South African Art

Part 5

South African Art: Conceptual art of the '90s

Conceptual art in South Africa - which had had significant though muted beginnings in earlier decades - seemed to come into its own in the 1990s. Events such as the two Johannesburg Biennales (1995 and 1997, then discontinued) contributed to a new dialogue between South African artists and currents from other countries. Media such as video, performance and installation took the place of painting.

Jeremy Wafer, for instance, has used photography, earth, and fibreglass sculpture to create enigmatic but resonant works that deal with issues such as borders and boundaries. The complex installations of Sue Williamson use found and reworked materials to speak of memory and history. Sandile Zulu has made paintings out of the unpredictable marks of fire upon surfaces, or created sculptural tableaux from natural materials ingeniously arranged.

Ordinary refuse has been imaginatively turned into suggestive assemblages and collages by Moshekwa Langa. Steven Cohen has turned drag into a viscerally challenging form of sculpture/performance with works that deliberately shock in order to address issues of identity and marginality. Kendell Geers has used a variety of media, from improvised actions in situ to the tools of commercial art (pushing toward a "non-object-based" practice), to interrogate the very process of artmaking itself.

Other artists have put a conceptual spin on traditional artforms, and continue to make interesting and stimulating work into the new millennium. Jane Alexander, for instance, took sculpture into new realms with disturbing figures that place the human form in extremis or subject it to frightening transformations. Willem Boshoff has used exquisite wood carving, as well as encyclopaedic installations, to comment on systems of knowledge and classification.

Jo Ractliffe works with photography to investigate personal and familial memory, death, decay and love. Hentie van der Merwe has also used photographs, whether taken or found, to talk about the body and its discontents in an age of Aids.

The contemporary scene
There are many other artists at work in South Africa today, making art from a huge range of materials and pushing the boundaries of what art itself consists of. Through their very works, they ask what art's position is in a society in transition from the repressive limitations of the past to the scary uncertainties of the future.

While state and provincial galleries are strapped for cash, and find it hard to make acquisitions that keep pace with production and innovation, they manage somehow to play an important role in the public life of art in South Africa. There are important prizes such as the FNB Vita Award to encourage new work, and corporate collectors such as cellphone company MTN and mining house Gencor have assembled notable collections.

It all adds up to an art scene of unprecedented richness, one it is impossible to do comprehensive justice to in this article, but one worth exploring in detail.

Cape Town has the widest spread of independent galleries than any city in South Africa, as well as the South African National Gallery, which contains key historical works and also hosts innovative new ventures.

There are, however, important collections in Johannesburg and Durban as well, and several vital galleries such as the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg and the Natal Society of Arts Gallery in Durban.

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: