The current infatuation with portraiture has colonial roots

Contemporary South African art has been under the persuasion of portraiture as a pre-eminent form of picture making for the past two decades. The predominant preoccupation of painters, photographers, art lovers and dealers alike, has been largely concerned with art fashioned from the human face and form. The meteoric success of a new generation of artists, too, has been largely built on the polemic borne of depictions of human likenesses. Even our artistic impulses to protest through art are largely centred around notions of human representation.

The beguiling figurative works of artists like Thenjiwe Nkosi, Zandile Tshabalala and Cinga Samson are rooted in a force that has a long history concerning representation of black bodies in our part of the world. This historically charged pictorial power of portraiture is in part what has allowed Nelson Makamo, for instance, to emerge as the artist with the most recognisable and popular style among his generation. 

The charm of portraiture has allowed Makamo to shape himself into a draughtsman with the mystique of a pop star. The social media trends of the artist photographed alongside African-American billionaire rap star, Jay-Z, and his work making its way to the cover of Time magazine are both instructive here.   

Colonial roots

However, this glitzy spectacle masks portraiture’s troubled history of complicity, violence and conquest. Portrait makers of today share a culpable history, not unlike that authored by settler colonial cartographers or surveyors and landscape painters.

We should note how the earliest form of the modern painted faces emerged in Southern Africa as products of the colonial assault. This age gave us a special genre of pictures produced for the purpose of illustrating varieties of savage peoples encountered by explorers in the dark places they believed themselves to be discovering. Their intended audiences of this art were curious readers left behind in Europe by soldiers, explorers and missionaries. These portraits were not unlike inventories or illustrations of flora and fauna. Much of these works comprise illustrative drawing, etching and watercolours later reproduced in journals, postcards and other prints.

We are Angels with Dirty Faces by Nelson Makamo

In this way portraiture was the prime surveying tool of the colonising gaze on African bodies. The genre, as it concerned indigenous peoples, was produced by an ethnography dogged by both vengeful and rueful concerns. Its producers were urged on, perhaps, by an understanding that the “civilising mission” was also to see the vanquishing and disappearance of the peoples and cultures being observed and painted.

Examples in this mode were the likes of Samuel Daniell, who is best known as the appointed artist for an English expedition to South Africa 1799-1802. One of the works Daniell produced on that trip sits in the Standard Bank collection today. It is a four face portrait titled, A Hottentot, a Hottentot Woman, a Kaffre, a Kaffre Woman. It is rendered in the loose hand of a reconnaissance sketchbook. Its function was clearly to report on the perceived physiological differences between variants of people Daniell would have encountered on his expedition. 

The genre in its most weaponised version comes out of the frontier wars. Then, the portrait lent its hand to the shaping of a native as a devious untrustworthy creature — perhaps feeding from the legend generated by the 1838 killing of Piet Retief and his Voortrekkers delegation by Zulu king, Inkosi uDingaan. 

A charged example is the portrayal of Inkosi uBulelani Lobengula Khumalo, the successor to the founder of the Ndebele nation, Mzilikazi ka Khumalo. This is an etching published in missionary Reverend David Carnegie’s book, Among the Matebele, circa 1894. The work memorialises Lobengula not long before he was betrayed and his nation destabilised by encroaching invaders. He is pictured wearing a broad-brimmed hat with cunning, squinted eyes of a cynical and battle-weary man. His depicted visage, in classic Ozymandias fashion, codes the meanness and distrust written on Lobengula’s visage as it would’ve been perceived by his pale-faced guests and portraitist. 

Colonial-era artists have also given us a triumphalist portraiture aimed at mythologising exploits of the founding fathers of the then self-assured colonial settler population. Think here of the work of Charles Bell, the surveyor general in the Cape Colony who should be best known for his heraldist painting, Jan van Riebeeck Arriving in Table Bay in April 1652. 

