Tensions over who has the legitimate claim and authority to frame the black modernist tradition in our art simmers beneath the exhibition, on at the Wits Art Museum. They point to old and new debates about the exclusion of blacks from cultural institutions and the role of white art historians in black art historical narratives.
As it is, white South African modernists, who broke from the realist tradition in art, are vastly foregrounded and more valued in the market – Alexis Preller, Irma Stern et al.
In the case of Black Modernisms, the tension also surrounds the erasure of black artists by commission or omission from cultural memory.
“If you are going to make the claim that this exhibition should be understood as black modernisms, then you have to be conscious of what your omissions are going to imply,” says art historian Same Mdluli when we meet to speak about the exhibition. “Not including someone like Ernest Mancoba, for example Z you’re in essence erasing him,” she states.
“I feel like I should make a disclaimer,” she says regarding her involvement in the exhibition. “I also feel like it should be out on the record because for me it speaks directly to the kind of experience I’ve had as a black scholar looking at black South African art.”
She is referring to being treated as a black token in South Africa’s predominantly white art world.
“The only thing I was asked to do was the biographies of these artists,” says Mdluli. Officially, the exhibition is “curated by Professor Emeritus Anitra Nettleton, in collaboration with/assisted by Dr Same Mdluli and Bongani Mahlangu”. The exhibition is attached to a colloquium that will happen in June around global modernisms.
“Anitra, the person responsible for the conceptualisation of Black Modernisms, is also one of the people who are convening [the colloquium],” Mdluli adds.
Nettleton is an art historian and was Mdluli’s supervisor for her doctorate in art history.
“I have more than 30 years of this,” Nettleton says.
By “this”, she means working on collections of South African and African art at Wits Art Museum.
“We don’t hand over curatorial responsibility to people without experience,” she says.
At the centre of the tension is what artist and writer Sharlene Khan termed “Doing it for Daddy” in an essay
in 2006. The essay argued that “a patronising white mommy has displaced the art world’s patriarchal apartheid white daddy,” to cite artist, curator and academic Thembinkosi Goniwe.
“The ascendancy of white women into positions of power suggests a glaring lack of faith in black cultural workers and intellectuals,” Khan wrote. “When asked why there are so few black writers, curators and academics staffing key institutions and projects, the rote answer is that there are no ‘qualified’ black incumbents, or simply too few. This attitude has successfully thwarted substantive racial redress in the visual arts, and also been used as a ploy to promote ‘yes baas’ blacks.”
In terms of looking outside Wits Art Museum for other “more experienced” black curators, Nettleton says there was no budget to get someone from the outside.
“Why bring in other people when we have our own people?” she asks.
Khan’s essay was completely puerile, she says.
What she finds an issue is the over-determination of race as a proxy for one to speak about certain cultural subjects. “Does the colour of your skin determine what you can talk about?” she asks. “If we’re going to go that way, we’re not going to go anywhere … We won’t put on any exhibitions by black artists if we don’t have a black curator or unless we have the budget to hire one.”
However, Mdluli traces the tradition of liberal white curiosity in studying black South African mid-20th century artists to the 1990s, where “scholars were trying to legitimise their scholarship”, she says. “You name something, then you can speak about it; you can own it and start speaking authoritatively about it.”
Who had the right to decide or define what authentic African art is, she asks.
Nettleton, on the other hand, doesn’t see the exhibition as being definitive, but rather an explorative endeavour.
At stake, of course, is our historical cultural memory, as well the master narrative informing it.
In tracing the biographies of the artists selected for this exhibition, Mdluli has keenly observed the white Messiah complex deployed, especially those from specific art centres like the famous Polly Street.
“I’m not saying Cecil Skotnes [of Polly Street] did not have an influential role,” Mdluli says. “But for how long must we speak of Cecil Skotnes, even if he was only present for a short period in these artists’ professional lives?” she asks. “Rescuing cultural memory is important. Rescuing institutional memory is important. But how do we liberate the artists from their benefactors?”