Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tracy Murinik's A Country Imagined

Recently a prominent academic and writer admonished South African cultural producers for their fixation with the land, implying that this obsession had become clichéd, dull and predictable. He accused artists of either projecting romanticised views on to the African landscape, rendering it as this earthy, barren and unoccupied space that tested the human spirit of endurance, or being confined to narratives that dwelt on the socio-political politics attached to land. Both pursuits could result only in tired, dour and unimaginative forms of expression, he said.

A Country Imagined, which is showing on SABC2 at 9pm on Sundays, focuses on exploring a myriad cultural products that feature or are inspired by the land, so it gives credence to the idea that our artists are preoccupied with this topic. Of course, this subject is not just confined to artistic circles; land reform or redistribution also remains a political hot potato.

But isn't a fixation with the land universal? In 2005 the BBC ran a similar series, A Picture of Britain, which explored the history of pictorial representations of the landscape. Commenting on the series, presenter David Dimbleby noted that "we don't just love landscape in Britain... it is part of our culture and we look at it in a particular way because we have been led to do so by artists".

Dimbleby's observation goes straight to the heart of the importance of such a study, particularly one accessible to a large TV audience, it allows us to see the ways in which our view of our country has been shaped by representations of it. Of course, those who have spent any time studying representations of the African landscape executed during the colonial era will know how influential these portrayals were in perpetuating or justifying the political imperatives of the day. With respected art historian Tracy Murinik behind A Country Imagined, no doubt these issues will come into focus as the series progresses. But it would also be interesting to learn how today's art is propelled by our new political dispensation. This South African series isn't a carbon copy of A Picture of Britain; while it, too, has a non-expert in the form of Johnny Clegg presenting, it hasn't confined its study to rural destinations as the BBC series (and accompanying Tate exhibition) did. It has also embraced urban destinations, which is just as well considering the gazillion artworks and writings on Joburg.