Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Art Books: Helen Sebidi

A flurry of new art books have been released recently; The Alexis Preller box set penned by Karel Nel and Esme Berman and, of course, Sue Williamson's book on contemporary South African art. I have recently finnished reviewing the Preller retrospective, now showing at the Standard Bank Gallery, and have been a bit dissapointed by the book, which lacks a level of objective criticality that Preller's art demands. Such was the case with the new Taxi art book on Helen Sebidi too. Perhaps it is just my allegiance to the journalistic realm but art writing in this country really lacks objectivity; authors seem to have this tendency to 'fall in love' with their subjectmatter to the point that they are willing to suppress all the uneasy truths or antinomies that their work presents. Such was the case with this book on Sebidi where the authors  were more concerned with how they represented Sebidi than actually engaging critically with her work and her status within the South African canon. It was a frustrating read, which so far has been the case with the box set on Preller. I haven't even glanced at the Williamson book yet, I really hope it is going to have a bit more meat on it than her last books, which felt like address books with their  A-Z format. Reviews of the latter and the Preller box set will follow. For now here is my review of the Sebidi book:

Mmakgabo Mmapula Mmankgato Helen Sebidi has been forgotten. In the last decade the focus has been on black male artists. For this reason alone this book, the 14th title in the Taxi Art Book series, presents a significant shift in the historiography of South African contemporary art. Its value also lies in the fact that Juliette Leeb-du Toit, the author, and the editor, Browyn Law-Viljoen, have made concerted efforts to revise the manner in which Sebidi's work has been read by historians and critics until now, who have
 situated her art within stereotypical, and often pejorative, discourses that have delineated art produced by black artists. These, as Du Toit observes, have tended to "obscure the many rich and complex" responses Africans have had to modernity.