Bell gives us the vintage pampered cheeks and flowing curls of a self-congratulating European viceroy. The painting fits well within global supremacist colonial stock images of subsequent generations of conquering army generals, and an emerging aristocracy of merchants and rand lords. The ceremoniously dressed Van Riebeeck and his men stand proud with downward glances of conquerors. The Khoisan who meet them are a shabby, dust beaten mound of flesh tones barely differentiated from beach sand and the hills that curtain the horizon. The towering pyramidal hoist of the The Dutch and VOC tricolour flag stands in the centre of the painting to announce the official authority of the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) in the territory. 

The New Africans

The artform and its inherent power of persuasion evolved in the hands of African artists as they co-created the modern world. The 20th century was perhaps defined by the spirit of Africans reimagining themselves and dismantling colonisation. The portrait is at the heart of this emergent grammars of being New Afircans. 

Arguably, Gerard Bengu is a singular African painter in whose hands the old colonial visual language finds its best transformation. Bengu was born at the turn of the last century, 1910, and died at the dawn of democracy in South Africa in 1990. Educated in a Catholic church’s mission school in Esibomvini at Centocow, KwaZulu-Natal, he would have imbibed both African and Christian values. 

Bengu’s iconography draws from the early ethnographic colonial visual language. The power of his portraiture lies in his ability to subvert colonialist artistic grammar to service the celebration of a new African subjecthood. A portrait of a Zulu man is a picture of an African in traditional garb, smiling with his soul intact; a restatement of a kind of face Daniell would have produced in the previous century.

As artists of Bengu’s ilk sought to revise the dehumanising gaze of earlier European painters,  a new photography was emerging and entrenching the antiquated ideas. Images of Africans with droopy faces, nappy coarse hair and eyes were being produced either to document the effects of coloniality or to justify it. 

The Loyal Fingo by Thomas Baines 

The “native assistant” or colonial collaborator, painted in earlier times by the likes of Thomas Burn with his Loyal Fingo 1851, evolved into the archetype of Johnny Fingo or the Zulu Water Policeman, a shabby barefoot black man in uniform. These portraits would spread as postcards; later, the photojournalism of image makers of the Drum generation, like Ernest Cole with his House of Bondage, expanded this historic catalogue.

This emergent African modernity also produced an urban black experience and visual culture to go with it. Artists like George Pemba, Gerard Sekoto and others became the best known painters of its portraiture tradition. These are artists working during a time often referred to as high apartherid. The era is marked by intensified acts of brutality by agents of white minority rule and the apartheid state, as wel as a heightened energy of activism against it. Among the oppressed, this is also a time of great search for languages to celebrate a new kind of African hero produced by the liberation movement and the larger spread of modern black cultures.

A postcard of a barefooted black man titled “Natal-Zulu Water Police”, an evolution of the archetype of the native collaborator

In this vein, Pemba who lived in Motherwell township in Gqebera, has produced portraits of modern African intellectuals in suits, together with colourful scenes of everyday black life in trains, in churches and vibrant children at play on the streets. Notable among his vast catalogue are portraits of the writer and founding secretary general of the ANC, Solomon Tshekiso Plaatje; and Reverend John Knox Bokwe, which he painted in 1981 and 1978, respectively.

Township kitch

The townships, which had been established from the 1950s and the 1960s, were fully entrenched cultural realities by the the 1980s. A third generation of Africans born in these locations were then subject to a unique modern black visual culture. Alongside the work of itinerant photographers memorialising key family events like weddings, baptism or random joyous Sundays, the walls of township houses were decorated with kitsch sold by Asiatic migrant merchants. 

The most memorable example is a series of colour pastel drawings reproduced as prints carrying an artist’s signature that read: Verna. They depicted a tearful African girl child with short coarse hair and a tattered dress with tie-up shoulders. In another popular painted iteration, the girl is rendered in loose spontaneous strokes using a rough bristle brush. She wears a shabby, frayed and torn-up blue shirt.

The popularity of these prints owed both to the enterprising spirit of their sellers and resonance of its image among township buyers. There are various streams of speculations to account for why an image of a wretched black child would find such a popular purchase. The 1980s, thanks in part to the medium of television and war journalism’s infatuation with African poverty porn, more than any other decade popularised the image of famine stricken African children. 

