The invented collective African artist

In a recent issue of Art South Africa, Achille Mbembe articulates on the factors constraining contemporary African culture. Among those factors, he identifies ‘The conflation of African art, culture and aesthetics with ethnicity or community or communalism’:

The dominant but false idea – shared by many Africans and many donors – is that the act of creativity is necessarily a collective act; that African artistic forms are not aesthetic objects per se but ciphers of a deeper level of the ‘real’ that is fundamentally ethnographic and expressive of Africa’s ontological cultural difference of ‘authenticity’. It is this African ‘difference’ and this African ‘authenticity’ donors are keen to find, support and, if necessary, invent.

Achille Mbembe ‘Art and Development’ Art South Africa 8/3 2010 pp.70-74

African Craft: the Ghetto of the Village, the Penthouse of the Studio by Pamela Allara

Lestina Malatjie and Calvin Machlawaule, (Kaross Collective), Community, 1999. Embroidery on black cloth, 60 x 115 cm. Collection: Johannesburg Art Gallery

Lestina Malatjie and Calvin Machlawaule, (Kaross Collective), Community, 1999. Embroidery on black cloth, 60 x 115 cm. Collection: Johannesburg Art Gallery

Lestina Malatjie and Calvin Machlawaule, (Kaross Collective), Community, 1999. Embroidery on black cloth, 60 x 115 cm. Collection: Johannesburg Art Gallery

Shortly after the newly democratic ANC-led government of South Africa was installed in 1994, it issued a White Paper that announced a policy of using the arts for the purpose of social transformation and reconciliation. The paper asserted that “experiencing the creative expression of different communities of South Africa provides insights into the aspirations and values of our nation. This experience develops tolerance and provides a foundation for national reconciliation.” One outcome of this policy should have been to bridge the gap between art and craft in South African cultural property. Unfortunately, because government support for ‘craft’ was predicated on its ability to alleviate poverty– “to contribute significantly to the economy of the country by…creating employment,” its effect has been to maintain the hierarchical distinction between art and craft by reinforcing the divide between the aesthetic and the practical and between the rural and urban. The Department of Arts and Culture’s motto: “Design Feeds the Poor,” could hardly be expected to resonate with an international art market now free, after the lifting of sanctions, to scour the county for the next hot art star. Both the government and the museum/gallery system are driven by monetary concerns, but with radically different goals. In the end, one could argue that the gap between art and craft in the new South Africa is a reflection of the bottomless chasm between rich and poor.

When I first went to South Africa in 2000, I was exhilarated by the art world’s rethinking of the traditional categories of what constituted art. Universities were hurriedly revamping art history courses to include ‘traditional’ arts, and museums were not only purchasing the work of black painters, sculptors and printmakers, they were displaying both traditional and contemporary crafts along with the ‘high’ arts of painting and sculpture. The legacy of 19th century concepts of what constituted art and art history was quietly being buried, or so it seemed. For over a century, the avant-garde had advocated the destruction of the very idea of ‘high’ art, whereas the history of art was narrowly confined to the study of traditional media. In South Africa in 2000, it appeared as if the internal contradiction within modernism was going to be resolved in favor of the avant-garde. From the perspective of this newcomer, the history of art was being reconceived as the history of cultural production, and the former hierarchies among media were being leveled.

In 2003, in the exhibition, “Coexistence: Contemporary Cultural Production in South Africa,” that I co-curated with the former Director of the South African National Gallery, Marilyn Martin, we included the work of rural needlework collectives along with that of university-trained artists working in cities in South Africa or abroad. Our aim was to bridge not only the rural/urban//craft/art divide but also the gender divide. The needlework collectives had been established for the most part by white women artists who had identified traditional craft skills as a means of income generation. Among the most successful was and remains the Kaross collective in Limpopo Province. Founded by Irma van Rooyen in 1988, it employs over 600 people today, the vast majority of whom are women. (B. Schmahmann in the exhibition catalog). Even if the role of these white founders might be considered a form of colonialism, it anticipated government policy and moreover has given disadvantaged women new status in their communities, answering the call of the ANC Women’s League “for the right to fashion feminism to suit their own worlds.” I will use the example of a stunning embroidered cloth to illustrate the complexities of the art/craft divide in the South African context post-1994.

Community (1999) is a subtle interweaving of voices—a textile in the truest sense of the word. The cloth was commissioned by the National Paper Prayers Campaign for AIDS Awareness (1998-2000), initiated by artist Kim Berman and administered through Artist Proof Studio. In collaboration with AIDS educators, the Studio members went to community centers in all of South Africa’s nine provinces to help address trauma and loss through the process of making a print as a prayer for healing. During its second year, the program expanded to three needlework collectives, each of which produced large-scale hangings—a sort of surrogate painting– that could serve either to inform the local populace if hung in a community center or as a collectible art work to raise funds for treatment programs. Like a storybook, Community visually narrates the story of the impact of AIDS on a rural village. As drawn by Calvin Machlawaule, who is HIV positive, and then embroidered by Lestina Malatjie, it emphasizes the tragic consequences of denial and stigma in the era of AIDS.

Clearly the cloth is a hybrid in more ways than one. At the Kaross collective, the women’s needlework skills had been transferred from creating clothing for personal use to making place mats and tablecloths for the tourist trade. Once the government-funded Paper Prayers program provided a tool for AIDS awareness, the resulting narrative cloths had a powerful content that transcended both its educational purpose and its ‘craft’ designation. Signed by the embroiderer, Malatjie, in order to satisfy the predominantly white collectors’ expectations of authorship, it was exhibited at the Vita Craft Awards, where it won a top prize and was purchased by the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Neither the format of the wall hanging nor its content was the result of Malatjie’s individual inspiration, however. The work, as its title indicates, was the collaborative effort of several of the participants in the training, as overseen by the artists and educators. And despite the exceptional quality of the work, Malatjie has not emerged as a recognized craft-artist. As for Community itself, it remains in storage at JAG, its status as ‘art’ in limbo.

Of course, ‘community’ is the problem. In South Africa, ‘high’ art is still thought of as the product of an individual sensibility, despite every effort to rethink categories to be more reflective of the values of a democratic nation. The fact that the needlework collectives consist predominantly of women has only contributed further to locking the art/craft hierarchy more firmly into place. Until very recently, ‘high’ art, as defined in western terms, was considered a male-only realm within the majority black culture. Although this is rapidly changing, the continuing rural/urban divide—men in the city, women in the countryside– also contributes to maintaining the status quo.

The situation results in an impoverished picture of South African art, as exemplified by the recent publication, South African Art Now, authored by artist Sue Williamson and produced by HarperCollins in the U.S. In this broad survey, the craft traditions are acknowledged only in terms of individual practitioners employing handwork skills to make ‘art.’ The important work of the embroidery or pottery collectives receives no mention at all. Of course, in the United States, one rarely finds publications on community-based art or artists’ collectives; monographic studies of individual artists still predominate. Although it is hardly surprising that HarperCollins, owned by the conservative propagandist Rupert Murdoch, followed this established hierarchy, the book does distort the South African picture, in my opinion.

The arts will never be able to adequately contribute to social transformation and reconciliation in South Africa until the art/craft divide is finally and firmly bridged. The country has faced and surmounted far greater challenges, so the cause is far from lost.

Pamela Allara is Associate Professor emerita, Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA