5 November 2015 – 23 April 2016
Curated by Rory Bester
AVANT CAR GUARD | WILLEM BOSHOFF | KUDZANAI CHIURAI | DAVID GOLDBLATT | DUMILE FENI | RANDOLPH HARTZENBERG | SAMSON KAMBALU |
KEMANG WA LEHULERE | DAVID MOGANO | ROBIN RHODE | CECIL SKOTNES | ALFRED THOBA | SUE WILLIAMSON
An Essay in Annotation
by Rory Bester
On the occasion of The New Church Museum’s recent acquisition of a selection of photographs by David Goldblatt, this exhibition is a moment of reflection on visuality as a series of entangled and pollinated moments where looking and seeing is translated into the visual and visible, and repeated and refined into argument. In the combination of the nature of its mechanical reproduction, and the convention of the accumulation of images into essay form, the photographic medium enables the photographer to mobilise the repetitions that evolve language into argument. While the photographic medium can be contrived as such, it is perhaps more difficult to apply this understanding of visuality to other artistic media. But in the accumulation of work over time, it is potent to consider effects of this understanding of visuality on the making of art histories, not only of here but also from here. What is it in the nature of the pollination of the field of art that establishes cycles and patterns of repetition and recognition? And what is it in these cycles and patterns that entrenches single, multiple and/or competing notions of art history? Given that ours is a time of naked monumentalising and brooding iconoclasm, this exhibition invites meditations upon the visual languages and arguments that underscore and overturn our attachments to the things that lead to events, and the events that lead to things.
Embedded within these cycles of language and argument are patterns of repetition and recognition that reinforce familiarity and strangeness, collectively rooted as much in our history as our present. So that in repeating a marker of strangeness, we come to recognise strangeness. Colour, language, and scars accumulate a recognition that comfortably slips into otherness, racism and xenophobia. But strangeness is also a site of struggle against familiarity, and more especially those forms of over-familiarity that render things unnoticed and invisible. Such as the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, unnoticed, even invisible, until the excremental act that returned him to visibility, to a recognition that sought to break the constricting effects of repetition. But while the excremental act, as well as its ensuing debate, appealed to and rallied especially the anti-colonial position, the sequence of events that eventually resulted in the removal of the statue stopped short of addressing or engaging the specific visual languages and arguments that have been the uninterrupted bedrock of public sculpture practice since colonial times. It is these cycles and patterns of visual language and argument, of visual repetition and recognition that require renewed attention.
In the curatorial act of attending to visual language and argument in an exhibition, there are few artists and photographers whose practice is more attentive to the complexity of the visual than David Goldblatt. From the early 1960s to the present, Goldblatt has photographed, ruminated, shaped and returned to his collations in magazine essays, exhibitions and books. In the emergence and refinement of his arguments, the essence of his visual language has remained remarkably consistent. It is for these reasons that Goldblatt’s photographs are able to hold some of the curatorial arguments proffered in this exhibition. His photographs here are drawn from a number of book and exhibition projects, including In Boksburg (1982), The Transported of KwaNdebele (1989), South Africa The Structure of Things Then (1998), Intersections (2005), and Structures of Dominion and Democracy (2014).
The Structures project in particular is noteworthy for a number of reasons related to this exhibition. Structures is the photographer’s first wholesale re-engagement with his own accumulated archive. It is also his most overt engagement with the ritualization of apartheid, especially the repetition and recognition of the architecture of power and dispossession. It includes subjects such as hedges and walls, houses, huts and shacks, habitats, inhabitation and forced removals, as well as graveyards, gravestones and grave markers. But the dominant forms represented in the book are the church and the monument, repeated and highly recognisable in the photographic compositions. The defensiveness and dominance of these two structural forms are prodigious.
These qualities are overt in Goldblatt’s 1982 photograph of the public monument to J.G. Strijdom in Pretoria. The scale and grandeur of the architectural dome, the prancing horses, the water fountain, and the oversized bust of Strijdom are the visual cues that contribute to Goldblatt’s argument about monumentality. The violence of this monumentality was reiterated, first when Strijdom Square became the site of a racist massacre by Barend Strydom in 1988, and then when the event was remembered by the artist Jacques Coetzer, who dyed the fountain water red in 1992. And then in 2001, in what can only be described as fate’s own iconoclasm, the square itself imploded, destroying the dome and sucking the bust into an underground parking garage. When the site was renamed Lillian Ngoyi Square in 2006, all that remained of the original monument was the marble column atop which the prancing horses once stood.