It was in the 1980s that Ethiopia became synonymous with African hunger, for instance. South Africa, the land of apartheid, had recently given the Hector Pieterson’s pietà photograph by Sam Nzima to the world — The ultimate icon of the martyrdom of children at the hands of power. Verna’s portraits would have arrived into a post-1976 population of parents looking to memorialise both the heroism of the innocents and the underserved brutality meted out to them by the state. In a way, the image of a tearful African child hung on the walls of black households for the same reasons they sang Senzeni Na? and other popular protest dirges.   

The creative outpouring that gave us works of art concert with constructing a bulwark against the brutality and dehumanising reality of apartheid, also gave us a unique kind of portraiture of dead heroes. The most iconic among these are images of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko’s dead body, weaponising the likeness of his lifeless body. 

Among these is artist Paul Stopforth’s work titled, Elegy which comprises a series of 20 works in graphite and acrylic. The key part of Stopforth’s work is a piece depicting a full naked figure of Biko’s body laid out on a cooling board of a morgue. Stopforth rendered the body in black and grey against a blood-red background. It is a bare and unembellished portrait of a man made martyr. 

Stopforth’s work was part the same zeitgeist of creative responses shared by English rock musician, Peter Gabriel’s hit song Biko. Stopforth would have been part of a general of white liberals who sought to register their empathy by bearing witness, a remarkable stance in the face of Biko’s often quoted views about the place of white liberals in the struggle against white supremacy.

Hence, it finds a fighting comparative companion a decade later in the work of Sam Nhlengethwa in his own collage commemorating Biko’s martyrdom. Nhlengethwa’s work, It left Him Cold (1990), similarly gives us a portrait as a naked lifeless body lying on the floor of a prison cell. Although much more illustrative in its depiction of the interior of a jail cell, Nhlengethwa’s work relies on the symbolic force of a loved figure’s brutalised likeness too.

The pictorial trope is a throwback to art history’s fascination with depictions of the dead body of Jesus. Fitting examples in this genre include masterworks like The Dead Christ by Philippe de Champaigne, the 17th century French Baroque painter; along with the Lamentation of Christ by the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna. These images of the hero as a dead body serve to remind us of the price paid through the passion of the martyred Christ. By actualising and visualising his suffering, we who are its beneficiaries may appreciate the price paid  for our salvation. 

However, in the case of images of murdered political heroes, it is not gratitude for sacrifice in the eucharistic sense that is invoked. Nhlengethwa, Stopforth and others aim at baring witness to the waste of life and brutality that defines the apartheid state as iligitimate, in this way galvanise its moral opposition.

Cinga Samson, Ivory (I) 

Queer visibility activism

Extending the role of artist as witness, artists like Samson, Zanele Muholi and Mohau Modisakeng have explored the depiction of their own bodies as sites of discourse. Through their polemics, black, female and queer identity concerns have found a liberating ally in self-portraiture. These artists, although taking the black body and likeness as a starting point, treat it as positively symbolic. This is in contrast to earlier uses of the black bodym, which depicted particularity and peculiarity of features on African bodies to propose negative grand narratives. They reduced and generalised the depicted individuals’ features to harness the lie of racism. 

This contemporary reductionist iconography generalises physiological features to activate mystery as a key ingredient in the formation of individuality. The series of self-portraits by Samson, titled iRhorho, together with Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness, are exemplary of how personal reflections can point to larger social ideas. 

Samson and Muholi have taken hold of the en vogue tendency to produce black portraiture with jet-black skins. It’s a style given critical currency in contemporary art by Kerry James Marshall, the African American painter who turned blackface on its head. Marshall’s painterly language has been adopted by scores of black artists to varying effect the world over. It has become the default grammar of portraiture in the age of critical race theory.

The face, the most basic identifying human feature, has, over time, become the most potent symbol in the contest for rights to empowered subjecthood, personal recognition and shared economies of meaning. In the ideological wars of representation, modern man imagines the René Descartes dictum anew: “I am portrayed, therefore I am.”

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Percy Mabandu
Percy Mabandu is an art historian and freelance writer based in The city of Tshwane.

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