“Any great work of art… revives and re-adapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world—the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.“—Leonard Bernstein, What Makes Opera Grand?
American composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein may have been describing music, but his definition of art and its impact captures perfectly the way that I, for one, experienced “Impressions from South Africa: 1965 to Now.”
The show is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City through August 14, 2011.
Many visitors to South Africa talk of the amazing sense of community and reconciliation that has emerged there, ever since the end of the brutal and discriminatory apartheid regime and 1994’s first universal elections. The art in this exhibit, however, takes viewers right back into the pain and violence of apartheid, even through art that has been created since 1994.
The “air” in the galleries is indeed “strange and special,” and one does indeed revive and re-adapt to a horrifying time and space, to use Bernstein’s metaphors. (At left, Medu Art Ensemble, “You Have Struck a Rock,” 1981)
Drawn entirely from works in MoMA’s collection, the show contains 80 prints, posters, books, and wall stencils by approximately 30 artists and collectives. The work captures the reach, range, and impact of printmaking in South Africa.
Printmaking is a “democratic” medium, according to Judith Hecker, assistant curator in MoMA’s Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, who organized the exhibit. “Printmaking has been a way of conveying the cruelty of war for centuries,” said Hecker. “It is affordable and collaborative.”
As she led a group of reporters through the exhibit, Hecker said the history of apartheid played a major role in the creation of the works on display. In 1948, apartheid began. In the 1950s, a number of restrictive laws were passed. And by the 1960s, artists in South Africa began to react to the cruel and oppressive policies.
In the first room are posters like 1984’s United Democratic Front’s call to action and the 1981 screenprinted poster “You Have Struck a Rock,” by the Medu Art Ensemble, showing women breaking the chains of their oppression.
Later in the show, William Kentridge’s 1989 work, “Casspirs Full of Love” does not appear to be overtly political, until one learns that a casspir is an armored military truck that was used against black townships.
Diane Victor’s series of etchings were produced from 2001 to 2003. Called “Disasters of Peace,” the series was inspired by Francisco de Goya’s “Disasters of War,” created during the 1810s. (At right, Diane Victor, “Why Defy,” 2001)
Artist and activist Sue Williamson’s work is distinctly personal and searingly painful. Born in England, she now lives in Cape Town. Joining Hecker, she gave reporters insights into several of her pieces.
No one, she said, would sell her Freedom Charter T-shirts in 1986, bearing the 1955 call for equality in South Africa. Williamson created a set of postcards that same year, portraits of women, heroines in the struggle, who were almost unknown to white South Africans. The postcards were extremely controversial at the time.
One wall of the exhibit holds Williamson’s masterful “For Thirty Years Next to His Heart.” The series of 49 photocopies in artist-designed frames (produced in 1990) depicts the pages of a man’s passbook, a “symbol of terror,” said Williamson, without which a black South African could be arrested immediately. The book contains dates; stamps; confirmation of payment of taxes; details of where one could live, and monthly signatures by an employer, confirming that the bearer was indeed employed. For three years, Ncithakalo John Ngesi carried the book, even after it was no longer necessary. He finally gave the book to Williamson, who still has the original in her studio in Cape Town. Why did Mr. Ngesi, whose hands are visible throughout the work, finally give up the book? Said Williamson, “He had cut the chain at last and freed himself of the terror associated with the book. He said he never wanted it back.”
When I asked Williamson how she wanted visitors to react to the exhibit, she said simply that she “hopes they take away a deeper understanding of how artists responded to a troubling situation” in South Africa.
That brings us back to the “strange, special air,” the revival and adaptation of “time and space” that Leonard Bernstein describes.
One comes away from “Impressions from South Africa: 1965 to Now” having breathed in a certain sulphurous stench. Looking at dogs with bared teeth and helmets and waterboarding will do that to you.
But knowledge is both powerful and restorative. Peace and reconciliation have triumphed in South Africa. And I, for one, am happy that an influential institution like MoMA has had the foresight and commitment to have long ago begun collecting the evidence of both the struggle and the triumph.