South African Art

Part 4

South African Art: The outsiders' view

Jackson Hlungwane, Helen Martins
Meanwhile, the idiosyncratic sculptor Jackson Hlungwane, discovered by the mainstream art community only late in his life, and coming to public notice in the 1980s, had produced a vast body of sculpture in wood and built environments expressing his own highly individual religious world.

It contains a multitude of creatures both mythical and real, as well as a large cast of characters (sample title: Christ Playing Football.)

In this he has something in common with another "outsider artist", Helen Martins, who obsessively peopled her small-town home and garden with sculptures of concrete and found objects up to her suicide in 1976. (Martins is the central figure in Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca.)

Both Hlungwane's citadel near Mbhokota in Limpopo Province and Martins's "Owl House" in Nieu Bethesda have become notable tourist attractions for those willing to go off the beaten track.

Vladimir Tretchikoff
Yet perhaps South Africa's most successful "outsider" artist is Vladimir Tretchikoff. This Russian émigré, who had travelled widely before settling in South Africa, developed a distinctive style in which arch sentimentality was rendered with virtuoso formal exactitude.

Tretchikoff had considerable commercial acumen, turning paintings such as The Dying Swan and Chinese Girl (also known informally as The Blue Lady) into prints and sold millions of them around the world. To the post-modern eye, Tretchikoff's work, long scoffed at as the peak of kitsch, now has a distinctive ironic charm.

International dialogue
From the 1960s on, many South African artists responded to developments in American and British art. The severe yet sensual work of Cecily Sash showed the impact of post-painterly abstraction and later "op art"; the playful surfaces of Helmut Starke and Kevin Atkinson opened the dialogue with pop art.

A wide range of styles and modes were now available to South African artists, and the likes of Judith Mason and Andrew Verster extended the traditions of oil painting into personal expressions of life, society and the world around them. Mason's austerity contrasts interestingly with the liveliness of Verster's palette, while her frequent focus on figures in extremis contrasts with his celebration of the richness of life.

Responding to repression
As the repressiveness of the apartheid state increased in the 1970s and 1980s, many artists made works that faced the harsh realities of South African life, sometimes obliquely, sometimes head-on.

In the early 1980s, for instance, Paul Stopforth made a series of works in various media dealing with torture, then a routine interrogation technique of the South African security police - and the cause of the death of resistance heroes such as Bantu Steve Biko and many others.

Robert Hodgins, a painter of lush virtuosity, satirised figures of power in paintings that turned leaders into sinister but laughable echoes of Alfred Jarry's mad king Ubu.

In paintings, lithographs and sculpture, Norman Catherine developed the playful sensibilities of Walter Battiss into a disturbing private menagerie of threatening and threatened theriomorphs and larger-than-life human figures.

The crowded collages, pastels and charcoals of Helen Sebidi spoke of the struggle of human life; her figures seem to battle upward toward the picture plane as though they were drowning.

William Kentridge used powerfully expressionist drawings and highly developed personal metaphors, symbols and characters to expose the hypocrisies and ironies of white South African life (more recently, he has extended his powerful drawing technique into the basis for "animated" films and installations).

Penny Siopis tackled issues of femininity and history in dense, allusive paintings (and, later, in installations, photographs and other conceptual works).

In the 1980s, the category of "resistance art" was increasingly recognised as a genre of expression explicitly directed at South Africa's ruling white elite and its increasingly oppressive exercise of power.

The trade union movement, as part of a wider drive for democratic change, made striking use of visual imagery that had something in common with the Russian constructivists as well as African art, on posters and T-shirts. Anonymous artists placed images of state violence (or bewildering dream reflections) at traffic intersections. 

The all-in-one official guide and web portal to South Africa. The history of South African art is detailed here by a former editor for South African newspaper The Mail and Guardian, Shaun de Waal.

A Brief History of Art in South Africa: