The Museum of Modern Art Highlights Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now
NEW YORK, N.Y.- The exhibition Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now, drawn entirely from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, brings together nearly 100 prints, posters, books, and wall stencils by approximately 30 artists and collectives from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art that demonstrate the unusual reach, range, and impact of printmaking in South Africa during and after a period of political upheaval. From the earliest print, a 1965 linoleum cut by Azaria Mbatha, to screenprinted posters created during the height of the antiapartheid movement, to recent works by a younger generation that investigate a multiplicity of formats in the wake of apartheid, these works are striking examples of printed art as a tool for social, political, and personal expression. The exhibition is on view from March 23 to August 14, 2011. Among the artists included are Bitterkomix, Kudzanai Chiurai, Sandile Goje, William Kentridge, Senzeni Marasela, John Muafangejo, Cameron Platter, Claudette Schreuders, and Sue Williamson, with the majority of works and artists on view for the first time at MoMA and many for the first time within a U.S. museum. The exhibition Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now is organized by Judith B. Hecker, Assistant Curator, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, The Museum of Modern Art.
During the oppressive years of apartheid rule in South Africa, black artists had limited access to opportunities for formal training. But far from quashing creativity and political spirit, these limitations gave rise to a host of alternatives, including studios, print workshops, art centers, schools, publications, and theaters open to all races; underground poster workshops and collectives; and commercial galleries that supported the work of all artists – making the art world a progressive force for social change. Printmaking, with its flexible formats, portability, relative affordability, collaborative nature, and democratic reach, was a catalyst in the exchange of ideas and the articulation of political resistance.
Impressions from South Africa is organized around five themes: the use of linoleum cut, which exemplifies the accessibility and bold expressiveness of printmaking; the suitability of printmaking, particularly screenprint and offset lithography, for disseminating political statement; the use of intaglio, which has a strong history of graphically narrative work full of political allusion; the integration of photography and printmaking to expand on the notion of the documentary; and, finally, the variety of topics and formats present in postapartheid printed works, many of which revitalize these other techniques and strategies.
The first section addresses the technique of linoleum cut (or linocut), a medium collectively developed by students at arts schools and community workshops that, beginning in the 1960s, were open to black artists when universities were not. At the time linocut was also a relatively inexpensive printmaking material within the country and frequently used at these schools. Among the artists on view in this section are Azaria Mbatha, John Muafangejo, and Charles Nkosi, who trained at the historic ELC Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1960s and 1970s. This section also features works created later at Dakawa Art and Craft Community Centre, near Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. The notable linocut Meeting of Two Cultures (1993) by Dakawa student Sandile Goje directly addresses the topic of apartheid’s demise, one year before the country’s first nonracial democratic election. For this work Goje has infused the graphic nature of linocut with satirical elements to present a reconciliation: a rectangular Western-style suburban brick house, with plump legs and ample clothing, shakes hands with a circular thatched home, with slender legs and bare feet, of the type commonly built by the Xhosa people.
During the height of the antiapartheid movement in the 1980s, poster production flourished in workshops, collectives, unions, youth organizations, and the alternative press. Screenprinting and offset lithography were common methods, both incorporating photographic and ready-made imagery; offset was also attractive because its high print runs fostered broad dissemination. Posters on view in this section were created by artists and activists working collectively with Medu Art Ensemble, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Save the Press Campaign, and Gardens Media Project, along with the country’s most broad-reaching antiapartheid organization, the United Democratic Front (UDF). The UDF was effective in galvanizing the public through their printed materials and protests in the 1980s, as exemplified in the poster One Year of United Action (1984), on view here, which celebrates the UDF’s first anniversary. This work is typical of the directness and symbolism of the group’s imagery-dramatically printed in red, black, and yellow, it emphasizes the racial diversity and heroism of its constituents.
The following section focuses on the technique of intaglio, a printmaking process that has produced some of the most salient works on sociopolitical topics in the history of art, by artists such as Francisco Goya, Otto Dix, and Pablo Picasso, who embraced etching and its related techniques for its refined, detailed, and evocative effects. Works in this section were created by artists Norman Catherine and William Kentridge with master printers at professional fine-art print workshops, such as the renowned Caversham Press in Balgowan, KwaZulu-Natal. In the 1980s, Catherine used intaglio to metaphorically capture the atmosphere of extreme violence and 2 restrictions under the “states of emergency” that the apartheid government declared to control the public and ban organizations. His 1988 drypoints Witch Hunt, Warlords, and Psychoanalyzed, on view in this section, show warring, vicious, and ailing creatures, both military and civilian, which suggest the realities of police presence and interrogation as well as a general inner turmoil. The set of prints in this exhibition is a rare version with watercolor additions, presenting a beautiful palette that belies the subject’s ferocity. Other prints in this section include William Kentridge’s Casspirs Full of Love (1989), which presents a haunting, dreamlike vision of destruction, as well as a selection of recent, searing intaglios from Diane Victor’s Disasters of Peace series (2001-present), which quotes Goya’s Disasters of War to reveal, with scathing satire, the everyday disasters of life that are part of apartheid’s legacy today.
Printmaking’s mechanical processes and inherent concern with reproduction encourages the seamless incorporation of photography, thus transforming a traditionally documentary medium in South Africa into one that can both bear witness to history and allow for more nuanced interpretations. Prints on view in this section are by Jo Ractliffe, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Ernestine White, and Anton Kannemeyer. Ractliffe employs printmaking’s capacity to alter, layer, and reconstitute photographs in her series Nadir (1987 – 88), which combines photographs of aggressive dogs with images of squatter camps, forced removals, relocation settlements, and dumps to create symbolic representations of the widespread fear and anger during the states of emergency. Sue Williamson embraces the photocopy in her monumental 49-part work, For Thirty Years Next to His Heart (1990), to reveal the moving and disturbing contents of one man’s passbook, which black people were required to carry at all times during apartheid.
The final theme of the exhibition encompasses postapartheid works in various techniques and formats. Installed throughout all the sections of the exhibition, and shown in concentration in the last gallery, many of these works revitalize earlier techniques or use them as a point of conceptual departure. One such development has been with the linocut, as artists new to the medium experiment with its graphic potential in unconventional ways, as seen in sculptor Paul Edmunds’s first linocut The same but different (2001), a single uninterrupted bright red line that undulates across a sheet of paper six feet high. The work’s pulsating composition, which emphasizes method rather than narrative, is a hypnotic meditation on the physical, time-based process of incising. Also on view in this section is a jarring life-size spraypainted stencil by the Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai, who lives in Johannesburg and has addressed violence and corruption in the election process in South Africa’s neighboring Zimbabwe. This stencil captures the vitality and stealth nature of political graffiti art used by activists during the antiapartheid movement in the 1980s and again today to reflect upon Africa’s complex political world.
The Museum’s first acquisitions of prints by a South African artist were in the 1960s, followed by numerous photographs beginning in the 1970s. But it was during the 1990s, in the years following the end of the worldwide cultural boycott of South Africa, that the Museum began a dialogue with contemporary artists from South Africa, in particular the work of William Kentridge. In the past decade, all of MoMA’s curatorial departments have been expanding their collections of work by South African artists, although the Museum’s Print Department has been singular in its broad reaching acquisitions and introduction of new artists to the Museum’s collection.