Ivor Powell

The Possibility of Tradition

It is a source of frequent if not constant astonishment to me as a South African just how much more intensely Africans today live inside the processes of history being shaped and made, than people in the more developed world.

Of course such dramatic lunacies as the 9/11 attacks on the United States or the sinister invasion and occupation of Iraq are not exactly historical small change. There are events like these and processes like the consolidation of Chinese economic power and imperial ambition, that utterly change the world we live in, and are far more important in the global context than anything that happens, imaginably, in Africa. No question about it.

What I am wanting to get at is something different; something that is, I suppose, specific to the transition from colonialism of whatever kind to post-colonialism (of whatever kind). In such contexts, it is not so much the external world that changes or is in flux, as the discourses in terms of which it is brought into and exists in consciousness.

History – and we watch it daily in South Africa from a thousand different perspectives if we are attentive enough – is not only being made in the events of the day, but continually remade through the identification of new perspectives, the inscription of new power relations in the raw material of event, the shifting of frameworks of significance and reinterpretation, in line with new socio-political realities.

In the specifically South African context, change at every level, though of course it is compromised and confused by baser impulses and interventions from outside the frame, is, in the broadest view predicated on the transition from apartheid – as what we used to call a special (and specially nasty) form of colonialism – to democracy (even if, in practice, it is democracy of a rather messily nationalist kind).

This in the broadest view: from the lived and experienced perspective, the inscribing and the making of history are played out through a multitude of actions and interventions, proceeding on one hand from historical necessity, but on the other hand from the exemplary actions of individual consciousness and their interplay with historical givens. To bring this down to earth: while it might be understood that in the current political reality, black economic empowerment is some kind of historical necessity, the particular way in which it has been realised and implemented and the historical implications thereof are products of a multitude of factors. Among others, the way that the ANC has turned the imperative into policy, the calibre of entrepreneurs it has produced and/or promoted, the usually devious intransigence and reluctance to surrender power of historically white capital. All these processes and imponderables are played out through, and given specific character in, the interaction of people actually involved in the relevant process. More than this, they ineluctably bear the imprint of the consciousnesses by which they were shaped.

The kind of process that I am alluding to here – of history or discourse being inscribed through the signal interaction of the individual consciousness with given reality – is no less to the point, and is often more intelligible, more poignant and more identifiably creative in the more abstract machineries of culture, identity and art. Notably, for the purpose of these ruminations, the eccentrically creative activity of systematically and critically assembling an art collection not only repays consideration in these terms, but assumes something of the status of a morality play.

I first encountered Bruce Campbell Smith some 20 years ago, when I was an often quixotically crusading journalist and he one of a loose group of white dealers and collectors who opened up a market for what was at the time called transitional art, the art of a group of sculptors in the then homelands of Venda, Lebowa and Gazankulu. The artists in question were producing mainly wood sculptures at the cusp between a more or less traditional Africanist animism and the curio artefact.

I also know, because I was working as a journalist at the time and wrote fairly extensively about the issue, that the economics of so-called transitional art stank, at least from a crusading democratic viewpoint. From another point of view, it was a truly fantastical economy, little short of alchemical in its transformation of the cultural base matter of curio into the gold of ‘high art’, not infrequently generating profit margins measured in the thousands rather than the hundreds of percent.

Having said this, I also recall the genuine sense of excitement that the ‘discovery’ of the body of work generated; the sense that a whole new universe of South African art was opening up; that the tired traditions of ‘white art’ and ‘urban black’ or township art were facing an historical challenge that would leave them redefined, and South African art in general re-energised.

From the present remove it is far easier than it was then to look on the cultural process that was unfolding at the time in the context of the broader discourse of South African art, a series of interventions inscribing terms of reference into an emerging corpus or tradition of South African art. At the same time, it is easier to see the economics of the process in the realpolitik context of frequently brutal free market economics.

Considered as history, the ‘discovery’ of the rural sculptors led to two equally instructive consequences: one that, notably via curated exhibitions like Ricky Burnett’s Tributaries in 1985, the work of the rural sculptors was inscribed into the history of art in this country; moreover critical frameworks developed in terms of which it both provided a critique of, and opened up possible practice and reference within, the developing tradition of South African art; in short, enriching the art of the revisioning society. The other is that, to a very large extent, the rural sculptors themselves self-destructed; under the pressures of capitalist economics and the vicissitudes of the cultural discourse in practice most of them set up ‘factories’ and workshops to meet and cash in on the demand, in some cases selling the work in job lots, and thereby committing what one might call signature-suicide. History is a harsh taskmaster: as Kurt Vonnegut put it in Slaughterhouse Five. So it goes.

