East Cape artists featured in national exhibition

University of Fort Hare collection on show at Black Aesthetic in Johannesburg

An early work by George Pemba
An early work by George Pemba

Pieces from the University of Fort Hare’s prized art collection are on show at the Standard Bank Gallery’s Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists (1970-1990) exhibition in Johannesburg.

Presented for the first time outside of the Eastern Cape since 1992, the collection features one of the largest holdings of black South African artists working between the period of 1970 and 1990, leading up to the first democratic elections in 1994 – and thereafter.

Featured artists include the Eastern Cape’s late George Pemba and Gladys Nomfanekiso Mgudlandlu alongside Gerard Sekoto and Dumile Feni and more than 150 others who each boast a wide range of disciplines such as etchings, woodcuts, linocuts, serigraphs, drawings, paintings and sculptures.

A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists (1970 -1990) is curated by Standard Bank gallery manager and curator Dr Same Mdluli and features the work of black artists from various backgrounds, whose style and approach to artmaking are distinct.

The exhibition aims to encourage a more critical engagement of these artists, whose works have historically been neglected. It attempts to reposition their expression within the larger SA art historical narrative and redefine ways of discussing their work and challenging existing notions of what constitutes SA art history. Other themes in the exhibition examine the contentious label of “township art”, a terminology which has been criticised for its limitations in labelling and boxing black artists from these areas.

A Black Aesthetic shows work from three decades of the collection; part of an era in the country characterised by challenging conditions that existed under colonial and apartheid rule.

“These works are a great record of painful experiences, memories, and stories of black people in apartheid,” University of Fort Hare’s national heritage and cultural studies centre curator Vuyani Booi said.

The exhibition, not necessarily presented chronologically, brings together artwork by early modernists masters such as Ernest Mancoba, George Pemba, Gerard Sekoto, and John Koenakeefe Mohl, to name a few, whose works have contributed to modernists practices of the early 20th century.

The expressions by the early modernists are further extended to the work of artists that seem to be grappling with postmodernists ideas such as Gladys Mgudlandlu, Ephraim Ngatane, and Winston Saoli, who each had unique approaches and meanings to their process.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, work influenced by the black consciousness movement became more prominent with an emphasis on defining the role of the artist in society. Works by artists such as Thami Mnyele, Paul Sibisi, Madi Phala, Lucky Mbatha and William Zulu illustrates the intersection of art and ideology in both subject matter and critical thought.

Among the artists are those whose works played an influential role on other creatives and extended beyond SA’s borders. Feni, for example, lived in both the US and UK and so his work is more internationally acclaimed.

A Black Aesthetic attempts to start building a more comprehensive historical account that will hopefully encourage future generations to engage with black SA’s rich heritage in the visual and creative arts.

Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists (1970 -1990) runs until April 18.

Exhibition walkabouts will be held on March 9, 16 and 30 and April 6 from 11am.