The beginning of the final decade of the
century, with the lifting of the cultural boycott, opened up South
Africa to the African continent and the world and ensured this country's
artists their place amongst the international art world.
Because the majority of the population have,
historically, been restricted to only a limited education, the community
of art practitioners, art educators, patrons, supporters and promoters
make up only a very small percentage of the more than 43 million people
in South Africa.
In the 1960s, the Polly Street Art Centre in downtown
Johannesburg, the Rorke's Drift Art and Craft Centre in Northern
KwaZulu-Natal and the Johannesburg Art Foundation started to offer art
classes for black African students who were excluded from accessing art
classes through the South African education system.
The Jubilee Art Centre in central Johannesburg joined
these alternative art education centers in the 1970s but was forced to
relocate to the Mofolo Art Centre in Soweto when the Group Areas Act
made it illegal for black students to be educated in the city. More and
more centers like these, eg Abangani Art Centre in Durban, Community Art
Project in Cape Town, the Federated Union of Black Arts and the Open
School in Johannesburg emerged in most major cities in response to
demand by students who wanted an art education.
Black students had to apply to the Minister of
Education for admission to white tertiary institutions and, as this
permission was hard to obtain, those who wanted to pursue art as a
career were forced to leave the country or turn to the alternative art
centers. As demand increased for this type of education, a snowball
effect emerged with more graduating artists putting their skills and
time back into establishing more alternative structures. A parallel
group of artists began to emerge alongside the white students who were
graduating from a formal art education in the tertiary institutions.
In the mid-Eighties there was a marked change in the
activities of the public art collecting institutions which generally
serve as an indicator as to who is making art in South Africa.
Acquisitions policies changed and previously unknown black artists came
into focus, most of them as a result of the BMW Tributaries
exhibition in 1985, curated by Ricky Burnett, which brought to the
attention of the art world artists and art that had not been seen in
galleries before. Craftspeople from the rural areas began to be
recognized for their inherited traditional skills specific to their
region and were represented in exhibitions locally and internationally,
despite not having received any kind of recognized art education.
The changes in South Africa in the 1990s saw an
introduction, for the first time in the history of the country, of a
ministry with an arts and culture portfolio. The Department of Arts,
Culture, Science and Technology in its first two years has had to deal
with many programs within the visual arts. It funded and supported
South Africa's participation in the Abidjan Biennale in 1993; in the
Venice Biennale in 1993 and 1995 and in the 23rd Sao Paulo Biennale in
1996. It also lent support for the Africus Johannesburg Biennale, South
Africa's first biennale in 1995, which proved to be the largest
contemporary art event on the African continent with 63 countries
participating, leading to a new focus on South African art.
While the discrepancies of the past cannot and should
not be forgotten, there is a growing measure of unity amongst artists
from different backgrounds, some of which has been brought about by
foreign curators and patrons who have responded to South African-made
art rather than the background of the artists who have produced the
The exhibition Contemporary Art from South Africa, curated
by the author and commissioned by Deustche Aerospace, in October 1994
brought together eight South African artists, some of whom met for the
first time in Germany as they traveled to the exhibition opening. The
Colours exhibition of South African contemporary art which was
staged at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) in
Berlin in May-August 1996 put together in one show artists whose
background of art training and styles of work were very different.
While some of the transformation taking place is to
be applauded, art is still remote to the vast majority of the
population. Soweto, the biggest black residential area in South Africa,
to this day does not have an art school, art gallery or art museum.
A photographic exhibition in Orlando West, Soweto
launched by the recently formed Africus Institute for Contemporary Art
(AICA) in collaboration with the Gauteng Department of Sports, Arts and
Culture to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the June 16 1976 uprising
has proved there is a real need for more locally based museums and
The exhibition, entitled Youth Uprising Point of
No Return and curated by Tumelo Mosaka was staged in 10 containers
sponsored by Transnet. It was scheduled to run for one month, but the
unprecedented demand for an exhibition of this type an average of 65
visitors daily from both Sowetans and tourists forced an extension first
until the end of July and then to the end of October, highlighting the
need for this type of exhibition in other townships.
With policy on arts and culture being finalized from
local government upwards, with the formation of national arts councils
in 1997, and as more local artists are being represented internationally
in exhibitions focusing specifically on South African art, the dawn of
the 21st century should see South African artists well placed to face
the challenges of the international art world.
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