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Saturday, December 3, 2011


Carl Collison for SA Art Times: An indispensable benchmark text for the future study and appreciation of South African art: (Reproduced with kind permission of SA Art Times)

When speaking at the Cape Town launch of the recently released Visual Century: South African Art in Context 1907 – 2007, Iziko Museums’ CEO, Rooksana Omar, described the book as “an indispensable benchmark text for the future study and appreciation of South African art”.

Utilising the skills of over 30 contributors, the ambitious and, as some have labelled it, ‘monumental work’ is the brainchild of Gavin Jantjes who also served as Project Director. Speaking at the launch, Jantjes, who went into exile in 1970, said: “I decided to do this after I returned to South Africa in 1994 and noticed the distinct absence in historical recording of South African art. …. South African art has an incredible profile internationally - this year’s Venice Biennale, for example, featured six South African artists - but locally there’s still a lack of knowledge of our own art history.”

To redress this, the book, divided into four volumes each looking at different historical periods, attempts to ‘situate South African art within both historical as well as art historical contexts’ - kicking off in 1907, after the Anglo-Boer War, and stretching through to 2007. In order to allow it maximum accessibility and, according to Jantjes, “engage a broad audience with divergent levels of knowledge of local and international art and history, as well as degrees of literacy” it rather refreshingly uses “accessible language without compromising the quality of the content.” This was done in order “to make the value of its resources count within varied settings – from the educational to the professional".

Given the hefty-for-most R1,500 price tag attached to this lush tome, one can’t help but wonder whether this dream for broader accessibility is nothing more than that: a pipe-dream. Mario Pissarra, the book’s Editor-in-Chief, seems all too aware of the stumbling blocks posed here when in his speech he urged the Department of Arts and Culture (who, under the helm of its then Minister, Pallo Jordan, provided seed funding for the project) to “speak to their friends at the Department of Education to make sure that every school had a set”.

However, judging by the Department’s Deputy Minister Joe Phaahla’s half-hearted promise during his self-congratulatory, technocrat-speak-laden and ultimately dispassionate speech that the Department would indeed “explore” this idea, one would be naive to hold out any hope for this promise to yield any speedy results - if any.

Jantjes, however, believes that “the most important question is: where do we go from here?” To this end, he said, a concerted effort needed to be made “to inspire young people to read this and other texts in order for them to realise the value of our history.”

Although without doubt one of the most important milestones in South African art history and our documentation thereof, Visual Century’s “meaning, significance and value will”, as Verne Harris, Head of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, noted at the book’s Johannesburg launch, “ultimately become located in the contexts of its own production and in the contexts within which it will be read and used.”

This test of its future value aside, the publication of this book has, as Jantjes said “proven that we can tell our own stories - with our own voices.” All that is needed now is for the powers-that-be - whether they be government, NGOs, the corporate and/or art world - to ensure that Pissarra is granted his wish for broader accessibility as only this would allow for ‘our own stories’ to really be valued.