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'A Black Aesthetic': a milestone exhibit of SA's black modernist artists

On at Joburg’s Standard Bank Gallery, this collection of works produced during the height of our country's political strife provides a unique perspective of art history

24 February 2019 - 00:07 By Edward Tsumele
'The Poet' by Nathaniel 'Nat' Ntwayakgosi Mokgosi (1946-2002).
'The Poet' by Nathaniel 'Nat' Ntwayakgosi Mokgosi (1946-2002).
Image: Supplied

Black artists have over the years contributed as much to SA's visual aesthetics and language as their white counterparts, and therefore made an immense contribution to the broad visual narrative of the country.

However, when it comes to recognition, especially in group exhibitions, black artists' role in art history-making seems to be downplayed at best, and at worst their work is simply "inserted" into the exhibition as some sort of filler.

It is for this reason and many others that curator Same Mdluli, who occupies the influential position of Standard Bank Gallery manager and curator, conceptualised A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists (1970-1990).


The period is quite significant in South African political history as political strife was at its height, and the fight for political freedom from apartheid was intense. Significant artistic endeavour carried out during this period is expected to touch on the body politic, creating work that passes commentary on the politics of the time.

The exhibition portrays this well.

'Utwasi' by Winston Churchill Masakeng Saoli (1950-1995).
'Utwasi' by Winston Churchill Masakeng Saoli (1950-1995).
Image: Supplied

The dominant political activities of the time occupied three political dimensions:

  1. Black Consciousness as expounded by Steve Biko;
  2. Intensification of the struggle for freedom by various political parties, both in the country and in exile; and
  3. Civil society activity.

The politics of the time are visually well-represented, elevating the power of visual art in addressing these issues.

Works that touch on the Black Consciousness ideology include pieces by Thami Mnyele, Paul Sibisi, Madi Phala, Lucky Mbatha and William Zulu.


Mdluli, who holds a doctorate in history of art from Wits University and has been in her job at the Standard Bank Gallery for a year now, is clearly passionate about elevating the status of black artists and ensuring greater access to their work.

A Black Aesthetic must be understood in the historical context of previous attempts to elevate the status of black artists in SA in the face of marginalisation, such as efforts by Steven Sack at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1988 when he curated an exhibition entitled The Neglected Tradition: Towards a New History of South African Art 1930-1988, and the Bruce Campbell Smith Collection exhibition, Revisions, mounted at Iziko National Gallery in Cape Town in 2005.

Under Mdluli's leadership, the Standard Bank Gallery has commissioned curators such as Thembinkosi Goniwe, Usha Seejarim and Gordon Froud, among others, but this is the first time Mdluli - the first black curator and manager of the gallery - is curating a show in the space.

Standard Bank Gallery manager and curator Same Mdluli.
Standard Bank Gallery manager and curator Same Mdluli.
Image: Supplied

"I have been working on this exhibition from the very first day that I came here, which is a year ago," she said.

"Although this is a group exhibition - in a way seeming to contradict my strong view that in the past black artists have not been sufficiently allowed to stand on their own in group exhibitions involving their white artist counterparts - in this case it is different.

"For example, even though this is a group exhibition, from a curatorial perspective each individual artist is allowed the space and the opportunity to shine and tell their own story that is distinct and different from the rest, and yet the art objects are still arranged in such a manner that they tell, as a whole, a whole black visual narrative.

"Another issue is that, often when black artists' art history narrative is told, it is done in reference to their white counterparts or the schools they went to and the role white artists played in developing these artists as mentors and teachers," says Mdluli.

"While that is true, that is not the complete story.

"Most art historians often find it difficult to talk about black artists without referencing the [Polly Street Art Centre in central Johannesburg] and how white artists such as Edoardo Villa played an important role in teaching and mentoring black artists.

'Man and Beast' by Sydney Alex Kumalo (1935-1988).
'Man and Beast' by Sydney Alex Kumalo (1935-1988).
Image: Supplied

"Equally so, they often also find it difficult not to reference Rorke's Drift and its role in the development of black artists of the time."


In this exhibition - although it includes artists from Polly Street, such as Sydney Alex Kumalo, and John Muafangejo, a Namibia-born artist who trained at the famous Rorke's Drift Art and Craft Centre in KwaZulu-Natal - there is no reference to these two important institutions in the lives of black artists of the time.

"It was deliberate on my part not to reference those two institutions to get the idea through to the viewer that yes, they played an important role, but then black artists from there worked on their own to become independent and even develop their own individual aesthetics further to be on par with their white teachers and mentors," says Mdluli.

The artists featured in the exhibition are from various backgrounds and their styles and approaches to making art are distinctly different.

'The Senegal Woman' by Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993).
'The Senegal Woman' by Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993).
Image: Supplied

Vuyani Booi, curator of the University of Fort Hare's national heritage and cultural studies centre, says: "These works are a great record of painful experiences, memories and stories of black people during apartheid."

A Black Aesthetic, not necessarily in chronological order, brings together artworks by early modernist masters such as Ernest Mancoba, Gerard Sekoto and George Pemba as well as post-modernist artists.

"After seeing this exhibition I hope that the viewer will be forced to start engaging differently with works by black artists and appreciate the role they played in SA's current visual aesthetics," says Mdluli.

• The exhibition runs until April 18 at the Standard Bank Gallery in central Johannesburg, Mondays to Fridays from 8am to 4.20pm and Saturdays from 9am 1pm. Entrance is free.