Speech by Minister Pallo Jordan at the Opening of the Bruce Campbell Smith Collection : “Revisions”. IZIKO National Art Gallery. Cape Town Centre in Johannesburg
As we step into the second decade of our democracy, we are embarking on a voyage that is destined to bring closer the day when all the people of our country can realize their dreams.
During the colonial period and the eight decades of White minority rule, South Africa’s arts suffered immeasurably. Apart from the various forms of censorship that prescribed what might and might not be expressed, the steady racialization of society and consequently of the arts, resulted in galleries and exhibition spaces being segregated. The more prestigious galleries mounted exhibitions by Black artists only after 1960! With some exceptions, the works in this book were first seen in small, private galleries, at street stalls and in drafty municipals halls.
After you have walked through these halls, I am certain you will agree that Bruce Campbell Smith did this country a great service by very conscientiously attending those exhibitions to build up this great collection. We owe him a great vote of thanks.
The challenges of today include nurturing new talents, creating an environment in which the aspirant artist is able to pursue a career in the arts and is no longer required to peer over her/his shoulder to check who is watching. But the greatest single challenge is giving the people access to the arts, both as consumers and as creators.
This exhibition celebrates the talents of some eighty 20th century South African artists. The majority of the artists are Black, and their work represents an autonomous tradition in the visual arts, yet one that is in continuing dialogue with the mainstream. This evening is thus also one of rediscovery. By offering wider public exposure to the immense talent evident in these works, this exhibition is also performing an important service: one that might challenge the South African arts community to rethink its understanding of our country’s Art History.
Though it was not hidden, this autonomous tradition was obliged to be oblique. Visual artists, Black as well as White, who expressed their anger at the prevailing conditions through their work in those dark days incurred official displeasure. Ronnie Harris, a Cape Town artist who dared to depict Christ as a black man, was persecuted and forced to devise ways of secreting his painting abroad. It remained hidden in an English cathedral until a few years ago. Others, unable to survive as artists in the hostile environment of racist South Africa, sought their fortunes in other countries – Ernest Mancoba and Gerard Sekoto are cases in point. Dumile Feni and Thami Mnyele were forced into exile. The unrelenting agents of apartheid pursued their quarry to the grave. Thami Mnyele was murdered by a hit squad in Botswana during June 1985.
Despite its brutality, the racist state never succeeded in silencing the voice of the arts. Artists played a significant role in the mass moblisation that took off during the 1980s. Working through their own organizations and in alliance with others, artists became an integral element of the struggle against apartheid. Two international conferences, one held in Gaberone in 1981, the second, held in Amsterdam in 1986, helped galvanise the progressive arts community. An international movement of artists opposed to apartheid complimented their efforts, in some instances offering material support.
The visual arts differ from the other disciplines because they are so eminently democratic. Anyone who is sighted can interact with a visual creation without the benefit of prior training or instruction. Yes, the work of some visual artists might be more difficult to comprehend than that of others. It is equally true that a work of art is not a photograph that captures on film and on paper what the person wielding the camera sees. The artist invites you to view reality through her/his eyes. But in so doing you are also challenged to reflect on your perceptions of that self-same reality and to think about what you know and have known through previous experience. Then to reflect on what you know after you have experienced the art work.
I have often said that South Africa offers the artist an extremely rich seam of human experience, of breath-taking natural beauty, in addition South Africa is a veritable storehouse of characters of every hue and size. It is from these basic resources that great works of art can and have been crafted. Apart from the human drama that has been played out in this country, ours is a society that has given the world some stirring examples of human courage, strength of character and nobility of spirit. Mirth as well as tears rose from the terrible conditions in the informal settlements, urban townships and rural slums. Love, as well as anger, was nurtured in the midst of the human torments that are the narrative of too many lives. The quest for integrity, courage and beauty sustained the spirits of millions who lived in the hope of seeing a better day. Honour, decency and human dignity and a host other virtues somehow survived in an environment that conspired to snuff them out.
All these emotions are depicted, portrayed, dissected and explored through the arts.
The artists whose work is on show here, date from the late 19th century to the last decade of the 20th. Collectively they probably lived through and experienced South Africa’s most degrading as well as her most uplifting historical moments.
Their work depicts the sensibilities of communities in transition: from pre-colonial pastoral life to life in the cities; from pre-industrial society to one dominated by industry; from the authoritarian paternalism of the Union government to the studied repression of the 1960s and ‘70s; from the brutalities of apartheid to the high hopes of a young democracy. The works on display are as significant a historical record as any other rendered in the written word or in music
The arts are one of the numerous ways human beings have devised to tell a story, record achievements, express emotions and transmit experience - good, bad and indifferent. As a human race we evolved the arts as an additional means of communicating with each other, employing a medium other than everyday speech. We all consider the arts to be highly suggestive because of their ability to sensitise us what may well be extra-ordinary in that which appears very ordinary. They have the unique ability to open our eyes to that which another sees; to awaken our senses to what another feels; and to arose our emotions about what another can perceive.
Whether in poetry or prose, employing the paint brush or the sculptor’s chisel, the human voice or a musical instrument, artists have persuaded us to see the good even in the most disreputable persons; they have assisted us to detect fundamental weakness in even the greatest figures; they have helped us uncover the best concealed flaws even in the most powerful, to discover beauty in what is outwardly ugly and to recognize strength even in the apparently weak.
We are deeply committed to nurturing the arts in our country. This exhibition serves that purpose well by giving the South African public the opportunity to view these little known and seldom seen works that nonetheless represent important moments in the art history of our country. To my mind, a very good note on which to end heritage month.
Z. Pallo Jordan.
Minister of Arts and Culture.