Claiming Art | Reclaiming Space
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The Exhibition

Space and the representation of space are fundamental concerns of any artist. In South Africa this purely formal problem was complicated by the politics of segregation, separation, and repression. Nevertheless, this hostile environment forced artists to clarify their purposes, giving direction and content and imbuing their works with an emotional force. The works in this exhibition differ widely in appearance and form. The range of emotional expression is also broad. Yet within this rich diversity of creative expression there are recurring references--both direct and metaphorical--to space, barriers, and transcendence.

Some observers of the South African art scene credit Polly Street and Rorke's Drift with engendering work by black artists that has come to be described as township art. Certainly as the artists trained at those centers took up residence in various urban enclaves, their work continued to be associated with the townships. Despite the quality of their works, the term township art has come to be regarded as pejorative. For some it stands for works by untrained persons, composed from discarded materials, using bright, industrial-quality paints and substances, with bewildering compositions and juxtapositions based on themes of township life.

In a more thoughtful evaluation, however, township art becomes synonymous with resistance art, reflecting black South Africans' struggles under the apartheid system. It is art "characterized by a deep sense of desperation rooted in daily experience and in the dynamics of an oppressive reality." The U.S. publication African Arts, in awarding a prize in 1972 to Cyprian Shilakoe, stated that his "highly personal idiom," yet manages to evoke the "overall social context" of the wretchedness of apartheid (Kennedy 1992:171-73).

Another sense in which township art creates its own, perhaps more impenetrable, barriers to art space is the sense that gives title to this exhibition. In this view, the ready acceptance of township art from the international art market provided black artists with the means to create art as a livelihood so long as they stayed within conventions of styles and themes. This, in turn, led to a stereotyped, sterile commerce that discouraged black artists from developing their full potential.

By claiming art in its broadest sense, Koloane sees that black artists as well as white artists have a way to counteract the restrictions of the past and deal with each other from now on. Art then provides a place for South Africans to construct their new, complex, and diverse society together. No particular structure is suggested by the sequence of works in this exhibition. The variety of visual arts produced in South Africa is too broad to readily conform to any categorical or descriptive classification. Instead, the works are arranged in a progression from works with overtly political content to those that address other concerns. If this suggests an acceleration toward freedom for the artists and, through them, to members of the society who now may speak their minds without fear of prosecution, it may be taken as a hopeful direction.

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