And white saviours
An important exhibition of black art, curated by a white art historian, has Lwandile Fikeni asking why black academics are still being sidelined
ensions over who has the legitimate claim and authority to frame the black modernist tradition in our art simmers beneath the Black Modernisms in South Africa (1940-1990) 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?”
The exhibition runs until June 19