So it goes, yes. Why I invoke the instance of the Gazankulu/Venda sculptors in these notes is to highlight something that is too often overlooked or at least not given its due and untheoretical weight: that collecting art, as much as the more abstract and attendant business of discourse generation, is an active and dirty process that takes place in real, profane time, and in the always compromised real world. You only have to think of the corrupt Popes and the Medicis in Renaissance Florence and Rome to understand what I am wanting to get at – but, and this is the point – it would be a brave art historian who thereby sought to trash the art, the Michelangelos and Raphaels or Leonardos, that they bequeathed to the world.

The thing is: a serious and systematic art collection is also in the same gesture an act of curation. It arises from and represents a series of historical interventions in and around the production of artefacts. In cases like that of the rural sculptors referred to above, the act of collecting has something about it of fiat. Prior to its being collected and identified as Art, with a capital ‘A’, the work existed in a completely different register. It was not, in any meaningful way, available to the machineries of the historical and critical discourses of art. Then presto! In being collected and exposed to progressive critical analysis and debate, new half-lives were created, new significances emerged. The work came to function as token and repository of cultural and spiritual significances in ways that were simply not available in its previous incarnation as curio.

The same, in one way or another, is true of a very large part of the work in the Campbell Smith Collection. At the time, in 1988, Steven Sack, now Director of Culture for the City of Johannesburg, curated his The Neglected Tradition exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG). That institution numbered among the many thousands of works in its collection, if memory serves me right, only one by a black artist, a small Gerard Sekoto entitled Yellow houses, Sophiatown, purchased in 1940. The South African National Gallery (SANG) bought its first work by a black artist in 1964. Other public collections around the country, not to put too fine a point on it, had fewer works by black artists than the SANG and the JAG. By the mid 1980s too, the apartheid government, in one of the most bizarre and misguided of its interventions in socio-spiritual engineering, had declared culture to be an ‘own affair’ within its Heath-Robinsonesque Tricameral Parliamentary system; in other words, in the official view, coloureds made art for other coloureds, Indians for Indians, whites for whites. And blacks did it within frameworks dictated by whatever the Department of Bantu Affairs happened to be called at any given moment, or, more precisely, according to the official view, separately, within the context of the particular homeland to which they had been consigned. Mostly, of course, as far as government was concerned, they didn’t do it at all: what government was looking for was the expression of ethnographic difference in and through artefact, the illustration and naturalisation of the massive fiction of separate development; whatever interventions it made were on these lines, and whatever didn’t fit into the relevant parameters was viewed with suspicion or simply not taken account of at all.

Of course it never worked. The apartheid government’s versions of culture were simply too bizarre and fanciful to ever bite very deep into reality. What they did do though was generate enough noise and interference in the discourses of art and culture to bequeath decades of mess and confusion.

So too did the uses to which the forces of liberation put the arts and culture in seeking, through the Stalinism of the cultural boycott and by other means, to reduce them to the status of instruments of political struggle. Parenthetically, in this context, it might be remembered that the ANC’s lionisation of artists like Gerard Sekoto, Ernest Mancoba, even Dumile, was not matched by the way the party and the liberation in general treated them in exile.

Whatever, the real point here is simply that the art was a fraught and contested terrain in the apartheid years, but more than that it was confused … actively confused.

In a situation like this where the impersonal processes of discourse have been corrupted and contaminated, other solutions need to be highlighted and focused upon.

I don’t want to get ahead here, but this is where the collector as a moment in the general consciousness, as a kind of case in point, comes into the picture.

Some artists, like John Koenakeefe Mohl, had, to all intents and purposes, to be ‘discovered’, in relation to the discourses of art, by Sack in the course of his researches. Others, like Gerard Sekoto, were pulled out of an obscurity into which they had been dumped either through despondent exile or via the spiritual scorched earth policies of the National Party government.

But, in retrospect this was not the worst of it. The worst of it was what had happened to artists who had continued to produce work in the South African context; a group of whom a township Allen Ginsberg might have howled about as the best minds of his generation reduced to drunkenness and utter irrelevancy.

