/ 9 January 2020

The role of liberation culture

Inspiring change: Sketches from Judy Seidman’s personal collection.
Sketches from Judy Seidman’s personal collection. (Delwyn Verasamy)



Thank you for your insightful, thought-provoking review of the Drawn Lines exhibition at MuseumAfrica. We hope that this exhibit will (re)open public discussion on the role of art in constructing our society — which, as your article seems to recognise, has too often been swept under the “rainbow nation” carpet.

Your review raises a number of critical questions: about the portrayal of the “other”, of me — us — you — them; about empowering people silenced by our society to find their own voice; about how cultural expression is produced, promoted and accessed in our unequal and repressive society. But although you raise these questions some of your answers could be interrogated.

You note the “interesting political quandary” that the exhibition sources Medu Art Ensemble newsletters and articles from the artist’s personal collection. The “personal collection” is my work done as a member of Medu — not as a “collector” in the privatised, commoditised sense.

Perhaps the real concern is not that I kept these, but that 30 years after the events, there is still no state-supported arts gallery, museum or archive that collects, preserves or publicises Medu’s historic contributions to our aesthetic and cultural discourse. (Freedom Park and the Mayibuye Centre at the University of the Western Cape have collections of Medu posters, as does the South African History Archives; none of them have a full collection of Medu newsletters, nor of the papers presented at the 1982 Culture and Resistance conference. These are also not available in the cloud, nor in any public space.)

This massive gap in our historical record severely and negatively affects our current cultural discourse — which may explain some of the assertions you make in your review.

Consider how your review locates the artwork within the Medu collective and broader liberation politics. You describe the artwork in Drawn Lines as “workerist” and “white left”. You state that “the foregrounding of work-related themes turns what is essentially a demand to end colonialism into petitions for fairness on the factory floor”; creating a “blind spot towards race and racism”, and substituting class and poverty for colonial racial oppression.

You justify labelling this art “workerist” on two grounds: we in Medu called ourselves “cultural workers”, and many of the images show workers. But calling ourselves “cultural workers” does not reflect “workerist” leanings; we used the term to distance ourselves from the concept of artists as elite individuals who invoke “artistic privilege” to place themselves above “common people”.

Historically, we rejected being categorised as “workerist” or as “white left”. “White left” in the early 1980s referred to white activists who remained separate from the mass-based liberation movements, the vast majority of whose members and leaders were persons of colour. White activists who accepted the discipline and leadership of the ANC rejected this approach, and this label.

The movement’s “nonracial” liberation politics did not ignore or deny racist oppression. Ideal constructs of race, class and gender do not operate separately: they interact to create oppression. Apartheid provided the Ur-example of this.

Our art foregrounds workers because the struggles of the majority of workers, who were classified black by apartheid law, formed a major force in the movement for liberation from colonialism, imperialism and apartheid.

This could explain your next point, which appears to contradict your argument that Drawn Lines pictures “workers” and the “poor” to the exclusion of people who are “black” or “women”. You state that the exhibit shows “a predominance of black people as subjects”. You remark: “From portraits to social scenes, and from worker strikes to armed struggle to toyi-toyis, this ubiquity at first glance appears to be a reversal of colonial landscape art.”

Yes, these pictures show the predominance of black people. This was no effort to reverse colonial landscape art, but a recognition of our actuality. Medu was built on anticolonial and pan-Africanist cultural theory, which defines the black majority as the primary actors in their own liberation. Most people that we saw, worked with and shared daily life with, in the community and the struggle, were black. Our art records this.

Medu members cited Sékou Touré: “To take part in the African revolution it is not enough to write a revolutionary song; you must fashion the revolution with the people. And if you fashion it with the people, the songs will come by themselves and of themselves.”

You say that “on closer scrutiny this hypervisibility of black people in white artists’ works inversely reinforces a very particular scopic economy of colonial exoticism typical among white mid-century artists”. Certainly, many white artists exoticised the black and colonial “other”. One thinks of Alexis Preller’s massive painting, Discovery, in the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria; and Khwezi Gule’s All Your Faves Are Problematic exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

READ MORE: JAG exhibition sparks new discussion on all your faves

But you do not discuss which features of the Drawn Lines pictures constitute “exoticism”. Your concern appears to be that any white artist who portrays black people will inevitably dehumanise and misrepresent those subjects. Does this mean artists are doomed to recreate and perpetuate the stereotypes and discriminations embedded in the social structures we are born into?

Art-makers within the liberation struggle regularly discussed the dangers of “objectifying” and “othering” people. But we would deny the conclusion that the artist is fatally bound to reproduce the stereotypes and prejudices of their surrounding society. Rather, the artist’s task is to envisage a world that moves beyond these flaws.

You, moreover, comment that the Drawn Lines exhibit should be posited as another location in which “white people become the default tutors to black people”, reconstructing unequal relations of “worker vs thinker” and “pupil vs master”.

Again, this references painful realities within our art history, “typical among white mid-century artists”. But again you do not describe how the Drawn Lines artwork fits that categorisation. Early in your review you acknowledge Medu’s leading art-makers and cultural theorists: Thami Mnyele, Jonas Gwangwa, Mongane Wally Serote and Keorapetse Kgositsile. Are you suggesting that people of this stellar calibre passively accepted a working environment in which “white people become the default tutors to black people”?

On the contrary, Medu aimed to transform how we work collectively as artists. Your statement that Medu’s “primary purpose was to educate and politicise the masses through culture” is oversimplified, even without the presumption that this meant white people tutored black people.

Mnyele, said: “It was in Medu Art Ensemble where the role of an artist concretised itself: the role of an artist is to learn … to teach others … to ceaselessly search for the ways and means of achieving freedom. Art cannot overthrow a government, but it can inspire change … we explore the possibilities of our art forms in the context of our time, place and events … As the artist is involved with methods and materials, he is involved with himself or herself. We relearn to live again with one another.”

Medu was not a group of elite, patronising artists aiming to educate and politicise the ignorant masses. We were cultural activists within the mass-based liberation struggle. We participated in, took direction from and found voice within that struggle; and we worked to ensure that every person should have the skills and spaces to speak for themselves.

Later your article extends these categorisations about race and power to the artwork made with the feminist One in Nine collective.

Here, you condemn “the conspicuous presence of black bodies and the absence of white ones, including hers [Seidman], at the level of image… Equally insidious is that, despite the artist’s acknowledgement of the collaboration, rarely do we hear these women speak”.

Your comments indicate that you neither talked to the participants, nor engaged with the extensive narrative text and images in the exhibit itself. This text explains that One in Nine participants produced these images themselves, in workshops during which these women create posters, slogans and militant actions that speak loudly and clearly of their own perceptions, understandings and visions.

You deny this reality, asserting rather that these young black women did not generate their own ideas, images and feminist perspectives; that they were spoon-fed by the lone, white, academically accredited “artist” in with the group. This undermines us all.

You conclude that contemporary South African art discourse should “refuse to take theories of commitment only at face value”. But making this in-depth analysis demands that our discourse must explore and interrogate the intentions, expressions, creativity and intellectual approach embodied in the work, as well as engage with the theory and praxis of the art, not panel beat it into preconceived categories.

Liberation culture is about exploring and expressing perceptions and understanding lived experience; about envisaging new realities. It creates an art-making praxis using collective and community expression and self-determination rather than making privatised intellectual and creative property.

Drawn Lines is running at MuseumAfrica