Lize Van Robbroeck

ReVisions: Expanding the Narrative
of South African Art.

The Campbell Smith collection comprises over 470 works, mostly by black South African artists, assembled over a period of 20 years. ReVisions was an exhibition of a selection from this collection curated by Hayden Proud at the Iziko/South African National Gallery. The catalogue accompanying this exhibition is a hefty hardcover publication of 360 pages and high resolution, glossy colour reproductions.

The Campbell Smith collection is astounding, not so much for the quality of the work collected (which ranges from absolutely wonderful to somewhat mediocre), but for its visionary consistency and astute focus. The collection was accumulated in the wake of Tributaries and the Neglected Tradition, which, to the delight of an unsuspecting white art world and the even bigger delight of art dealers, respectively uncovered a wealth of fresh rural art production and raised awareness of a long history of modern black art that ran parallel and unacknowledged to the dominant white canon. With astonishing foresight and persistence, Campbell Smith continued this project by assembling a rich storehouse of images that might very well become the raw material of a new history of South African art. It is no secret that the canon of South African art is in the process of reconstruction 1. New histories of South African art are in the process of being written and the dominant white canon is being actively deconstructed, not only by art historians, but by a wide variety of practitioners. Campbell Smith’s predilection for figurative and narrative art, while limiting the scope of the collection, provides compelling socio-historical evidence of black experience, solidarity and subjectivity during the late colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid years. As such, it is a veritable mine of narratives, mythologies, ideologies, statements, ambiguities and ideas just waiting to be excavated.

This process of excavation is launched by the exhibition catalogue, which includes critical essays by Hayden Proud, Ivor Powell, Elza Miles, Mzuzile Xakasa, and Mario Pissara. In addition to these essays, brief biographies on artists are provided, complete with lists of solo and group exhibitions and collections featuring their work (the biographies are drawn up by the above writers, as well as Joe Dolby, Rayda Becker and Gabi Ngcobo). The catalogue is richly illustrated with beautiful full colour plates of the entire collection.

Hayden Proud introduces the critical essays with an article about Bruce Campbell Smith. The title of this text, “The Collection as the Image of the Collector”, indicates the author’s debt to Baudrillard’s concept of collecting as a process of self-construction. Proud’s text departs from the premise that no collection can be evaluated in isolation from the impulses (conscious and unconscious), desires, and performative processes of self-construction that the collector inevitably engages in. This process of self-construction via collection necessitates, in Barthes’ terms, an engagement with the text’s shadow: the dominant ideology that shapes any given text at any given time. In this regard, the autobiography of the collector is as valuable a source of socio-historical and ideological context as that of the artist. In accordance with this premise, Proud’s text, which is crisply and dispassionately written, is not the usual unctuous hagiography of the collector one tends to find in collection catalogues, but unpacks Campbell Smith’s fascination with urban and rural black narrative art as the product of his own frustrated career in art and his own involvement with struggle politics in the 70s and 80s.

Proud interrogates the ability of a collection to provide anything but an incomplete, fragmented and ultimately disjunctive self-portrait of the collector, and concludes his polemic with Baudrillard’s rhetorical question: “Can objects ever institute themselves into a viable language? Can they ever be fashioned into a discourse oriented otherwise than to oneself”? Well, actually, yes and no! Although Campbell Smith is undoubtedly the fulcrum around which the objects on display in this catalogue adhered themselves, the collection forms an arrangement of such fine consistency and detail, the densely woven web of stories and vignettes are so compellingly evidential, that a remarkably varied picture of black experience of the past century emerges. In this sense, there is an excess of meaning that spills over the confines of Campbell Smith’s ego, or whatever it is that compels someone to collect. This excess of meaning is the base material for a new reading of South African art - a reading, one hopes, that will succeed in overwriting the reductive dialectics (black/white, rural/urban, tradition/modernity, Africa/West) that saturates existing approaches to contemporary figurative South African art. However - It is in its almost obsessively selective (one could almost say conservative), focus on the narrative and the figurative, and on traditional Fine Art media of painting and printmaking, that the collection fails in being “oriented otherwise than to [Campbell Smith’s] self”. In precluding the more conceptual, and, one hesitates to say, sophisticated and globally informed art produced in South Africa in the last two decades, Campbell Smith’s collection invites, perhaps, the kind of criticism leveled (by diasporan African intellectuals such as Enwezor and Oguibe) against Jean-Hubert Martin’s Magiciens de la Terre - that the collector’s ethnographic gaze favours an apparently ‘naïve’ visuality and narrativity in African art, and thus reifies Western stereotypes about Africa and Africans. That said, it can be proposed that the diasporan curators’ overreaction against story-telling and object-making (their exclusive focus on conceptual art) has re-marginalized the overwhelming majority of African art practitioners and denied these artists the consideration and complex reading their art deserves. Rather than dismissing some of the more narrative and untutored art on display in the ReVisions exhibition as ‘naïve’ or ‘childlike’, as Oguibe2 might have done, writers in this catalogue decode, in as far as the limited length of their essays allow, these images as intimately interwoven with the warp and woof of modern Africa’s immensely complex socio-political and economic fabric, and, to a lesser degree, as nuanced historical documents produced by complicated and often intensely ambivalent individuals.

