Monday, October 4, 2010

Why Marilyn Martin is pissed off

I heard that Marilyn Martin was less than enchanted with me following my review of Louis Maqhubela’s retrospective at the Standard Bank Art Gallery. I know that it is politically incorrect not to like Maqhubela’s work or at least to publicly express such a sentiment but I decided awhile ago that if artists didn’t have to play by the rules than art critics shouldn’t have to either. After all I am paid to offer my opinion, not simply to regurgitate that of a curator or society at large. Despite the tight deadlines under which I work I am never careless with my opinion or dismissive of an artist’s work. No matter how much the work might not appeal to me, I consider it quite carefully.  I did agonise over this review. I so wanted to feel differently about Maqhubela’s work that I consulted colleagues and acquaintances, hoping that someone could convince me about the merits of his work. What I discovered in my mission was that many shared my views but were aware that it might not be polite to articulate them. For Martin, Maqhubela’s significance is largely tied to the fact that he was one of the first black artist’s to adopt an abstract vocabulary. From today’s standpoint I think we owe it to Maqhubela to look beyond this fact and actually engage with his work.  I think it is very telling that the catalogue for this exhibition doesn’t really do this.

 I don’t think that Martin did herself or Maqhubela any favours by getting Esmé Berman – who pegged Maqhubela as a “township artist” -  to open the exhibition. How could Martin expect to reposition Maqhubela within the canon if she relied upon the very person who contributed towards typecasting him? I have also grown tired of the way black artist's work is framed by the institution where they studied when this is never the case with white artists. In any case all these views are stated in my review: 

THE ART historian Esmé Berman has a short memory. At the opening of Louis Maqhubela’s retrospective in which she admonished the art intelligentsia for overlooking this artist’s contribution to the history of South African art, she seemed to have forgotten that she was the main culprit. Having penned The Story of South African Painting in 1975 and Painting in South Africa in 1993, Berman had ample opportunities to assign importance to Maqhubela and reposition him within the canon.

Of course, these days no one would dream of writing a definitive history of South African art – linear narratives that logically plot out an entire history of any preoccupation have fallen quite out of fashion. Mostly, this is because historians now accept that such stories almost always flatten out the complexities of history and obviate the often non-linear movements that characterise human activities. Thus Maqhubela will most probably never appear in some grand narrative on South African art. Today history exists in fragments loosely tethered to other stories. Marilyn Martin’s catalogue that has been produced for this retrospective
exhibition is just such a fragment and will form the lasting legacy of her efforts to insert Maqhubela into history.

But this slim volume doesn’t tell the whole story. Nor perhaps does the collection of paintings at this retrospective. Certainly, as one peruses the exhibition it is hard to grasp why so much attention is being paid to his art at all. The works are hung chronologically, tracing Maqhubela’s artistic trajectory, which began in the early 1960s with naïve paintings of township life. Like Gerard Sekoto’s idealised representations of such settings, Maqhubela’s palette is bold and colourful, thus portraying township life as upbeat and untroubled. Berman suggested that the drawing Little Black Boy Lost in a White Wood (early 1960s) was proof that his work could not be lumped in the “township” genre of painting.

It was a puzzling statement because she was the one to have pegged him as a “township artist” and she gave credence to this term, which today is viewed as pejorative. Berman’s observation implied that because Maqhubela didn’t portray the township setting in this painting, his work was not “township art”; thus she unwittingly suggested that the other works still conform to stereotypical notions attached to this supposed genre. Without a doubt this drawing is in stark contrast not only to his early paintings but his colourful oeuvre – rendered in black and white it has a melancholic undertone and is the only one at the retrospective with any obvious political subtext. The forlorn and helpless subject that stares out from the drawing, imploring the viewer to release him from the overcrowded forest in which he is trapped, is the antithesis of the carefree subjects that dominate the other paintings. Being the most emotive and visually strong artwork, it is the most striking. And herein lies the conundrum: the artworks displayed on the whole are not particularly visually or intellectually rewarding.

Reflecting on Maqhubela’s significance one young artist remarked at the opening: “It doesn’t matter what his art looks like; it is the fact that he attempted to make art during very difficult times; when black men didn’t make art and were prevented from doing so.” He furthermore suggested that his art could not be measured against the western canon. Nevertheless, Martin and Berman appeal to this very canon to substantiate Maqhubela’s import, citing that his work from the mid seventies, which experienced a substantial shift after he left the country, shared an affinity with the work of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. So where do we place Maqhubela? Predictably Martin positions him within the history of the Polly Art Centre, where he studied with many of South Africa’s most influential artists, and the broader “black” art history, beginning with the so-called “pioneers” such as Sekoto. To drive this home Martin exhibits the work of Durant Sihlali, who also studied at the Polly Art Centre, Sekoto and others in the main circular display area at the Standard Bank Gallery.

Usually, particularly for a retrospective, this area is home to an artist’s most compelling works. Aside from the fact that only black artists’ work is always framed by the influence of the institution at which they studied (and the influence of the white tutelage), this display forces one to make comparisons. Comparisons that are not always in Maqhubela’s favour.
Berman suggested that Maqhubela found his voice as an artist after he left South Africa and settled in London, where he discovered a language which she described as “non-objective abstraction”. This is a wonderful blanket term to explain a largely incoherent brand of art characterised by hazy geometric shapes and a combination of both figurative and non-figurative elements that fail to create a strong visual statement or evoke any kind of emotion in the viewer. Given Berman’s observation that Maqhubela was mapping an internal, spiritual landscape, one would expect these paintings to have some kind of emotive thrust. But for
this viewer, it simply wasn’t there.


A.M. Hasler said...

The "critic as tastemaker" aspect of this post fascinated me. Obviously critics and art historians play an enormous role in shaping the cultural canon, and you do some great reporting here with regards to Berman's past work.

However, you mention that there was an original criticism of Muqhubela...I was unable to find a link. Will you provide a link to the original text? I'd like very much to write about the dialogue.
A. Hasler, Boston

Mary Corrigall said...

@AM Hasler the texts that I refer to are texts written by Berman about Maqhubela. She does not critise his work she classifies him as a township artist.

Anonymous said...

A very insightful peice. I do enjoy your take on the Art world and hope you do not shy away from controversial criticism when it is warranted.