How a small African fig­urine changed art

Sunday Trust - - ARTS & IDEAS - Source: Source:

Abook de­tail­ing the trial of nine lead­ers of the Black Con­scious­ness Move­ment (BCM) that sat in Pre­to­ria in 1976 has been launched as part of cel­e­brat­ing Steve Biko’s legacy.

Ti­tled ‘The Tes­ti­mony of Steve Biko’, it de­tails the trial that led to the de­ten­tion of these lead­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to the au­thor, the trial be­came about the en­tire phi­los­o­phy of Black Con­scious­ness and those who cham­pi­oned its cause.

The book is about the trial which started in the Pre­to­ria Supreme Court in 1975.

It re­counts the events build­ing up to the ar­rest of the nine South African Stu­dent Or­gan­i­sa­tion (Saso) and Black Peo­ple’s Con­ven­tion lead­ers by the Se­cu­rity Po­lice in Oc­to­ber 1974.

This after they il­le­gally took part in a Viva Fre­limo rally in Dur­ban, in Septem­ber of that year.

At the time they were banned and pro­hib­ited from any gath­er­ings.

Biko tes­ti­fied at the trial for four days, giv­ing a lec­ture on what the BCM stood for.

Au­thor and Ed­i­tor, Mil­lard Arnold, says the book that was banned 40 years ago, is more rel­e­vant now than ever be­fore.

“When you look at what Steve un­der­stood was that you had to ad­dress not just the is­sue of racism with the un­der­ly­ing is­sues which give rise to racism which in­cludes the very struc­ture, sys­tem and ide­ol­ogy and val­ues that sup­ported it. What Steve was sim­ply say­ing was that we need to think con­stantly about what sep­a­rates us from that kind of a back­ground which is to think about our hu­man­ity and un­der­stand that our uBun­tuness is what makes us dif­fer­ent and be able to un­der­stand that the con­di­tions which Black peo­ple found them­selves were no ac­ci­dent.”

Biko’s son, Nkosi­nathi, says such books are important to con­sci­en­tise young peo­ple.

But it wasn’t just the small Con­golese fig­ure that had pro­vided the spur and turn­ing point for Pi­casso’s work - and you can see this fig­ure cur­rently in the Royal Acad­emy’s ex­hi­bi­tion Matisse in the Stu­dio, along with other ob­jects Matisse kept that in­formed his paint­ing and sculp­ture. It was the com­pan­ion­able ri­valry pro­vided by this new re­la­tion­ship with the older French artist, for Matisse was, at that point, the far more ex­per­i­men­tal and rad­i­cal artist the lead­ing Fauve, or ‘Wild Beast’.

Matisse had painted his mul­ti­coloured, dream-pas­toral Le Bon­heur de Vivre in 1906, the year he bought the African fig­urine and the year the two artists met (and he was soon ex­per­i­ment­ing with his own ‘African­ised’ nudes), and Les De­moi­selles was painted partly in an­swer to it. Pi­casso was in­tent on paint­ing some­thing even more rad­i­cal and dar­ing, a work that would leave its mark, which, for the last 110 years it cer­tainly has.

But Matisse wasn’t the first artist to ap­pro­pri­ate non-West­ern art. Prim­i­tivism, as it came to be known, was be­gin­ning to be em­braced by artists in France at the end of the 19th Cen­tury, though some of its roots go back fur­ther, to the pas­toral paint­ings of a golden age of the Neo-Clas­si­cal pe­riod. And al­though fun­da­men­tal to it, it wasn’t only non-West­ern arte­facts that were of interest. Chil­dren’s art, and later the art of the men­tally ill, so-called out­sider art and folk art were sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to the evo­lu­tion of mod­ernism, not just in vis­ual art but in mu­sic too. Back to ba­sics Matisse him­self was al­ways fas­ci­nated by the draw­ings of his own chil­dren and saw within them pos­si­bil­i­ties for the di­rec­tion of his own work. That interest, too, was fol­lowed through by Pi­casso, who later fa­mously re­marked that, “Ev­ery childis an artist. The prob­lem is how to re­main an artis­tonce he grows up.”

What was taken from each cat­e­gory of art pro­duced from these non-con­ven­tional sources, was a sense of spon­tane­ity, of in­no­cence, of a creative im­pulse not suf­fo­cated by aca­demic fine art train­ing or in­deed by West­ern val­ues, which were be­gin­ning to be seen in some in­tel­lec­tual and avant-garde cir­cles as cor­rupt and deca­dent or as sim­ply a spent force. The un­medi­ated, the un­spoiled and the au­then­tic was what was now prized, and that in­cluded art that ex­pressed the artist’s in­ner world, or what emerged in the 20th Cen­tury as the un­con­scious. Art, in other words, un­fet­tered by the sup­posed ar­ti­fi­cial val­ues of bour­geois so­ci­ety.