Ivor Powell’s essay, ‘The Possibility of Tradition’ looks back at the ‘discovery’ (and consequent near ruination) of rural art from the northern provinces after Ricky Burnett’s Tributaries exhibition of 1985. The essay is written in Powell’s typically frank and chatty style, which makes for an entertaining read. As one has come to expect of his art writings, this essay is not based on research or theory as such, but takes the form of a sharp polemic, based on his personal experience as a journalist, on the ironies flowing from the disastrous confluence of market demands and art discourse in South Africa. Powell wryly unpicks the knotted strands of good and cynical intentions, misguided patronage, ideological instrumentalism, greed, naivety and dirty politics that made up the South African art scene from the 80s to the present.

Elza Miles’ ‘Coming Through the Night’ is interesting because it focuses on nocturnal scenes, drawing the viewer’s attention to the uncommonly high percentage of this theme in the collection (could this, following Proud, say something about Campbell Smith? – one can’t help but wonder…), while simultaneously allowing an exploration of the metaphoric associations of night with darkness, the unconscious, fear and horror. The ‘night side’ of human interaction - the violence of urban gangsterism, the brutal discomforts of the migrant worker’s life, domestic violence, prostitution and rape - are all aspects of these decidedly discomfiting scenes. Miles’ approaches these images from a formalist position, nonetheless situating her interpretation firmly within a socio-political frame.

Mzuzile Xakaza’s essay, “From Bhengu to Makhoba: Tradition and Modernity in the Work of Black Artists from KwaZulu-Natal in the Campbell Smith Collection” is, of all the essays on offer, the most thoroughly researched, and in this sense, adds significantly to the database of knowledge about the arts of KwaZulu-Natal. In another sense, however, the essay promises more than it delivers, because the tradition/modernity debate hinted at in the title is never engaged, and, as such, never challenged or theorised. Perhaps it is because of this lack of a central, unfolding argument, that the essay reads in a somewhat haphazard and random fashion.

Of all the essays in the catalogue, Mario Pissarra’s “Cast in colour? Towards an inclusive South African art” offers the most political reading of the material in the collection. In this essay Pissarra paints, necessarily with a very broad brush, the politicization of the South African art scene - its strategies of inclusion and exclusion - in the years covered by the collection. Linking this exhibition (and the collection as a whole) to prior exhibitions, discourses and events, Pissarra’s hypercritical text explores the racialisation of South African art discourses and exhibitions. In his conclusion, Pissarra outlines the biggest challenge confronting South African art writers and curators today: “greater self-reflexivity, fundamental paradigm shifts, creative interventions, multi-pronged strategies; all these are urgently required to liberate art from the burden of our racist history, failing which South African art may be cast in colour for some time still”.

Hayden Proud must be congratulated on the production of a very professional and valuable resource, as must Bruce Campbell Smith for his single-minded commitment to further the aims initially set out by Steven Sack in the Neglected Tradition. The essays Proud collected for this catalogue, ranging as they do from the theoretical (his own), to the art historical (Elza Miles), the journalistic (Ivor Powell), the factual (Xakaza) and the political (Mario Pissarra), provide multiple interpretations of this fascinating corpus. Lacking, I felt, was a psycho-analytic reading of the complex modalities of black subjectivity under late colonialism, apartheid and post-apartheid as evinced in the works in the catalogue – but perhaps, that is the topic of a book in its own right.

This review was first published in de arte, issue no. 77 (2008) and is reproduced with their permission.

  1. The Visual Century Project, for instance, is currently planning a comprehensive new history of South African art in four volumes.
  2. Oguibe interprets the West’s love-affair with this kind of African art as follows: “The perverted desire for the pornographic manifests itself most significantly…in the continued preference in the West for that art from Africa that is easily imagined not as art as we know it, but as a sign of the occult, an inscription of the fantastic. The childlike paintings of the Beninois, Cyprien Toukoudagba would not ordinarily represent great creative talent in the West, and would not, conventionally, qualify as art beyond the sixth grade”. Oguibe, O. 1999. Art, Identity, Boundaries: Postmodernism and Contemporary African Art. In O. Oguibe & E. Enwezor (eds.), Reading the Contemporary: African art from Theory to the Marketplace. London: inIVA, page 24.