Books

Contemporary History Through Prints

by Alissa Guzman on June 8, 2011

A view of the "Impressions from South Africa: 1965 to Now" exhibition at MoMA (photo by Jason Mandella, via MoMA)

The goal of MoMA’s Print & Illustrated Book department’s latest show entitled Impressions from South Africa: 1965 to Now, is simple: to explore how various printmaking techniques have been used in South African art since the 1960s, when the museum first began collecting African art.

The exhibition catalog accompanying the show, through which this article will explore and review the exhibition, is a teaching tool for a purely educational show. Instead of focusing on the wealth of adamant self-expression produced by artists living in a country whose racist organization of society began in the 17th century and still lingers today, Impressions from South Africa filters this agitation into five tidy categories of printmaking. It dwells on how and why South African artists made, and continue to make, the prints they do. Just as wheatpaste is seen as a staple for street art, printmaking has long been the dominant technique of art made without resources. Impressions from South Africa, pulled from the archives of MoMA’s permanent collection and organized by the department’s assistant curator Judith B. Hecker, is not a daring exhibition of South African art, but rather an informative one. In a sweeping gesture the show reduces the artistic impulse, and the variety of motivations behind creativity, to a practical occupation of the repressed. The curatorial decisions behind Impressions from South Africa does the South African story more justice than it does the artwork.

Jo Ractliffe's "Nadir 15" (1987–88) (via MoMA)

Organizing an exhibition around four well known printmaking techniques — linocut, lithography, intaglio and photography — outlined and discussed in the catalogue along with the exhibition, is not particularly interesting. The way in which each of these techniques served the artists and movement that appropriated it, however, is.

Hecker’s catalogue essay ties each process to the political or personal resistance movement it played a strong role in facilitating. For example, Hecker begins by discussing the various art schools and workshops in which linocuts were taught to black artists, describing them as places that, “beginning in the 1960s, were open to black artists when universities were not.” Art schools and workshops established a place where artists could meet, collaborate, and work with other likeminded printmakers. These communities gave a voice and a visual form to a dialogue that was being ruthlessly discouraged elsewhere in the country. Lithography, on the other hand, was used for creating colorful, graphic posters of anti-government sentiment, which gave rise to a sprawling secret network of artists, print shops and distributors. Thinking back to the American black power posters of the 1960s and 70s, or more recently to Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” poster, we know how powerful a graphic image with a simple message can be. Intaglio techniques allowed artists like the world-renowned artist William Kentridge to create detailed prints mocking the dominant South African narrative, and to make realistic caricatures of important military and governmental figures. Photography, the most obvious but unavoidable companion to printmaking, played a large role in documenting life under Apartheid rule and after. South African artists incorporated a wide range of photographic imagery into their prints, from images of refugee camps and police brutality to self-portraits and photocopied documents.

The cover of the "Impressions from South Africa: 1965 to Now" catalogue.

Hecker’s exhibition catalogue, however, never breaks away from being a resource rather than an art book, despite the selection of plates chosen for glossy reproduction. The final pages are dedicated to a chronological timeline of important South African dates, followed by short biographies on all twenty-nine participating artists. Her explanatory essay ends with the category “Postapartheid: New Directions,” which follows contemporary artists moving away from obvious themes of racism and politics, to explore their own work as artists and not activists. It’s this final room of the actual exhibition, thankfully, that brings a satisfying focus back onto the artwork itself. Despite the book’s slant toward awareness and education, and its devotion to showing that “all art has not been created equally in South Africa,” good artworks are impossible to overshadow with explanatory text.

Norman Catherine, "Witch Hunt" (1988). One from a series of six drypoints with watercolor additions, plate: 9 13/16 × 12 3/16″ (25 × 31 cm). Publisher: the artist, Hartbeespoort, South Africa. Printer: Caversham Press, Balgowan, South Africa. (via MoMA) (click to enlarge)

William Kentridge’s prints, in the context of this show, are familiar and evocative, and his art takes on a depth that is sometimes lost in the fanciful nature of his work. Surrounded by images detailing the brutal history of his country, his prints seem anything but humorous. “Casspirs Full of Love“(1989), a black and white engraving of “decapitated heads piled in a cabinet,” is powerful without becoming overbearing, and it embodies his sense of playfulness while still portraying his horror.

Jo Ractliffe’s “Nadir 15″ (1987–88) depicts photographic police dogs snarling and barking screened atop images of squatter camps, forced removals and landfills. It is a political image that transcends its own narrative, becoming a provocative image of fear, poverty, and violence.

Norman Catherine, in “Witch Hunt” (1988), which is a colorful drypoint watercolor styled after cartoons and illustrations, shows animal-like authorities attacking the floating bodies of civilians. The child-like style of the drawing mixed with the disturbing the content gives it the feel of a happy fantasy world turned to gory nightmare.

Paul Edmunds, "The Same But Different" (2001) (via MoMA) (click to enlarge)

Paul Edmunds, in a large print print titled “The Same But Different” (2001), presents the most abstract work of the exhibition. A linoleum print of dusty, brick reds made up of numerous squiggling lines, it references the indentations and patterns of our skin. An abstract fingerprint in the color of the earth, it’s a calm, beautiful print that subtly references the specificity of our identity.

Looking at works of this quality scattered throughout the exhibition, it’s a shame Impressions from South Africa falls short of being an exhibition about contemporary South African art that allows the stories of its history to come from the prints themselves. The exhibition does display a variety of prints that span decades of upheaval, successfully portraying a complicated history through prints, if at the expense, at times, of the art. I hope for the sake of the artists, however, that this show is a stepping stone, a promise of more museums collecting South African artwork and for these artists to be recognized on a more international stage. Without demanding this of our institutions, they are sadly likely to continue putting together shows like this one: a safe and comfortable way to recollect a terrible history.

Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now continues until August 29 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, midtown Manhattan).

Note: The homepage image is Sandile Goje’s “Meeting of Two Cultures” (1993). via artabase

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