Sue Williamson should be exhausted, but she hides it very well. She manages to produce new work steadily; she shows it both in the metropolitan centres of art-world gravity and on the far-flung fringes, but somehow, in between, she finds time to be a persistent, consistent recording angel of South African art history.
Williamson is the motivating force behind the website artthrob, which is probably the most complete record available of the past decade, but if you want a quick synoptic view of where we are, and where we have been in the past four decades, you could do a lot worse than to take a look at the covers of her three major surveys of the local scene.
Resistance Art — 1989 –features a Bureau of State Security cop imagined by Norman Catherine. It is a crude but effective thing, bristling with violence, which, like the book, does what it says on the tin.
Resistance Art is a reminder of some extraordinary work, and some indifferent, but it is also a series of object lessons about what art is capable of in the face of monolithic wrong and what that confrontation does to it and its makers.
In 1996 Art in South Africa: The Future Present looked very different. The cover image is Jane Alexander’s extraordinary sculpture/installation Integration Programme: Man with Television. A black man in a suit faces a small television, from which a white man stares back at him.
The gulf is unbridgeable, but the connection is painfully maintained and the circuit of looking implicates the viewer in the gallery just as much as it does Alexander’s subjects. This is a much more ambivalent image than Catherine’s brute and it speaks with uncanny precision to the position local art found itself in during the 1990s as it attempted to figure out what to do after Resistance.
South African artists discovered in the immediate aftermath of apartheid a complex array of resources to interrogate the recent past, and an uncertain present, but they also found themselves the objects of a fascinated international gaze as they began a different way of life and work. What these two books share, apart, of course, from artists whose portfolios overlap the two periods, is relatively basic production values. Soft covers, adequate reproduction, limited space.
South African Art Now, it is immediately obvious, finds us at a very different juncture. South Africa is a bona fide category at the big auction houses now and some very high prices are being realised, not just for Sterns and Sekotos, but also for contemporary work.
The new book is commensurately fat, hard-covered and gorgeously produced by the design imprint of the international publishing house Harper Collins.
From the cover Mustafa Maluka’s young woman gazes back at us, lips parted, eyes wide, apparently in anticipation of violence. Or is it sex? Or both. The lips are full and glossy, the pupils dilated.
There is a good deal going on here — not least the resurgence of painting — but it is fair to say that South African artists may be similarly ambivalent about their incorporation in, or rejection by, global circuits — both commercial and curatorial — that judge them not by the quality of their resistance, or as historical curiosities, but by their availability for various kinds of consumption.
The portrait by Marlene Dumas — the most expensive female artist in the world — of the talented and erratic Moshekwa Langa on the back cover sums up the dilemma with similar precision.
But what South African Art Now makes clear is that the international art scene needs the work coming out of this country, not just for the jolt of energy and uncertainty it offers, but also for its engagement with the most basic problems of art history.
What does it mean to make work in a particular place and time? Can the specificity of the local be embodied, or, on the contrary, escaped? More interestingly, perhaps, how does it complicate our experience of the work?
There is a clear line of continuity between Williamson’s efforts to assemble a record that raises these questions and her practise as an artist, which since the 1970s has had an archival and memorial strain to it.
At its most compelling her work has the force of resistance, while registering something that always overflows and escapes the terms of the political: the texture and specificity of singular lives, of bodies.
It is precisely that capacity to exceed, to persist and, whether in the hyperliterate conversations of a big-ticket star such as William Kentridge or in the mute mathematics of a Paul Edmunds sculpture, to head towards a much more distant limit, which marks the best local work. Binding it all together between two covers is an impossible, but absolutely necessary, project.
This is an edited version of Nic Dawes’s speech at the book launch