Archiving the Contemporary

When an invitation arrived in my inbox from HarperCollins New York to do a new book on contemporary art in South Africa with the highest production values and a large international distribution, my heart sank. I knew immediately and regretfully that the assignment was far too interesting an opportunity to turn down.

At the same time, the prospect of the enormous amount of work involved and the challenging
responsibility of once more having to compile a list of which artists
and work would be included in the book was daunting.The brief from HarperCollins for my book reads “UNTITLED SOUTH
AFRICAN ART, being the definitive catalogue of contemporary South
African art — from the beginning of the resistance art movement in
the 1960s to the experimental schools of today — featured in a
breathtaking, gorgeously photographed hardcover edition”, and if
the language of the brief sounds a little extravagant to my South
African ears, the intention is clear.

How does one condense such a large subject as almost 50 years of
art into a mere 304 pages? That is the question. When one considers
that the last issue of Art South Africa is 98 pages, and that only
covers the previous three months, one can perhaps appreciate the
difficulty of attempting to make a definitive selection. The book
will be divided into two sections, “The Last Century”, which will
touch on the last four decades of the twentieth century, and “The
New Millennium”, which will cover the work up to right now. About
100 artists will be included overall.

I was somewhat cheered recently when I learned from an email from
Sean O’Toole, editor of this journal, that Mario Pissarra and Gavin
Jantjes have started working on a multivolume history of twentieth
century art in South Africa. Mario has criticised my first book,
Resistance Art in South Africa (1989) for leaving out various artists
he thought should be included, mentioning particularly (in an essay
in ReVisions: Expanding the narrative of South African art, the book
which accompanied the exhibition of the Bruce Campbell Smith
Collection) how unfortunate it is, for this reason, that Resistance
Art should often be quoted as an “authoritative source”. This
will be his chance to remedy my shortcomings, and I think their
history sounds as if it will be an important contribution to the
archivo.

To move on to why HarperCollins as a major American publisher has
chosen this moment to commission a book on contemporary art from
South Africa: one cannot avoid recognising much of the fascination
that South Africa holds for the rest of the world is that under
apartheid, it held such an essentialist position regarding race
relations between black and white.

With the first democratic election in 1994, this changed, and
suddenly true fraternity seemed a real, if extremely tenuous
possibility. Since then, the country has been observed with global
interest as an ongoing experiment, a society-wide laboratory in human
and race relations, a possible way forward for the rest of the world.

In art, this experimentation has been visible through a lens held
up by the country’s artists, who grew accustomed in the 1980s to
engage, directly or indirectly, with social issues of various kinds
in their work and their lives.

At the same time, the international art world has been swept by a
new wave of enthusiasm for art emerging from what would once have
been regarded as the unimportant peripheries.

In an article published shortly before the January 30 auction of
South African art at Bonhams in London, the Wall Street Journal
(January 26, 2008) noted:, “The growing popularity of South African
art with international collectors is part of a global art boom that
has seen westerners scouring emerging markets such as China, India
and Brazil for works. Giles Peppiatt, director of South African art
at Bonhams, says he has seen interest in South African art among
collectors in the UK, US and Australia, countries where wealthy South
African expatriates tend to congregate.

There is also interest from other regions and from individuals and
companies with no connection to South Africa, he says.” This is the
climate which has fostered commission of the new book.

Curator and art historian Okwui Enwezor has accepted an invitation
to write a contributing essay, which locates the rise of interest in
South African art in a global context. RoseLee Goldberg, director of
New York’s enormously successful PERFORMA biennial, will write
about the role of performance in South African art, and CAPE curator
Gabi Ngcobo will explore the effect of the transition to democracy on
art and artists.

Nadine Gordimer will write a foreword.

HarperCollins have assigned a freelance editor to the project,
Reena Jana, co-author of New Media Art (Taschen, 2006), and I am
delighted to be working with her. My deadline is May 2008, and the
book will be launched a year later, published in this country by
Jacana Media. The redoubtable Clive van den Berg will curate a linked
exhibition in New York.

Sue Williamson is an artist and writer based in Cape Town. She is
the founder of www.artthrob.co.za