Art in the time of political strife

How are artists supposed to respond – if they are – to what is taking place in South Africa? What would be the best medium? Photography, as per the apartheid era? And where best should they stage their responses to our sociopolitical conditions? Given the FNB Joburg Art Fair has become the largest and most high-profile art event in the country, it probably should be the ideal setting to provoke a conversation? 

Ayanda Mabulu thought so a few years ago when he created Yakhal’inkomo –  Black  Man’s Cry, a contentious painting featuring President Jacob Zuma crushing the head of a miner under his foot. At first it was censored by the organisers, who believed the work might annoy the government, who are one of the main sponsors of the event. This simply drew more attention to the painting, generating, in the longer term, a slightly tiresome succession of quasi-baroque style paintings exposing the foibles of our leaders. Mabulu, it seemed, simply gave rise to a stylistic response to representing the problems in our country, rather than changing the political status quo. 

Like Mabulu, and probably most South Africans, Cape Town-based artist and writer, Jaco van Schalkwyk, was distressed by the Marikana tragedy as he has been about all sorts of negative conditions impacting the country. He has been less concerned, however, with capturing it, or the politics surrounding it, in his art, and more preoccupied with the notion that, as an artist and citizen of the country, he felt powerless. What action could he take? And, aware of his privileged position within the whole scheme of things, would his voice matter? What kind of art do you make in this context? It was in the mundane act of cleaning that he found an escape. 

Given all these big questions, perhaps it is not surprising that Van Schalkwyk sought refuge in small, insignificant acts. If nothing he did mattered, why not turn his attention to things that did not appear to matter? Why not surrender to the sense of overwhelming futility and helplessness he felt as an artist, and as a citizen? It was while cleaning his painting utensils with a cloth that he realised that this tiny act was the one that furnished him with a sense not only of tranquility, but a space to think with greater clarity. 

Courant by Jaco van Schalkwyk

This, surprisingly, proved the trigger for a body of work that is decidedly about politics, without being about politics. It will show at the Gallery Art on Paper stand at the FNB Joburg Art Fair and was born from the marks left on a cloth after cleaning his utensils. Van Schalkwyk devised still further ways to create art that reconciled with this pervasive sense of futility and helplessness, such as making marks with a stick on a canvas while turning around it on a wheeled chair – a bit like punting down a river, but without water. This unusual method, which has to be seen to be believed (facilitated by a short video work on display alongside his new artwork), mirrored the lack of powerlessness he experienced, while also ensuring that the end result could only be a mass of meaningless marks. These formed the basis for two large-scale abstract works, Prelude and Courant. Taking a cue from the marks left on cloths from cleaning his utensils, he added tactile layers of impasto and other mediums and marks, arriving at artworks that ultimately are a record of his frustrations and the processes he has arrived at to relieve or mirror their essence. 

You might think the end result of these irregular art practices would lead to chaotic random looking artworks, echoing his inability to act as an artist or a citizen in the face of difficult and complex realities. The works, however, are uplifting. United by this pleasing grey, white, yellow and black palette, and supported by beautiful handcrafted frames fashioned from Imbuia wood, they loom as these alluring items that frankly defy the roots of anxiety from which they are born. And perhaps this is their charm and ultimate function; to remind us that embracing chaos is what delivers us from it – @IncorrigibleCorrigall – subsidised by Gallery Art On Paper.


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Mary Corrigall
Mary Corrigall is an award-winning critic, academic and founder of Corrigall & Co. She will be discussing the findings of the inaugural art report at an event hosted by Strauss & Co this Saturday. It will be followed by a panel discussion with Tokini Peterside, director of Art X Lagos art fair, Emma Menell director of London’s Tyburn gallery, Owen Martin, curator at the Norval Foundation and Matthew Partridge, contemporary specialist at the auction house.

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