Filling in the blanks

Since the late 1980s, when Steven Sack’s The Neglected Tradition (1988) made clear the need to research the contribution of black artists to South African art history, and increasingly since the 1990s, there has been an upsurge in revisionist writing and in the number of book publications and exhibition catalogues on South African visual art.

Attempts to produce a more inclusive account of South African art history are concentrated on and around specific media, the work of individual arts centres or pioneering black artists.1 Much of this recent writing has, however, been published in exhibition catalogues, many of which focus on recent art works. This has inevitably resulted in a younger generation being better documented than the generations of artists who came before them and to comparatively few stand-alone studies of art history being produced.

Further observation of current and recent publications make clear that, with the possible exception of international exhibitions that feature South African art, our art tends to be located within an art historical vacuum and there is little attempt locally to situate it within an international framework, or a specific African one. There is also little critical engagement, in many recent and earlier publications, with arts’ broader historical contexts, both locally and internationally. Taken together the different attempts to revise history still do not provide an inclusive and general historical overview.

It is against this background that I conceived of Visual Century, as a research project that will produce a range of art historical resources that invites further research. Directed by myself and
managed by the Africa South Art Initiative (ASAI), the project has received initial funding from the Department of Arts and Culture, and is housed in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town. Subtitled “South African art in context, 1907- 2007”, the project seeks to produce a concise record of a century of South African contemporary art production.

The first phase of the Visual Century project will create four publications and a website by 2009. Each book focuses on a particular historical period. The project has an editorial team, comprising Jillian Carman, Lize van Robbroeck, Thembinkosi Goniwe and Mario Pissarra, with Pissarra as editorin- chief. The second phase of the project will produce a series of documentary films.

Visual Century aims to situate the work of art at the heart of its research and to explore art’s relationship to the broader environments of local and international histories. It seeks to engage a broad audience with divergent levels of knowledge of local and international art and history, as well as degrees of visual literacy.

Consequently it will use accessible language, without compromising the quality of the content to make the value of its resources count within varied settings, from the educational to the professional. To produce an inclusive and historically contextualised account of South African art history, a wide range of writers will be commissioned, allowing for diverse interpretations and offering an opportunity to younger writers and researchers.

In keeping with the notion of contextualisation of art within local and international histories, the starting point of the research, 1907, marks not only the granting of independence by the British to the Boer Republics — that set in motion the establishment of the Union of South Africa – it is also the year Pablo Picasso painted a signature Modernist work, Les Demoiselles de Avignon.

To avoid the impression that art is simply a reductive reflection of broader historical processes, the Visual Century project attempts to explore the interface between historical events and the art of a period. One example would be to investigate the impact and legacy of the Anglo-Boer War on early ‘white art’, another to ask if the Cold War finds aesthetic expression in local art. How does the new constitution change the exhibition and collecting policies of national institutions? Mapping the influence of European and North American art on South African art production, art education and the building of cultural infrastructure over the last century is relatively easy. A greater challenge is to demonstrate the relationship between South African art and art from other colonised national cultures, where there may have been little direct contact.

Seen in hindsight, such research may detect significant similarities as well as disjunctures. The Visual Century project is sensitive to concerns about producing a new “master narrative” of South African art that forecloses further research. Its intentions are the opposite, to stimulate a critical reappraisal of South African art by emerging and established historians. Apart from its invitation to a range of writers, the project will hold seminars about its work in progress, to create a wider public engagement. Visual Century cannot be the last word on our history but it can be tool to get a new generation of historians interested in the nation’s achievements.

Gavin Jantjes is an artist and curator for contemporary international art at the National Museum in Oslo, Norway

1.The revisionist school is best exemplified in the works of Elza Miles, while Elizabeth Rankin has been the most visible of the media-centred approach. Sue Williamson’s two books — Resistance Art in South Africa (1989) and Art in South Africa: The Future Present (1996) — have informally fused the thematic and chronological, as did numerous the many ‘ten years of democracy’ publications from 2004, also John Berndt’s From Weapon to Ornament: The CAP Media Project posters (1982 to 1994) (2007).