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South African stories with William Kentridge Hon RA

Published 21 September 2016

South Africa comes to London this autumn in two exhibitions – a historic British Museum survey of the country’s art, and a major Whitechapel show of its leading contemporary artist, William Kentridge Hon RA. Here the artist explores three works on view at the museum show

  • John Muafangejo, The Battle of Rorke’s Drift

    John Muafangejo, The Battle of Rorke’s Drift, 1981.

    © John Muafangejo Trust/University of Witwatersrand Art Museum, Johannesburg.

  • 1. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift, 1981, by John Maafangejo

    John Muafangejo (1943–87) is one of the great artists of Namibia and one of the great masters of the genre of linocut printmaking. His image here (pictured) represents a battle in the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War, and while it may remind us of German Expressionist printmaking, it also includes many elements that tie back to traditions of art-making in Africa.

    There is an affinity with the decorative fabric that is designed in some African countries, in which white cloth is stitched with black ribbon. There’s an immediate resonance with relief carving – the image is constructed from large blocks of black and white. There are thick lines, broad decisions. The line of the linocut is halfway between the looseness and freedom of drawing and the resistance faced when carving material.

    But there’s another interesting relationship to African art. Muafangejo trained at the Rorke’s Drift Art and Craft Centre, which was founded by Swedish missionaries at Rorke’s Drift, a village in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, in the 1960s. The missionaries brought with them great examples of German Expressionist printmaking. But of course, an influence on German Expressionism was the ethnographic objects – masks and carvings – brought from Africa to Europe by missionaries, colonial administrators and traders in the 19th century.

    So while Muafangejo goes back very strongly to an African tradition with his work, it is always layered with the bastardy of missionaries, traders, ethnographic museums and art education. This form of linocut, augmented with text to strengthen its political message, has therefore become an emblematic anti-colonial art form, particularly in South Africa.

    • 2. The Coldstream Stone (c.7000 bc)

      The Coldstream Stone (pictured), on loan from the Iziko Museums in Cape Town, is remarkable both for its immediacy and for the continuity it demonstrates, the length of a tradition of imagemaking that has continued for 9,000 years in the southern part of Africa. It takes all sorts of dating techniques to show that this work was made not 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago, but 9,000 years ago. The same traditions of elongation, of thinning of the extremities of the body, have continued for the 9,000 years since the painting of this stone.

      If you are an artist in your studio today working on an image, your concerns are essentially those of the person making this stone 9,000 years ago, which are to do with attitude, with gesture, with articulation of the limbs, with asking how far forward a body should lean, or how much detail to put into a shoulder to still show what it is. What is the relationship between the size of the images and the ground on which they are painted, in this case the rock – how do they fill that oval?

      These are questions one still asks today as an artist. I’m sure they were not posed in those terms 9,000 years ago, but were certainly present in the artist’s consideration of everything it took to make the image. And of course the most fundamental question remains now, as it did then: what is of you and what is not? Making an image comes out of you – and is proof of your existence whether that’s now or 9,000 years ago – but it always has its own independent existence.

      The Coldstream Stone (c.7000 bc)

      The Coldstream Stone (c.7000 bc)

      © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town.

  • 3. A pair of sandals handmade by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (before 1915)

  • A pair of sandals handmade by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, (before 1915)

    A pair of sandals handmade by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, (before 1915)

    © Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History, Pretoria

  • Mahatma Gandhi was an illustrious citizen of the city of Johannesburg. He arrived in South Africa in 1893 as a young lawyer to look after the legal interests of Indian workers there. He was from a high-caste Hindu family and he was not interested in Indian mysticism at that time – he had no knowledge of Sanskrit – so his transformation during the course of the 20 years he spent in South Africa came through several other sources.

    First of these was his observation of Muslim, as opposed to Hindu, passive resistance; of Muslim activists who urged Indians to go to jail rather than obey South Africa’s oppressive, restrictive laws. Second was his contact with a group of Jewish intellectuals, one of whom gave him John Ruskin’s Unto this Last to read and introduced him to Indian mysticism.

    Gandhi’s links with Indian mysticism were also filtered through interest in the Victorian theosophy of figures such as the Russian Helena Blavatsky and the American Henry Steel Olcott. So it was through a mixture of Russian, American, English and Jewish mysticism that Gandhi came to read the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture that would become a prime source of his inspiration.

    It led him, in late 1906, to develop his philosophy and politics of satyagraha (truth force), a form of passive resistance that aimed to enable both the exploited and exploiter to realise the truth. He had come back to Indian tradition, and continued to develop his philosophy during several periods when he was detained in Johannesburg for encouraging Indian resistance. After General Jan Smuts conceded to Indian demands in 1914, Gandhi sent Smuts a gift of a pair of sandals he had made in jail (pictured), before leaving for England and then on to India.

    Gandhi had not been a scholar of Indian philosophy; he had been a smartly dressed English barrister. So when he came back to his tradition, it was through translation and mistranslation, through the use and misuse of the texts he had been subjected to. Tradition was bastardised, approached from the side, not paid homage to but used as raw material in the service of another end. In the city of Johannesburg, a place of possible transformations, Gandhi escaped his caste position and made connections and political leaps that would have been impossible in India.

    South Africa: The Art of a Nation, British Museum, London, 27 October until 26 February 2017.

    William Kentridge: Thick Time, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 21 September until 15 January 2017.

    Follow this link to listen to a podcast of Kentridge in conversation with the RA ’s Artistic Director Tim Marlow.

    William Kentridge Hon RA is an artist. His work is presented in solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, listed above. He also shows alongside the artist Vivienne Koorland at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 19 November – 19 February 2017.

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