 Even with his introduction of colour, the language remains recognisable and the arguments definitive.
 As one of the leaders of the 1956 Women’s March, Ngoyi was part of the group that delivered the petition intended for then Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom.
Like Ngoyi, Frances Baard was also a central figure in the 1956 Women’s March. She was imprisoned and banished in the 1960s for her trade union and political activities. While a comparison between Goldblatt’s photographs of the Strijdom and Baard monuments might seem gratuitous, it is nonetheless instructive for a number of reasons. Taken just over 30 years apart, these images respectively exemplify what Goldblatt now understands as the two periods of structures – “dominion” and “democracy”. Very different languages of monumentality are inhabited in these images. Strijdom was given the entirety of a public and open square in which the dome, bust, horses and fountain, drawing on European (and more especially Fascist) conventions of memorialisation, contrived a monumental grandeur about the former apartheid Prime Minister. It was unambiguous in asserting the importance of Strijdom, Afrikaner nationalism and the apartheid state in the public imagination. Contrast this with the much more modest statue of Baard, repeating the convention of a form that is larger than life but that is anything but monumental. Trapped behind palisade fencing, kept at a distance, and in Goldblatt’s composition, competing with a plethora of advertising and branding around the street corner, the statue teeters on the edge of a fragile monumentality, waiting to be swallowed by its surroundings. In pointing to Baard’s fragile language of monumentality, Goldblatt’s photograph appears to argue against the lingering relevance of this kind of monumentality in the present.
In the debates, protests and actions over the relevance and removal of sculptures, the action and activity of iconoclasm is often either infantilised or abandoned altogether. The excremental act upon the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town, this moment of iconoclasm, was hushed away, first by the removal of the statue, and then in the (apparently unrelated) disciplining of the agent and actor of this incitement. What remained, in tune with a wider practice around public memory, was nothing-ness.
In wider instances, monumentalities are protected, overturned and replaced in repetitions of the same visual language, with little scope or space for deliberative and enduring acts of iconoclasm.
When Avant Car Guard began dancing on graves, their jumping, jiving and jostling took aim at the enduring, even iconic, place of J.H. Pierneef in one kind of traditional South African art history. Made visible in a photograph, iconoclasm is given an enduring provocation. Their faking of the death of artist Kendell Geers, replete with gravestone, is a provocation less to the iconicity of the contemporary artist as his symbolic status as the enfant terrible, or king of avant garde in the microcosm of an early post-apartheid South African art world. In the unfolding form of the work, the iconoclasm is not only held in the repetition of the gravestone, as photograph, but also in the physical form that alludes to the dancers’ artistic conceit.
In its combination and repetition of colours and forms, the flag accumulates and relies upon patterns of recognition to mark what is not only shared and common, but what is taken and owned.
The first flag raised at the Cape is thought to have been that of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), which flew from 1652 to 1795. In bringing together the Prince’s Flag – horizontal stripes of orange, white and blue – with the VOC logo, it synergised national and commercial interests into a single colonial identity. Following the Battle of Muizenberg in 1795, the Union Jack was hoisted at the Cape, and its rendition was variously repeated, uninterrupted, in the design of South African flags until 1994. As with so many Caribbean and Australasian countries, the Union Jack was a convenient reminder of the sheer monumentality of not only colonial power, but also of its legacy in the times of decolonization and postcoloniality.
From the end of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902 to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the Union Jack was the flag of the four colonies that would become the Union. The de facto first flag of the Union, which flew from 1910 to 1928, was an ensign that set the Union Jack and South African coat of arms against a single background colour. As such it was mostly a simulation of the flag of the Cape Colony, which in turn was part of a system of flag design consistently used throughout the British Empire. The ensign flag was raised in Windhoek when South African troops occupied German South West Africa in 1915.
The second flag of the Union, and the one most closely identified with apartheid, was a cocktail of compromises between the cultural interests of Afrikaans and English-speaking whites. It flew from 1928 until 1994, when the current South African flag was hoisted for the first time.
