"African art" is a simple term that describes much. It encompasses historical objects from a lost past and material from living traditional cultures. It is part of the African diaspora, thriving outside of Africa in many sites -- the Caribbean, the U.S., Europe.
And African art is contemporary art. Exuberant, sophisticated work is produced in many African countries, and increasingly exported internationally. Nowhere is this truer than in the new South Africa.
One particularly focused look at South African contemporary art has been the exhibition "Liberated Voices, Contemporary Art from South Africa" at the Museum for African Art at 593 Broadway in Soho, Sept. 17-Jan. 2, 1999. The show features 65 paintings, sculptures and video installations made since the end of apartheid in 1994.
"Liberated Voices" starts with The Interrogators (1979), a lone apartheid-era work by Paul Stopforth. A vertical triptych of three large panels done in graphite and wax, the work depicts the outsized faces of three security cops who interrogated Steve Biko before he was murdered in government custody. The piece brings to mind other succinct portraits of terror, from Carl Theodore Dreyer's portrayals of soldiers in his 1928 silent film masterpiece, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc to Leon Golub's portraits of mercenaries in the 1980s.
Another artist I can't get out of my mind is Mbongeni Richman Buthelezi, whose colorful abstract paintings are made by melting plastic food containers onto wooden boards. Buthelezi's work is kin to that of Thornton Dial, the African American outsider artist from the South (included in the next Whitney Biennial), who created his own painting style based on a folk mythology of found and discarded objects -- tires, grates, linoleum, rags.
But Buthelezi, though disadvantaged insofar as he was poor and from the townships, is no outsider artist. He attended the Funda Center in Johannesburg, a "black institution" where in fact he now lectures. His use of discarded materials reflects his beliefs about the artist's role as custodian of the environment, and about art as an act of political responsibility.
Also riveting are color photographs by Zwelethu Mthethwa, which reference the pattern-laden portraiture of much African photography from the 1960s -- Seydou Keita especially comes to mind. Mthethwa's portraits of poor people, who pose studio-style in their amazingly decorated homes, have a subtle political twist.
The exhibition also featured an odd and penetrating video by Penny Siopis. Titled My Lovely Day, it mixes images from her childhood home movies with music and a provocative, surreal stream of subtitles. Presented in a small, antiquated theater complete with red drapery, cheesy velour fold-down seats and a proscenium screen, the installation should provide a nostalgic cinematic escape. But in fact the film is at once jarring and lulling, as the fragmentary subtitles -- bits of memory, oral history, phrases lifted from postcards -- accent the brutal government policies of that era.
South Africa in print
A substantial catalogue accompanies "Liberated Voices," and includes essays by two of the more well-known artists represented, David Koloane and Sue Williamson. Williamson edits an online magazine devoted to contemporary art in South Africa, called Art Throb, that provides comprehensive local and international listings, reviews, columns and links. It is quite beautifully designed.
The debate continues to rage as to how contemporary South African art -- art of the New South Africa -- is represented in foreign contexts. Hot off the South African presses is a new anthology called Grey Areas: Representation, Identity and Politics in Contemporary South African Art, edited by Brenda Atkinson and artist Candice Breitz. The book examines a particularly volatile issue in the post-Apartheid art world -- namely, who has the right to represent whom?
The majority of essays in Grey Areas are by white South African women artists and curators, and these are their personal responses to specific arguments leveled against them by African writers living abroad. The most influential and controversial critique is by the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, who is currently a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago and who was artistic director of the 1997 Johannesburg Biennial. Feminist discourse spars off with post-apartheid theory.
Included in Grey Areas is a controversial self-portrait by Minnette Vari in which she is crouching, her racial identity digitally morphed from white to black, and the by-now infamous ceramic, Useful Objects (1996) by Kaolin Thompson, a high-gloss red vagina-shaped ashtray, complete with stubbed-out cigarette. These works appeared in the 1997 exhibition, Gendered Visions: The Art of Contemporary Africana Women Artists, at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum in Ithaca, N.Y., which is the subject of several articles that Grey Areas takes to task.
To order the book you must go to the source, either Chalkham Hill Press, firstname.lastname@example.org in Johannesburg, or the venerable Clarke's Book Shop, email@example.com in Cape Town, S.A. It's in paperback.
Another recent publication is Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace, edited by Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwezor (1999, MIT Press), an anthology of essays that were written over the past ten years, many of which were previously published in the journals African Arts, Nka, and Third Text.
Among the highlights is Enwezor's 1997 essay that sparked the polemic and provoked much of the anger that is expressed in Grey Areas -- "Reframing the Black Subject: Ideology and Fantasy in Contemporary South African Representation." Enwezor analyzes the persistence of the colonial relationship in post-apartheid art production, specifically in the representation of the black body.
While deftly leading us through a semiotic quagmire, Enwezor points out what he feels are indeed "grey areas" of intention in certain post-apartheid artworks -- the collages of Candice Breitz, which juxtapose pornographic cut-outs of white women with colonial representations of black women, take a beating here. But Enwezor does not advocate some kind of politically correct prescription for representing the black subject, nor does he believe there is a simple answer to the problem:
"The predicament into which one is thrown, then, is how to imagine identity in the present tense of South Africa's transitional reshaping and reconstitution of its reality; between authenticity and stereotype. For everything seems haunted by this paradoxical affirmation of origin and disavowal of past histories."
Ofili in Africa
In the early days of the "Sensation" fiasco, supporters of the controversial painter Chris Ofili tried to ground his use of dung in some would-be African fertility cult -- an explanation the hip and contemporaneous artist must have found amusing, if only because it unwittingly points to a theme in his work: the condescending ghettoization of the Black artist.
For a specific look at Ofili's truly intentional, bemused shit-stirring, readers can turn to the most recent issue of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art (Vol. 10, Spring/Summer 1999), whose cover is graced by a fuschia detail of an Ofili painting. In "Captain Shit and Other Allegories of Black Stardom: The Works of Chris Ofili," Coco Fusco gives us a context and an explanation for Ofili's project as a whole in an insightful essay evidently written before the recent shit-storm -- and she brings us up to speed on some of Ofili's prior adventures.