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Our history, from afar

It’s supposed to be springtime in New York City, but the weather reports “a wintry mix”, which means that in the half-hour it took to get from downtown Soho to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) uptown, it hailed, snowed and rained.

Typically, MoMA’s opening night events are harder to get into than most small countries, and on this opening night MoMA’s bouncers are, as always, ready to rumble. Once security had confirmed my ID and my RSVP, I made a beeline to the most well-attended area at all MoMA openings, the open bar, at which a seething mass of expensively dressed people elbowed each other for drinks.

Some headed to Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now on the second floor, and others took elevators and escalators up to the sixth floor for the opening of German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse, an exhibition focusing on a particularly bleak period in history during which virtually all German and Austrian artists took up printmaking with a fervour unparalleled in art history.

Sound familiar?

Michele Senecal, executive director of the International Fine Print Dealers’ Association, with whom I walked the show, noted, “Seeing the South African work immediately after viewing the German expressionism show, I was struck by the parallels between the works done during apartheid in the one and the works that German artists were producing immediately following World War I, when there was clearly a lot of cynicism and anger towards the ruling elite.

Anton Kannemeyer. A White Person (2004). Screenprint, composition

Overt protest
“These works were far more contemporary in feel than I expected, and an overt protest at the situation [high inflation, abuse of power] confronting the populace at the time. The juxtaposition of slogans within the compositions and use of colour, the raw and urgent feeling of the manner in which they were printed — there was a surprising correspondence.”

Art dealer Jack Shainman of Jack Shainman Gallery and I discussed South African artist Claudette Schreuders’s new solo exhibition of sculptures and limited edition lithographs titled Close, Close that opened just days before at his gallery in Chelsea.

Shainman discovered Schreuders’s work back in 1999 after seeing an image in the New York Times. A major book, Claudette Schreuders, published by Prestel, accompanies the exhibit.

Claudette Schreuders. The Couple from Crying in Public (2003). One from a series of nine lithographs with chine collé, composition

Eight of Schreuders’s lithographs feature on Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now, as do more than 80 prints, posters, books and wall stencils produced by about 30 artists and cultural workers during and after the apartheid era.

Punk-inspired cut ‘n paste
Organised by Judith Hecker, assistant curator for MoMA’s department of prints and illustrated books, and drawn from the museum’s expanding South African art collection, the exhibit features linocuts; screen-print and offset lithography; intaglio; photocopies; and punk-inspired cut ‘n paste, collaborative silk-screen collages enlarged on a photocopier and transferred to scraperboard and stencilled, a style that was all the rage with underground activists in the 1980s during the State of Emergency.

Hand-printed and hand-painted T-shirts were worn as a form of protest, like wearable graffiti, and occasionally activists were forced to go shirtless if the slogan upset a “kits konstable” who could actually read.

Cameron Platter. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift at Club Dirty Den (2009). Pencil and crayon on paper

Silkscreened and hand-coloured textiles are surprisingly under-represented at the show: there is just one Freedom Charter T-shirt shown. Perhaps one day Jann and Jane’s Fabricnation creations and Steven Cohen’s late 1980s Alice in Pretoria muse will show up in a future Impressions exhibit.

In the foreword for the catalogue, Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA, acknowledges that the project is a starting point for further reflection on South Africa. Thanks to Hecker, the conversation is heating up, and because of this impressive showcase, we’re finally talking about more than just the formidable William Kentridge.

Diane Victor. Why Defy (2001) from the series fDisasters of Peace (2001–present). One from a portfolio of 16. Etching, aquatint and drypoints with roulette, plate

In the post-apartheid work on show, a remix of icons show up, as in as Diane Victor’s powerful Goya-inspired Disasters of Peace (2001) and in Cameron Platter’s giant homage to John Muafangejo, The Battle of Rorke’s Drift at Club Dirty Den (2009).

Particularly runty time
The poster boy for the show is Conrad Botes’s Secret Language II (2005), which features a kak evil ou covered in chappies, or prison tattoos, suggesting that “ke nako” comes and goes, as do the bad cops and military men who show up in Robert Hodgins’s Sarge (2007) or in Zimbabwean Kudzanai Chiurai’s Abuse of Power (2009).

At this particularly runty time in our shared cultural history, at a point where most artists have something to sell rather than something to say, Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now makes a strong resistance-art statement that shouts out from most, but not all, of the many workshops, studios and community arts organisations active during and post-apartheid.

Conrad Botes. Secret Language II (2005). Lithograph, composition

But to earn the title 1965 to Now, more artists need be included to add more voices and depth to the dialogue.

  • Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now is on show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art until August 14 2011.

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