Tuesday, April 13, 2010
While William Kentridge was being feted by New York society – apparently he has become a fixture on the New York dinner party circuit – on the other side of the globe in a small South African village (Grahamstown) where a group of artists, writers and academics had gathered for a colloquium on Colour, writer and academic Ashraf Jamal was questioning and challenging Kentridge’s status in the canon of South African art. Not that this is unprecedented; within South African art circles I have noted a growing weariness around Kentridge’s art propelled by overexposure and hype around his work. I will always prize his charcoal animations but I have come to view his recent appropriation of dated visual modes – such as the stereoscopic drawings or the Russian constructivist vocabulary – as gimmicks employed to amuse and create the illusion that his art is constantly evolving - which it is and it isn’t.
Singling out the work of Kentridge and Cecil Skotnes Jamal articulated concern with the absence of colour in these artists work which he views as a manifestation of a state of mind that pervades South African art, in which moral seriousness overrides a playful form of expression, which he likened to a kind of “wakefulness” (drawn from a Foucault quote). Interestingly, it is noted in an article about Kentridge which recently appeared in the Financial Times that he chose not to use paint as his medium of expression because it would involve using colour. So really Kentridge is as colour-shy as Jamal proposes. Jamal suggested that such choices are not stylistically determined but are ideologically motivated to reflect a well-trodden discourse in South African culture that is centred on reconciling the self with the African landscape and culture – a continuing crisis centred on the ‘politics of place’. He proposed that the muted, earthy palette that characterises Skotnes’ art was evidence of his romanticised notion of the African landscape as an arid, dry and harsh terrain where survival would be tough. In contrast he argued that Kentridge’s art, which features mines and the Joburg landscape, was evidence of an existentialist crisis fuelled by the artist’s battle to locate himself within a highly contested and politicised territory.
Artists who are continually mining our history have a “fetishistic relationship with the past,” Jamal urged. They keep scratching at the same old wounds, he added.
No doubt the “moral seriousness” that characterises South African art is a hangover from the resistance art movement, in which the arts were co opted to accelerate political and social change. Though Jamal did take a dig at Sue Williamson’s documentation of this trend, his discussion did not address the instrumentalisation of the arts, which coincidentally was one of the reoccurring themes at the World Summit of Arts and Culture, which was held in South Africa late last year. At that conference it became obvious that the instrumentalisation of the arts tended to occur in third world countries with pressing social or political issues. Thus it seemed that, that kind of art was driven by the contexts artists, who seem by their nature to have a heightened awareness of social issues, were toiling. I suppose that Jamal would make a case for a kind of art that could address social problems while at the same time evincing a degree of imaginative playfulness.
For those of us at the colloquium such as myself, Michael Smith and Emma Taggart, who all gave presentations on young artists who quite liberally adopt colour in their art while similarly engaging with the sociopolitical dynamics in the country proved that a degree of “play” was possible within a brand of art that evinced social awareness. But I do feel that liberal use of colour in such work can operate as a false façade. My paper, entitled Re-imagining the Self through Colour: the Politics of Pink in the Art of Lawrence Lemaoana, focused on the ways in which Lemaoana exploited and challenged western notions attached to the colour pink in the artwork In The Line of Defence (pictured above). Ultimately, in demonstrating that colour is socially and culturally defined and thus is not only subject to physical but ideological displacement I implied that colour in itself is simply a superficial and vacant entity that in itself has no meaning. Thus our perception of colour as a sign of playfulness or lightness is a culturally defined one; colour is therefore, a superficial marker of what Jamal terms “play.”
Jamal didn’t only articulate a distaste for art “profoundly retarded by moral seriousness” but criticised writers (Alex Dodd) and even publications (such as Art South Africa) for lauding such works and thus perpetuating this impulse in South African art. I agree that art writers in this country need to be more critically engaged with their material but I also know from experience that in our small art world this can be tricky to do without completely alienating yourself from the very community that you are affiliated. Nevertheless I have always felt that the art critic’s path is a lonely one. It is also easy for writers to get caught up in the hype around artists. In defence of Dodd and her piece on Skotnes which irked Jamal I would suggest that in an article that was essentially meant to function as an obituary for the artist it would not have been wholly appropriate to tear his work to pieces. Of course, if my memory serves me correctly this article had been previously published elsewhere and had been written long before he died. It is also possible that Dodd’s perception that Skotnes’ art paraded vibrant colours might have been coloured (excuse the pun) by his last solo exhibition at the Goodman, which presented works that were undeniably vibrant. In fact in my own review of the exhibition I compared his palette to that of Rauschenberg’s. But, of course, this last body of work is not his most celebrated.
Ultimately, however, I admire Jamal’s temerity for challenging the kind of art that our society applauds and for saying something new. No one in the arts community should be above criticism.