher education’s increasingly vocational focus.

Grunebaum, a senior researcher at the CHR, points to a couple of the centre’s projects that underscore those aims. The musician and composer Neo Muyanga will use sound archives to create “something which could be called a contemporary liberation song”. And the Cape Town-based Handspring Puppet Company, most famous for its work on the stage production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, works each year on a “carnivalesque” procession and show with children in a remote rural township who “rarely even see a national road”.

A similar mission of engagement underlies the current exhibition and book.

The powerful linocuts on display make clear the crucial role of art in bearing witness and mobilising resistance. The Community Arts Project was set up in the wake of the 1976 student uprisings in Cape Town, just across the road from a police station, and it soon formed both a focus for opposition to apartheid and a “free zone” of creative expression for those who would otherwise have had little chance to develop their artistic skills. After the 1994 national elections it was transformed into a training organisation, but it closed down altogether in 2008. Its long-neglected archival collection of more than 4,000 paintings, prints, posters and other artworks was acquired by the CHR the same year.

Particularly during the “years of emergency” in the 1980s, linocut prints were one of the most significant means of conveying the reality of township life. They were cheap to mass produce, deploying the recycled scraps of a material used for patching up shacks, and often adopted a starkly appropriate black and white colour scheme.

The introduction to the book (also titled Uncontained: Opening the Community Arts Project Archive) even paints an amusing picture of how the prints became significant tokens for those visiting South Africa: “Young people travelling abroad, who engaged in political tourism, could take home an authentic ideological souvenir without breaking their budget, and could flirt with, and seduce, one another in metropolitan centres by transacting narratives of ostensible danger through gestures of proximity to ‘the struggle’ because of a print attached to the living-room wall above the hi-fi.”

The collection not only includes vivid scenes of official violence against the townships and rather generic images of noble suffering, but also attempts to portray complex individual psychologies, in a rebuke to apartheid’s reduction of racial groups to homogeneous categories. Billy Mandindi’s 1988 Cape of Storms shows black cherubs tearing down a “Whites only” sign. Yet they are also holding aloft a “garland” in the form of a tyre, of the kind notoriously set alight in killings by “necklacing”. Down below we see the historic roots of the problem with the colonial ship docked below Table Mountain.

Yet Grunebaum is keen that we should not “lock such works into the category of ‘struggle art’ or ‘anti-apartheid art’” when they can also “speak in very interesting ways to current questions about politics, society and post-apartheid citizenship”. The 31 academics, artists and creative writers whose reflections have been brought together in the book elaborate on such themes. Although the prints are often harrowing in their subject matter, they stand as “testimonies to an era in which there was a strong belief in the idea that marginalised people could empower and humanise themselves through creativity”.

Contributors also point to the ambivalences found in the works, particularly in images of women and home. “Anti-apartheid politics”, writes Desiree Lewis, associate professor in the women’s and gender studies department at Western Cape, “established a fairly clear distinction between heroic urban black women within, or engaged with, the public sphere and those (often rural) women who stoically endured in ‘private’ and domestic domains.”

Yet she also detects in other Community Arts Project pieces “a romanticism which seems at odds with their depiction of harsh social injustices”. So we find women “portrayed as symbols of pastoral sanctity, the essentialised ‘mother Africa’ from whom apartheid modernity severed black people”, with artists and writers imagining “‘home’, ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ through [the] iconised portrayal of black women’s stoicism, innocence or traditionalism”.

Something similar applies to the notion of home itself. Ben Cousins, Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation research chair in poverty, land and agrarian studies at Western Cape, notes how apartheid discourse depicting rural areas as “sites of authentic African-ness, where ‘tribes’ lived in accordance with age-old traditions”, was used to justify “the infamous homeland (Bantustan) policy that stripped people of their South African identity and made them citizens of fictitious ‘independent’ states”.

All this, continues Cousins, made it essential to critique “the ideology of tribal Africa”, yet it was also true that communities often provided an important focus of identity, with “social networks of ‘home boys’ from your village help(ing) you keep alive in the harsh world of the city”. This created a striking discrepancy, with the rural seen as “at once emakhaya, ‘home’ - a place of plenty and the source of authentic being - and a site of profound alienation and despair, stripped bare of all but the minimum means of life”.

Reality is carefully untangled from myth in the images of Cape Town, a spectacular city that has long had its own strong colonial and touristic iconography. Rike Sitas, who is studying for a PhD on public art at the University of Cape Town, examines how another powerful linocut by Mandindi, City with Table Mountain, shows it as a place “built on death”, with a cemetery at its foundations, and how “this speaks profoundly to [the city’s] history, and especially the burial site of District One, where thousands of bodies have been exhumed, boxed and, in many unfortunate cases, just covered in concrete”. Since it is also manifestly “still marred by vast…inequality”, she rightly suggests that such works continue to raise crucial questions about the gulf between “elite and people-centred representations”.

More generally, playwright Mike van Graan sees today’s South Africa as “a society still racked by enormous racial, class and gender divisions”, but where there is “little use of culture as a weapon of struggle against new tyrannies, and rather large-scale co-option by more market-driven (rather than human-rights based) cultural policies and self-censorship through fear of being marginalised by a ruling elite sensitive to criticism”. To that extent, the Community Arts Project print collection represents not only “a reminder of our recent past” but also “a challenge to contemporary artists”.

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