Between 1966 and 1994 the white South African flag was augmented by the flags of the following ‘independent’ black homelands: Transkei (from 1966), Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Gazankulu and Venda (all from 1973), Lebowa (from 1974), QwaQwa (from 1975), KwaZulu (from 1977), and KwaNdebele (from 1982).
 This work by Robin Rhode was previously exhibited at The New Church Museum as part of “Pop Goes the Revolution” (10 October 2013 – 1 April 2014), curated by Kirsty Cockerill.
 Somewhat surprisingly this flag was untouched by the transition from Union to Republic in 1961.
The resort to religion in a time of Cold War politics is so elegantly captured and theorized as ‘liberation theology’ in Latin America in the 1950s. While not specifically applied as such to the South African context, the role of religious organizations in the struggle against apartheid exhibits many of the qualities of liberation theology. While various faiths resisted apartheid, it was to the visual language of Christianity that many artists turned to visualize the effects of and resistance to apartheid. The now highly recognizable images of the crucifixion (and the associated martyrdom), as well as the post-crucifixion composition of the Pietà (with all its associations of loss and sacrifice), were both invoked to engage the violence of the apartheid state. But importantly, in repeating these highly recognizable images of religious death, martyrdom and sacrifice, artists such as Cecil Skotnes and Dumile Feni went beyond mere religious iconography and used the repetition of religiosity to create recognition of the effects of a secular struggle.
 This work was previously exhibited at The New Church Museum as part of “It Begins with Battiss” (14 May – 29 August 2015), curated by Candice Allison and Kirsty Cockerill.
The Pietà-like composition of Mbuyisa Makhubo and Hector Pieterson, immortalised in Sam Nzima’s photograph, is repeated in Alfred Thoba’s visual recollection of the Soweto uprising in 1976. The painting was produced more than a decade after the uprising, and along with Skotnes’ Robben Island series, was first exhibited as part of “Detention without Trial: 100 Artists Protest”, a fundraising exhibition held in January 1988 in support of the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee (DPSC). The DPSC was banned shortly before the exhibition opened at the Market Galleries in Newtown, and since the banning order encompassed all activities associated with the organisation, the exhibition was in effect also banned. According to Gail Behrmann, who organised the exhibition:
When I heard on the radio that the DPSC had been banned, I rushed down to the Market Theatre and removed everything in the exhibition that mentioned the DPSC. The artists pretended that I’d organised the exhibition, and not the DPSC.
Thoba’s painting was bought by Paul Riedelsheimer, a German collector living in South Africa. It remained in his collection until 2012, when it was put on auction and bought by Bruce Campbell-Smith for the “Revisions” collection. The recognition of this work, beyond its repetition of a seminal moment in anti-apartheid struggle, is largely derived from its reproduction in a number of publications since first appearing in Sue Williamson’s Resistance Art in South Africa (1989). But in physical form it has remained invisible since first appearing on exhibition nearly 28 years ago.
 The Cecil Skotnes watercolour on this exhibition was also originally exhibited along with the Thoba on the “Detention without Trial” exhibition.
 See Rory Bester. 2008. An unwavering moral compass. Art South Africa 7(1): 70-74.
This exhibition offers a moment in which to bring Thoba’s painting into conversations with work by contemporary artists. Notable here is the Revelations series of colour photographs by Kudzanai Chiurai. The works by Thoba and Chiurai included here are emblematic of conditions of modernity and contemporaneity in South Africa. In and of themselves they appear to have no apparent connection, but in being emblematic they also become relational. And together, in an exhibition or an art history, the emblematic and the relational is augmented by the reading of these two works as counterpoints. They are similar in that each grapples with an accumulated sense of history, as well as a sense of the past and present at the time of their making. They glance back to what still holds the present.
But then they are also different. And this is where the counterpoint becomes instructive. Thoba’s work is located within the predominance of the painterly; it tells a story about an historical event of violence and death – Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying the dead Hector Pieterson – and narrates this event within a framework that might be described as critical modernism. Chiurai’s choice of medium not only reflects the newer prominence of the photographic medium, but also collates a series of ideas that are more abstract than concrete. The work is more self-reflexive about the pretentions of narrative forms. Importantly, though, the central figure is a woman in possession of a weapon (rather than being the subject of its violence). Both works reveal (to some extent self-acknowledged by the title of Chiurai’s work) the conditions of their times, and in so doing, the condition of the artist too.