Though naivety and lack of so­phis­ti­ca­tion was hardly true of ei­ther African art or art from other non-West­ern cul­tures, artists were struck by a di­rect­ness, a pared-down simplicity and a non­nat­u­ral­ism that they dis­cov­ered in these ob­jects. But no thought was given to what these arte­facts might actually mean, nor to any un­der­stand­ing of the unique cul­tures from which they de­rived. The pol­i­tics of colo­nial­ism was not even in its in­fancy.

The Tro­cadéro mu­seum, which had so im­pressed Pi­casso, had opened in 1878, with arte­facts plun­dered from the French colonies. To­day’s cu­ra­tors, in­clud­ing those of the Royal Acad­emy’s Matisse ex­hi­bi­tion in which African masks and fig­ures from the artist’s collection ap­pear, at least seek to ac­knowl­edge and re­dress this to a small ex­tent. A sim­i­lar ef­fort was made ear­lier this year for Pi­casso Prim­i­tif at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, an ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plor­ing Pi­casso’s life-long re­la­tion­ship to African art. The sculp­tures, from West and Cen­tral Africa, were given as much space and im­por­tance as Pi­casso’s own work and one could ap­pre­ci­ate at first hand the close cor­re­spon­dence be­tween the works.

Mean­while, the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago has an ex­hi­bi­tion that looks at the creative process of an artist who was pro­foundly in­flu­enced by art from French Poly­ne­sia and who in turn was a par­tic­u­lar in­flu­ence on Matisse those colour-sat­u­rated dream-like pas­toral paint­ings again, in­clud­ing the early Le Bon­heur de Vivre men­tioned above. Paul Gau­guin, per­haps the quin­tes­sen­tial Euro­pean artist to ‘go na­tive’, first in Mar­tinique, then in Tahiti, where he died in 1903 aged 54, had long felt a dis­gust at West­ern civil­i­sa­tion, its per­ceived in­au­then­tic­ity and spir­i­tual empti­ness.

Even be­fore he left Euro­pean shores for good he had lived in an artist’s colony in Brit­tany, paint­ing

“I think it is important to pub­lish this book on the oc­ca­sion of the 40th an­niver­sary be­cause they pro­vide the unadul­ter­ated voice and thoughts of Steve Biko which is of­ten lost in third par­ties of­ten writ­ing about him and they pro­vide young peo­ple with di­rect ac­cess to where he was in terms of thoughts at var­i­ous stages of his life.”

Pro­fes­sor Saths Cooper, who was ac­cused number one in the trial, and Zithulele Cindi, who was ac­cused number nine, be­lieve that a lot still needs to be done to lib­er­ate the masses eco­nom­i­cally and otherwise.

“1. Cor­rup­tion and chaos that we see is not tes­ti­mony to that rev­o­lu­tion. I think what we are seeing is peo­ple who have let their own per­sonal in­ter­ests rise above those of peo­ple they ought to serve. 2. What we see to­day is not what we had strug­gled for, what we hoped we would have through the lib­er­a­tion strug­gle but the fun­da­men­tal free­doms which re­late to us hav­ing the ac­cess to eco­nomic power is elud­ing us. Even the po­lit­i­cal power we don’t have it as yet.”

Au­thor, Mil­lard Arnold, be­lieves that when Steve Biko left the Pre­to­ria High Court after four days of tes­ti­mony, many were con­vinced that he was an or­ganic in­tel­lec­tual - a view widely held by many Black Con­scious­ness schol­ars.

The book is avail­able at the Steve Biko Centre in Gins­berg, King Wil­liam’s Town, and in other recog­nised book stores across the country. the deeply re­li­gious peas­ant women in traditional Bre­ton dress. These paint­ings, such as Vision After the Ser­mon (Jacob Wrestling with the An­gel), 1888, pos­sess a rather un­set­tling and erotic sense of the nu­mi­nous, as do his Tahiti paint­ings, with their pi­quant mix of sex and death. Gau­guin: Artist as Al­chemist shows us an artist fully im­mersed in the life from which his art was born.

The sig­nif­i­cance of non-Euro­pean art on the avant-garde and on 20th-Cen­tury art mod­ernism can’t be over­es­ti­mated. It goes far be­yond these three prom­i­nent artists, though all three were par­tic­u­larly in­stru­men­tal in spread­ing its im­pact, from the Sur­re­al­ists to Jack­son Pol­lock. And even nearer our own time, seem­ingly long after the fas­ci­na­tion with the prim­i­tif had been ex­hausted, the rit­u­alised per­for­mance-land art of Ana Mendi­eta and the en­er­getic post­mod­ern faux-tribal paint­ings of Jean-Michel Basquiat saw that it cer­tainly hadn’t.


Pi­casso’s Les De­moi­selles des Avi­gnon shows the in­flu­ence of African art in the masks the pros­ti­tutes wear

The Tes­ti­mony of Steve Biko

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