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Arts and National Development: An evolving South African challenge

Project Leader: Prof Pitika Ntuli

Project Coordinator: Leslie Dikeni & Rachel Browne

Faculty of Humanity
Project started

October 10 2013

Estimated end date:

February 20 2015



The project will provide a platform for arts practitioners, experts, and cultural workers to critically ‘rethink’ or ‘re-imagine’ South Africa’s cultural industry.

With this project, MISTRA’s purpose is to thoroughly interrogate the question: What is South African art and how does the South Africa art form situate itself within the continental landscape? In his commentary about the recently published Visual Century (Wits Press), Gavin Jantjes, project director wrote: “…current and recent publications make [it] clear that, with the possible exception of international exhibitions that feature South African art, our art tends to be located within an art historical vacuum and there is little attempt locally to situate it within an international framework, or a specific African one”.  South African paintings and sculpture in history: musings of the mind and how they relate to continental art-forms thus seeks to contribute towards filling ‘the vacuum’ by taking forward the discourse presented in Visual Century.

To this end it is proposed that the study will pursue a nuanced study of SA art drawing from  Amilcar Cabral’s thesis of ‘returning to source’ (Close to the sources: Essays on contemporary African Culture, Politics and the Academy, 2009); reflect on African pasts (as opposed to a static past) and identify the plurality of perspectives  that such retrospection will require. In contradistinction to this, the study will also interrogate the effect of ‘Empire’ on the SA art form. This aspect thus would principally focus on exploring African art through the lens of ‘the Orient’,  a colonial invention that promoted fundamental misunderstandings about African culture at all levels. ‘Empire’ equally played a role in dictating values impacting on demand, which has in turn determined ‘supply’ and opportunity. These ‘values’ had a central role to play in airbrushing indigenous art forms out, rendering them invisible, placing them in  the ‘curiosity’ category of South Africana.

Beyond the impact of the ‘other’ on African culture, the project would equally explore the notion of culture as ‘knowledge’, more specifically, a deeply embedded and developed knowledge system that has followed its own epistemic path through time. A transdisciplinary treatment of the theme would allow for study of African philosophy and identified philosophers, Nabudere and his philosophy of Africology being one such, to understand, and appreciate the spiritual dimension and its influence on African culture.
 ‘Progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives. Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation.’(Angela Davis).
Interrogating the ‘objective forces’ of our society and the ‘social character’ that has shaped artistic endeavour, past and present, would form another important focus of the subject. Included in this focus would be the influence of the academy on the arts as well as independent agencies, such as the Johannesburg Art Foundation, Rorkes Drift, Polly Street and the Bag Factory, and similar cultural ‘heartbeats’ across South Africa. Included in this area of study would be a reflection on the tenuous relationship between the arts and its close relation ‘craft’ which will take the form of a socio-political revisit of an old debate and an opportunity to open up an important discussion on indigenous knowledge.  The equally tenuous relationship between art and the state, both past and present would offer a critical evaluation of yet another ‘objective force’ that has shaped the visual arts and its agency over time.
And finally, looking into the future, and contributing towards a substantive response to the overarching question of what is art?, the study, inspired by Njabulo Ndebele, will identify  assumptions (in particular history and the masculine ‘voice’) and old established paradigmatic thinking, what he would refer to as ‘chains’ that need to be ‘broken’ so as deliver new thinking around ‘rediscovering the ordinary’ and unleashing the power of imagination and fantasy in art.

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