David Goldblatt’s captions come in different forms. The long and the short of it is exactly that – long and short. This wasn’t always the case, and in the re-publication of existing bodies of work, older and simpler captions have been lengthened. His first book to actively invoke the long caption is South Africa The Structure of Things Then (1998), which combines simple captions alongside the full-page photographs, and a repetition of thumbnail photographs and extended captions at the back of the book. Unlike Goldblatt’s previous book, The Transported of KwaNdebele (1989), which had an apparently ‘natural’ sequence of time from early morning to late evening, and in this sense constituted a more conventional photographic essay, the Structures book is a more dispersed collation in terms of time and place.
While Goldblatt attends to similar questions throughout the book, the historical and spatial trajectories warrant (for Goldblatt at least) the addition of background, context and in many instances, complexity too. So it was that this formulation of image and text came to be repeated in later work. Goldblatt’s attention to the written word is symptomatic of a wider debate within photographic practice (and struggle within the photographer) about how many words make a photograph enough. Is the photograph reproduced here enough? Or is the short caption – “Anna Boois, Namaqualand, Northern Cape. 20 September 2003” – enough for it to be a photograph? Or is enough only as much as the following extended caption:
Anna Boois, goat farmer, with her birthday cake and vegetable garden, on her farm Klein Karoo in the Kamiesberge of the Northern Cape. She was one of 14 people – all women – who had been given land in this area under a government scheme. About a year after this photograph was taken her source of water dried up and she abandoned her farm and went to live in Garies, the nearest village.
This work by David Goldblatt was previously exhibited at The New Church Museum as part of “No Fixed Abode” (14 August – 1 November 2014), curated by Candice Allison.
 In David Goldblatt. 2005. Intersections. Munich: Prestel.
A lawn has shape. It has colour. And it has length. It is worked into a manicure, clipped with the symbolism of the ‘inside’. The manicured lawns photographed by Goldblatt, on weekends in Orlando (1972) and Boksburg (1979), are snapshots of leisure indelibly shaped by apartheid – massed and singular, shared and solitary, communal and owned, confined and unencumbered. Beyond leisure the lawns are assertions over the landscape, over wildness that is gone and wildness that lingers, waiting to go. Wildness takes back and hides. Lawn buries; it is an easy invitation to imagine, to write over what was before the fantasy. It is not an invitation to excavation. To plant and grow lawn is to bury. And the deeper the burial the more the lawn becomes a Pantone, until it no longer needs earth, water or even a burning renewal.
Like a lawn, the suitcase is a dance between promise and loss. The suitcase is the promise of something new. It is a marker that transcends apparent differences between the historical and the contemporary in South Africa. Then, as now, it is the marker of the outsider, the stranger, the foreigner, the amakwerekwere. This suitcase is never empty. It is always travelling. It is the marker of the one who doesn’t belong, whose time is anywhere between the reality of transit and the dream of everlasting. It holds the past, physically so, but it is also stuffed with something that is elsewhere, over the rainbow. The suitcase is also a harbinger of loss. Less what is ill-fitting and left behind, and more, as with the parcel, what is gone forever:
At tea-time on the afternoon of Friday 24 July 1964 a young white South African, John Harris, put down in the main concourse of Johannesburg station…a large brown suitcase containing eight sticks of dynamite, a quantity of Cordtex, a two-gallon plastic container of petrol, a timing device adapted from a pocket-watch, an electric battery and two detonators. On the suitcase was a handwritten note saying, “Terug binne 10 minute” (back in ten minutes).
 C.J. Driver. 2015. The Man with the Suitcase: The Life, Execution and Rehabilitation of John Harris, Liberal Terrorist. Cape Town: Crane River.
PUTCO stands for Public Utility Transport Corporation. It is the “Utility” that is most startling, and, of course, most revealing. Established in 1945, it wasn’t a bus company for white people. It was carrying something useful to white people. Because that’s what utility means, right? Useful. David Mogano’s watercolour of a bus terminus in Alexandra township was painted at the same time that Goldblatt was photographing the bus riders in KwaNdebele. What is reiterated in Mogano’s watercolour is the visibility of the PUTCO bus in black everyday life, especially prior to the emergence of the minibus taxi industry. During apartheid PUTCO was a powerful instrument in the administration of apartheid bureaucracy, and as such was also the subject of major protest actions, notably the 1957 Alexandra Bus Boycott. This 6-month refusal to ride PUTCO buses was in protest against the one-penny fare increase from 4p to 5p. Named “Azikwelwa” (We will not ride), the boycott was eventually successful in keeping the fare pegged at 4p. Ruth First, writing in the Africa South magazine at the end of the boycott, was emphatic in suggesting that “not since the days of the Defiance Campaign had Africans held so strategic a position”.
