Huge, dark silhouettes stand out against the apple-green landscape. In his studio, Kay Hassan cuts up the Pepsi-Cola and Omo washing powder posters he gets directly from the printers. He is working on the monumental collages that have made him famous. On the walls, his giants out in the open countryside evoke the land question. They speak of space and the lack of space in a country three times as big as France in which 80% of the farming land is still in the hands of the white farmers. It’s a burning question. The police are busy this early July 2001 evicting the first squatters from the greater Johannesburg suburbs’ wastelands. « We have political freedom, but there is no freedom without land« , comments 45-year-old Kay Hassan, one of the country’s best-known artists. He has a studio space in the Bag Factory, a collective based in an old bag factory in Newtown, the heart of Johannesburg. Set up by painter David Koloane in 1991, other big names of the South African art world, such as Pat Mautloa and Sam Nhlengethwa, have been involved with the institution.
Kay Hassan breaks off to listen to the sounds of the town: the prayer call at the nearby mosque, the traffic, and the voices in the street. He explains that he was « mentally freed » long before 1990, the year of his return to South Africa. Before that, he lived in France for two years, a country he would like to return to, and in Switzerland for two years. « My work is situated beyond apartheid. It reflects the country’s situation. It has always sought to be different from protest art. An artists is an artist« . Kay Hassan does not like labels. He does not want to be limited to Africa. « I see myself as an artist of the world« , he says. « In certain districts, people still call us « those Blacks ». I am not black, I am a person, a South African with a country, a culture, a language« . He feels that lots of attitudes still need to change, including those in the art galleries. To him, the reference to « township artists » is pure discrimination: it boils down to paying a different price for a kind of art that is considered different.
On the other side of town, Clifford Charles is on the same wavelength. « The labels change, but it’s the same power struggle« , affirms this young artist who was the first « non-White » student to attend the University of Witwatersrand Art School in 1987. He evokes the distinction between « community centre » artists from the townships, who are considered amateurs, and « professionals » who are well established in the residential suburbs. Elders and newcomers, the prejudices do not stop there. « Why didn’t I sell anything at my last exhibition at the Alliance Française? » asks Clifford Charles. « Because the public expects another type of work from a black artist« . Something Indian, a reflection of his own origins? « No, something radical, political, something exotic in its propaganda » Poetic and abstract, his blue, yellow and black ink works did not meet the hoped-for success. But Clifford Charles is beyond being angry.
Now he claims to be amused, rather, by the perpetual distortions observed in his own country, from which he has learnt to escape. Amongst his current projects are an exhibition in Paris, another in the new Millennium Gallery in Johannesburg, an artist’s residency in Province, and a trip to Mexico for the 2nd issue of the Magnet magazine. Eight contemporary artists from South Africa, Brazil, China, France, Britain, India, Mexico, and Porto Rico set up this worldwide collective at the Venice Biennale before last. Their objective is to produce a counter-discourse to dominant art. Abroad, Clifford Charles finds the terrain of entente and the inclusive approach that is so lacking in South Africa.
This comes as no surprise to Linda Givon, owner of the Linda Goodman Gallery, the country’s most respected art gallery. According to her, South Africa’s opening up to the world has been the fundamental change of the last decade. « During apartheid and the cultural boycott« , she explains, « we were faced with censorship, the impossibility of exhibiting, we developed our own sub-culture in isolation. After 1990, with the visit of foreign artists and exchange programmes, these encounters have profoundly changed our culture. Now, it is no longer a case of being popular just because we are South African, but of being as good as the rest, it’s healthy competition« . In her opinion, South African artists are now part of a universal movement, examining religion and the absence of religion just as readily as they do Aids or pollution. « If apartheid is still present in South African works, it is because it is still present in everyday life« , insists Linda Givon. One example was the Who let the dogs out? installation by the mixed-race artist Willie Bester at the Grahamstown festival last July. The title refers to an Eighties hit-song whilst projecting the famous images of white policemen setting their Alsatians on Mozambican illegal immigrants. Although white artists like William Kendridge are internationally renowned for work that is not necessarily related to the former regime, the traumatisms are just as perceptible in the white community. Linda Givon cites many names in the guilt department: Sue Williamson, Willem Boshoff, but also Kendall Geers, who fixed banners marked « guilty » on all the Afrikaner forts around Pretoria. White, black or mixed-race, the new generation of the Stephen Hobbs and Tracey Roses tries to distinguish itself from guilty or politically committed art, but continues to pose fundamental questions.
On South Africa’s fine arts, also see: Tout un cheval de Breyten Breytenbach (A whole Breyten Breytenbach horse: Africultures 4, p.40), Ancrages plastiques contemporains (Contemporary plastic foundations: 4, p.33), Le monde réenchanté de Moshekwa Mokwena Langa, by Abdourahman Waberi (The re-enchanted world of Moshekwa Mokwena Langa: 15, p.66), Un million de pierres au pays des mille collines, entretien avec Bruce Clarke (A thousand stones in the land of a thousand hills, interview with Bruce Clarke: 30, p.18).///Article N° : 5510