I do not want to go into this in any detail here, but one has to take account of the peril of the urban black artist in this country, working largely outside of a gallery system, selling work almost exclusively to white buyers from sheaves of papers or canvases carried from fleamarket to fleamarket, streetcorner to streetcorner, curio shop to shop, the most depressing version imaginable of the market economy. Making not what comes from inside but what is quick and what will sell. So it goes, Winston Saoli …

One also needs to pause briefly to note the distortions generated by another set of pressures on the urban black practitioner of art; what one might call the tyranny of expectation. In this way, subject matter is prescribed, whether by a local white market seeking a reflection of its own benevolence in the self-presentation of blacks, or by a politically instrumentalist tendency both in South Africa and abroad, which seeks out art as token of suffering or instrument of the struggle.

These are familiar themes and capable of much and detailed elaboration. All that I want to say here, though, is that from the 1980s when Bruce Campbell Smith started collecting black art, until the present, there has been a lot of work to be done, and done in a very fraught area of cultural discourse. And it is a project of constructing sense and meaning – in a word a tradition – from the mess of history, not merely assembling and spacing appropriate markers.

A lot of this work has been done, in usually very difficult and underfunded circumstances. The public institutions, like the Iziko South African National Gallery and the Johannesburg Art Gallery have focused – often, though necessarily, to the detriment of perfectly deserving white artists, on supplementing the embarrassingly and guiltily incomplete collections of black art that their current administrations inherited. Commercial galleries have broadened the purview of their selection in a more economically favourable climate, or in some cases actively sought to intervene and promote debate in what they put on show. All of this has made a big difference, and one that cannot glibly be dismissed.

At the end of the day there is a special role in all this work of transformation and the development of discourse for the private collector. One aspect of this arises from the fact that the private collector can afford to be systematic in putting together his or her collection, and to develop themes and internal dialogues within it. By contrast, public collections are playing a more or less hopeless game of catch-up, and in the absence of meaningful public funding, are forced to collect reactively, rather than in pursuit of a vision, however idiosyncratic that vision might be.

Beyond this, the fact that a private collection is ineluctably idiosyncratic at some level, reflecting personal choices, preferences and tastes, however much it might seek to also exist on a more global or objective level, also gives it a coherence that other species of collecting lack. More than this it creates a site for the development of a broader discourse.
To take this from a different angle, Bruce Campbell Smith is a privileged white middle-aged male, and though he was once younger and will probably get older, his position within the society is unlikely to change very substantially. He is also, like the rest of us, a product of his circumstance, and his ontological and epistemological frameworks, not to mention his intuitions and his predilections, are inevitably going to reflect that.

But, and here is the point, constructing a serious and systematic art collection represents a dynamic rather than a static engagement with history and reality. This is particularly and signally true in the late to post-apartheid South African context. At every level what is demanded of the collector, as well as practitioners engaging at different levels with the cultural discourse of the time, is that art needs to be conceptually wrenched from the morass of over-determination to which it has been subjected. At the same time and in the same gesture it needs to be revisioned and recontextualised in ways that allow elements of a different telling of history to emerge, within the juxtapositions it generates and the totalities of its selection. In a word, the task is to develop the parameters for a different use.

But that use is itself generated by the use that the collector has made, the indeterminate dialogues and questionings established within the component parts of the collection. Just to bring this down to earth for a moment, Campbell Smith has collected a very substantial body of work, ranging over a relatively long period of time, which has in common that it presents portraits of Africans in traditional garb and/or circumstance. In this vein, among others, Simon Nguni, Gerard Bhengu, Arthur Butelezi, George Pemba … and Barbara Tyrrell and Irma Stern.

On one level such choices might reflect a personal taste (though personally I think the sub-project was more systematic than that). Whatever, the fact of the virtual juxtaposition generates electricities among the related images, highlights the differentials of insider and outsider perception, the portrait as ethnographic vehicle, as token of dusky romance, as empathetic consciousness, or within any of the other registers possible. In this of course also the reverse: the binding together of such differences of perception as moments within a single and potentially illuminating discourse on looking.

Looking is not different from perspective. While we as consumers of the Campbell Smith Collection are being prompted to engage with the work in historical terms, we are also witnessing through the work, the engagement of the collector with his or her own circumstance and condition as expressed through engagement with the art.

Neither is going to be the same at the end of it. And the changes also become, not least because they are already, from one angle or another, our collective changes.

I would like to thank Malcolm Payne and Hayden Proud for timely and well-aimed kicks up the inflamedly journalistic butt in the preparation of this essay. It is less flawed, and its arguments maybe more tenable as a result of their respective interventions.

Jackson Hlungwani (1989). Source: “Between Crooks and Connoisseurs”. Weekly Mail, March 10 to 16, 1989, p. 25. Photographer: Steve Hilton-Barber, Afrapix.