Texhibition, 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 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