- Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now
The Museum of Modern Art in New York and curator Judith B. Hecker have organized this small but interesting show of prints by artists from South Africa. The works are among the current holdings in the museum's permanent collection. Among the twenty-nine artists and other entities who have work in the collection are Zwelethu Mthethwa, William Kentridge, Jo Ractliffe, Vuyile C. Voyiya, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the Save the Press Campaign, and the Medu Art Ensemble. Despite its large number of artists, the show occupies a relatively modest amount of space in the museum's halls. The intent of the exhibition organizers seems to have been to offer the public a view of South African art-making practices that flourished among all sectors of society during the apartheid years and beyond. An honorable undertaking, it has produced an intriguing show that, despite its limitations, gives us not only a window onto a sector of the art world of a particular country but also a glimpse into some areas of our recent collective memory that are all too often forgotten today.
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It is easy to approach an exhibition like this one with a combination of cynicism, nostalgia, and even a little sadness. After all, for many people, the politics and the politically oriented art of the last century recall utopian hopes that ended in dashed expectations. Yet art that speaks the language of the twentieth-century insurgent Left may also recall the brutality of the time — not only of the forces ranged against the people whose hopes this art sought to speak for but of the very forces that gave rise to such art. Whether it was communism versus fascism; Bull Connor versus Martin Luther King Jr.; the Black Panther Party versus the police of Oakland, California; or, in this case, the white-minority government of apartheid South Africa versus the black majority, our culture has inherited some binary sets of memories about our recent past, and this inheritance has an effect on how this past is presented today. Getting around these binaries is not made any easier by the turn that political discourse has taken in the last ten years, especially in the United States, where talk of "ultimate causes" for social ills is greeted with suspicion in many quarters. This makes it hard to look at the politically engaged art of the last century with any attention to the lifeworlds and politics such art evokes. We live in an era in which political discourse has turned so far away from the fundamentals of social life that we've almost forgotten that such questioning was once the basis of the thoughts and actions of large segments of society.
The organizers of this exhibition seem acutely aware of these problems. Perhaps this is why Moshekwa Langa's Suburban Metro Lines is the work that greets viewers first. Placed on the wall just outside the entrance to the exhibition proper, it is an odd, perhaps ironic opening choice for a show dedicated to prints, drawings, and other [End Page 158] graphic arts created primarily during the apartheid years. This mixed-media assemblage of tape, printed paper, and plastic bags, in which the grid is punctuated by black, blue, red, and green ovals, evokes not just the ubiquity of suburban transit implied by the work's title but also the landscape that suburbanites see, and don't see, on their daily excursions. This contemporary work is, however, more intriguing for its formal properties than for whatever narrative a viewer may hitch to it after the fact. The act of assemblage has always offered the promise of accessibility alongside the frustration...