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South African Art


South Africa is home to some of the most ancient and beautiful art in the world - the rock art of the ancestors of today's Bushman or San. It is also the scene of a host of diverse and challenging contemporary artists producing important new work.

 Art of Africa promotes the art of the San.

The San are the original hunter-gatherer inhabitants of Southern Africa. Art of Africa is attempting to promote and support the San's efforts to preserve their culture and make sense of their contemporary reality through art.

Traditionally, San artists found their materials in nature. Their canvases were rock and stone surfaces in caves, under overhangs and in the open veld. Their paints were finely ground ochre, charcoal and clay, mixed with natural binding agents.

As the pressures of modernity have increasingly eroded San culture, they have also resulted in fewer and fewer San artists. By promoting their art, this art gallery in Cape Town wants to create better understanding of the problems facing the remaining San people, and how these can be overcome.

According to Art of Africa it was the 'passion for genuine African art' that brought the gallery in contact with contemporary San artists. Their art portrays a unique relationship with the natural environment and their past. It is energetic and moving, using powerful shapes and bold colours. With the support of various museums, organisations, galleries and authors, Art of Africa began to specialise in the promotion and preservation of San art.


  During the colonial era, what artists there were in South Africa tended to concentrate on depicting this "new world"
in detail as accurate as they could make it - though sometimes this led to selective emphasis. Artists such as Thomas Baines travelled the country recording its flora, fauna, people and landscapes - a form of reporting for people back in the metropolis.Towards the end of the 19th century, painters Jan Volschenk and Hugo Naudé and the sculptor Anton van Wouw began, through their work, to establish a locally rooted art. Their work is the first glimpse of an artistic vision engaging with life as lived in South Africa, for its own sake, rather than as a "report" to the colonial master. It is the art of the moment in which South Africa, with Union in 1910 and thus the formal end of the colonial era, was beginning to acquire its own national identity.


 In the first decades of the 20th century, the Dutch-born painter JH Pierneef
brought a coolly geometric sensibility to the South African landscape, finding in it a strict but beautiful order; he also, in a way that fed into Afrikaner nationalist ideology, found it bereft of human inhabitants.By the 1930s, two women artists, Maggie Laubscher and Irma Stern, brought a different kind of subjective gaze to South African art by using the techniques and sensibilities of post-impressionism and expressionism. Their bold way with colour and composition, and the assumption of a highly personal point of view, rather scandalised those with old-fashioned concepts of acceptable art.Yet already younger artists such as Gregoire Boonzaier, Maud Sumner and Moses Kottler were rejoicing in the new spirit of cosmopolitanism they were able to bring to South African art.


While the "high art" scene in South Africa continues to burgeon, the market for crafts has expanded to include every possible form of traditional artwork - and then some.There is a host of new work in traditional media on the market in many places. Artists are constantly developing the repertoire of African crafts. These range from pretty tableware to decorations for Christmas trees; embroidered cloth to hang on your wall or cover your bed ... and on to the simplest of items such as key-rings and candle-holders



With unparalleled inventiveness, South African craftmakers have adapted every possible medium and material to the demands of a marketplace that feeds both domestic buyers and tourists.Shops, markets and artmaking collectives dealing in African craft are thriving, providing much-needed employment and income in communities such as Fugitive's Drift (near Rorke's Drift, in KwaZulu-Natal), which offers a huge variety of basketry, or the Schmidtsdrift (near Kimberley in the Northern Cape) community of displaced Bushman or San people, who are involved in art projects that produce paintings that constitute an imaginative and highly coloured extension of ancient rock art.


 At the same time, the status of the traditionally anonymous maker of craft works is changing, and artists working in traditional media have emerged as notable figures in their own right with personal styles that identify them as "artists" in the sense we have come to understand the term. "Folk art" has made inroads into "high art" as Western-style assumptions about what constitutes art have been modified by broader conceptions of artmaking.The work of ceramicist Bonnie Ntshalintshali, with its incredible, almost phantasmagoric detail, has gone well beyond the confines of traditional African pottery - yet her exquisite works could conceivably still be used at your table.


 The sculptor Phutuma Seoka is another example of an artist who has taken a traditional form and given it a highly personal twist. In his case, the carving of figures using the inherent curves and forks of tree branches, common in the Venda region, is used to creating a cast of eccentric characters.Some artists in the "folk art" mode have come up with ideas quite out of left field - like the late Chickenman Mkize, who made (now highly valued) mock roadsigns out of cheap materials, emblazoning them with eccentric messages. The fact that he was illiterate, and was transcribing words written out by others, without noting the spaces between the words, adds to the charm of the works. One of them may declare "NODRUNK ENBUMS" or ask, poignantly and pertinently, "BUTISI TART?"


The Ndebele tradition of house-painting, part of the widespread African practice of painting or decorating the exterior of homes, burgeoned amazingly with the advent of commercial paints.It also gave rise to artists such as Esther Mahlangu, who has put her adaptations of the distinctive, highly coloured geometric Ndebele designs on everything from cars to aeroplanes.By way of an enlightening contrast, as well as a pure visual feast, there are many Ndebele villages to be visited in the Northern Province and Mpumalanga (and the distinctive Ndebele style has been extended beautifully to beadwork).

 Not with standing the appearance of celebrity "folk artists", ordinary craft, in which the makers are usually anonymous, continues to thrive in South Africa. The main areas of traditional craft work are beadwork, pottery, basketry and carving.A high level of skill is brought to the production of work that has long been a part of African society, though its significance has changed as it has found new commercial outlets.For instance, beadwork, which was once the insignia of tribal royalty alone, gradually developed broader meanings in traditional society, related to courtship and the like. Today it has found a huge range of applications, from the creation of coverings for everything from bottles to matchboxes - to the reproduction of the red "Aids ribbon" in the form of small Zulu bead works colloquially referred to as "Zulu love letters".

Basketry and ceramics, of course, were long ago brought to a pitch of perfection in traditional society, and the outgrowths of these forms today grace gallery plinths as often as they find a place on a suburban shelf.Other artists, in a spirit of African entrepreneurship, have developed new craft media from available materials. On sale on many a street corner are objects made of wire, ranging from representations of the globe to cars and motorcycles (which are capable of manipulated movement) - to joke cellphones. Telephone wire, in many colours, has become an alternative material for basketry, and plastic bags and bottle tops have been recycled or reused in delightful objects for use or just visual pleasure.


 There are several important collections of African art in South Africa
, such as that of the Standard Bank (at the Gertrude Posel Gallery at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg) or the Durban Art Gallery, housing works of historical and anthropological significance.Turmoil on the African continent has meant the flow into South Africa of many traditional works from outside this country's borders.

The vitality of South Africa's tourist industry has meant that such work finds a more ready market here than it might in its lands of origin
.Academics and curators are grappling with issues of authenticity (and there are serious matters to be dealt with here), and many are concerned that invaluable work ripped from its museum context is now on sale to the highest bidder, who may have no sense of its historical value, and thus important work is being lost to the public discourse.
he traditional forms of African art, mostly sculpture of figures and masks, shade into the area of craft, as new works are made in old styles.
Here the influx from other parts of the continent has provided value for those seeking such work.There can be few other places in which one can gain access to such a variety of African arts and crafts, whether they be masks made in one of the continent's many styles, or carved chairs, or embroidered or appliqué cloths. At the Rooftop Market at Johannesburg's Rosebank Mall, for instance, as well as at its African Craft Market, work from sources all over the continent jostle for the attention of the potential collector.


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