 Ruth First. 1957. The Bus Boycott. Africa South, July–September. 55–64.
David Goldblatt’s The Transported of KwaNdebele is one of the strongest photographic statements on the dehumanising effects of apartheid’s organisation of space. Commuters travelled for up to 8 hours a day to get to work and back home again. Their mode of transport was a PUTCO bus, which operated a service between KwaNdebele and the Marabastad terminus in Pretoria. It is a simple body of work, sequenced by the forward and return journeys on the bus. The photographs are unremarkable because the journey they document is itself monotonous, repetitive and mostly takes place in darkness. This makes it a difficult body of work to explore with students in a classroom setting. It is a body of work that needs to be felt, which is why, when I last taught with these photographs, I resorted to repeating the bus journey with students. We met at Wits University in Braamfontein at 2am in order to be in KwaNdebele by 4am. From KwaNdebele we snaked a route to the Marabastad terminus. Nothing was ‘taught’ on the route. But so much was learnt through the sensory experience of the journey. It was experiential art history at its best.
The body, as a sight of recognition and a site of repetition, is marshalled for and against itself, whether from here or elsewhere. In the context of multiple subjectivities that move in and out of references to race, assumed notions of self-identity are entrenched, undermined and overturned. The countenance of racialised definitions and self-definitions of the artist, artistic practice, and the invocation of the body, are critical to engagements with artists who are from here, as well as art histories written from here:
Critics and historians often contextualised the work of black South African artists within the parameters of their cultural origins and experiences, but often overlooked intercultural experiences and the concerns that have shaped black self-definition. Until relatively recently, art by black South Africans was collectively categorised in an historical timeframe as pioneers of realism, township, protest, transitional or struggle art and more recently as post-apartheid or rather blandly, contemporary art. Artists who did not fit into these categories tended, nonetheless, to be subsumed into them, often on the strength of only a fraction of their oeuvre. Such categorisation tended to obscure the many rich and complex responses to modernity and the individuality or visual language. ‘Black’ art was in part expected to be figurative, expressive and narrative.
 Juliette Leeb-du Toit. 2009. Mmakgabo Mmapula Helen Sebidi: A Biography. Johannesburg: David Krut Publishing, 14.
Letters, notices and orders were modes of address, reaction and response that gave bureaucracy to apartheid: redacted letters, cut up and scratched out; banning orders, issued to restrict movement, association and activities, including house arrest; and eviction notices, served not only to end occupation, but more callously, to end ownership. Forced removals, banishment and exile were the communal and individual modes of ‘eviction’ with no return. In between these letters of the law were secret writings, smuggled, in and out of meetings, in and out of homes, in and out of prison, in and out of the country. They were the untouched notes and letters whose risk revealed another story.
The Last Supper is before the betrayal, which is before the Crucifixion and Pietà, before the sacrifice and martyrdom that is the history of the Cape Flats. That was District Six.
And that was Fietas.
In reflecting upon these practices of translation, language and argument, and on the processes of repetition and recognition, within understandings of specific artistic media and art historical narratives, the questions, observations and complaints raised in this exhibition are less about the ‘what’ of visuality and more about the ‘where’ of visuality. Where does an artwork belong if not to create or entrench unthinking comforts and familiarities? In tackling these questions, in making new art histories from here, other possibilities need to be considered. It is all too convenient when commerce dictates the terms of the questions and the convenience of the answers. It is not that they cannot ask or answer questions, but rather that there are too few questions being asked and too few answers being offered. It is a formula for an unchanging and inadequate art history that is comfortable, for example, with Irma Stern’s records at auction, but is uncomfortable with the provincialism of her modernism or the orientalism of her practice. In the provocation of imagining that her work might be better placed in Qatar than Cape Town, it is not to discredit artists or their practice but to provoke an art history that is more becoming of our complexity.