ART / A real change of art: After years of apartheid, South Africa's galleries are adjusting their collections. Susan Loppert reports on the complicated attempt to create a new national culture

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A HEADLINE in the Johannesburg Sunday Times declared two months ago: 'R250,000 mural thrown out for having too few black faces.' An Afrikaner businessman, the story revealed, had commissioned 13 huge panels depicting the city's history and culture from an unknown artist of Portuguese origin to give to the R132m (about pounds 28m) new Civic Theatre.

But most of the figures in the panels, from workers to Randlords, were white. And in the transforming South Africa, Christopher Till, the city's director of culture and formerly director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, found them politically as well as artistically wanting: 'This is a white man's idea of Johannesburg. In the new South Africa this is not acceptable. Johannesburg is a black city, in Africa.' (These days, some say, it's a suburb of Soweto.) The mayor, an Afrikaner, agreed: 'Yes, more black faces should have appeared, in my opinion. They should have received more prominence from a historic point of view.'

Can this really be the country where, only yesterday, apartheid attempted to exclude blacks from such public spaces altogether, let alone from the face of a mural? Is this apartheid working in reverse, or simply another sign of the double-thinking that has ruled almost uninterruptedly since the Afrikaner Nationalists and their lunatic vision of a purified land came to power 45 years ago?

The climate has changed, the country is on a knife-edge, and odd things are happening: in July 1990, five months after banned organisations were unbanned and Nelson Mandela walked free, the artist Wayne Barker entered two works in the Standard Bank Drawing Competition, one in his own name and one in the name of a black man. The drawing in his own name was rejected, while the 'black' drawing was selected for exhibition. Barker said that he had deliberately made the successful work - a triptych depicting Sir Seretse Khama, first president of Botswana, his white wife and mixed-race children - an 'ethnocentric, derivative and formularised piece' and credited it to 'Andrew Moletse' in order to test what he believes to be a bias towards Afrocentric and often sub-standard work, while the piece in his own name was 'non-ethnic'.

Something similar happened at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town when Beezy Bailey submitted two lots of work for the 1991 Cape Town Triennial, a mixed-media painting in his own name and three linocuts by a fictional Xhosa woman, Joyce Ntobe; all were rejected for competition, but the linocuts were later purchased by the gallery.

Marilyn Martin, director of the gallery and a passionate advocate of the new art for the new South Africa, explains that they were judged entirely on aesthetic criteria, and that the linocuts were excellent examples whereas the painting wasn't. Bailey, one of South Africa's most successful young artists, already has works in the collection of this, South Africa's premier gallery, and the linocuts continue to be displayed, although their labels have been changed so that Bailey's name now appears alongside that of the pseudonymous black woman. This new genre of work even has its own title - Wayne Barker, I was told by a dealer in Johannesburg's mink and manure belt (the reference is to polo-ponies), was the first to do 'split personality works'.

It's an exhilarating experience going to the National Gallery in Cape Town these days. Where once separate development and the emphasis on separateness were paramount, there's now an exhibition called 'Affinities' deftly illustrating the relationship and cross-pollination between western European and African art. Where once all signs were in Afrikaans and English only, now Xhosa has been added.

There's a Mission Statement from 'the museum for the nation' which states that the gallery 'acknowledges the multi-cultural nature of South African society; we strive to accommodate this diversity while recognising and supporting the building of a national culture'. Marilyn Martin, although conscious of 'the pitfalls and sensitivities in a sporting, sunshine and rugby country', feels 'privileged to be in South Africa and part of the transformation of South African society now that art that was classified as ethnology has moved into art galleries'.

And what exuberant, energetic, passionate and committed art it is. There has always been a tradition of modelling in clay and carving in wood: oxen, elephants, lions, venerable figures; and, since the missionaries brought beads in the 1830s, a complicated iconography of beadwork has developed, now recognised as much for its artistic as its symbolic worth. There are the painted houses of the Ndebele, whose women have traditionally decorated their walls with intricate symmetries incorporating the mundanities of daily life - razor blades, for example - as well as traditional motifs and church spires. Traditional art has always had a function in the community: houses are decorated to enhance the village, sculptures are made to be used, as spoons or chairs, and there is a delight in and inventive use of materials.

The National Gallery bought its first work by a black artist - Gerard Sekoto, who died in Paris last month at the age of 79 - in 1964 and, like the other main municipal museums and galleries (with the notable exception of places like Pretoria and Bloemfontein, heartlands of white supremacy), continued to buy works by black artists. But what was a trickle of acquisitions has now become a torrent in an attempt to redress the balance of decades of Eurocentric acquisition.

Two exhibitions in the Eighties, organised by whites, irrevocably changed the perceptions of the white minority to the art of their country. The first, organised by Ricky Burnett in 1985 and entitled 'Tributaries' broke all rules by elevating to 'fine art' the sort of work which previously had been dismissed as mere craft or 'airport art', or categorised as transitional: carvings and sculptures and assemblages produced in rural areas by untaught artists using clay, untreated wood, wire, tin-cans, plastic, beads, animal skins, feathers - anything that could be transformed into a figure (politicians, devils, spirit ancestors) or toy or plane or car or even, as in the case of Phillip Rikhotso, anthropomorphic hi-fi speakers. The exhibition made stars of several Venda sculptors. (The result, not altogether happily, is a veritable conveyor belt of stylised carved fish spewing out from the northern Transvaal to the furthest flung corners of South Africa).

The other exhibition, the Neglected Tradition, was organised by the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1988 during Christopher Till's tenure as director. Till had previously been director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and had seen the reintroduction of that country into the 'real world'. It was, he said, like the opening of a dammed reservoir, filled with dynamic energy and creativity, and, he feels, the same is happening in South Africa. The exhibition, which cautiously proclaimed itself 'a beginning', successfully incorporated into the mainstream of South African art the black urban artists like John Koenakeefe Mohl, whose work was known and bought by collectors, both white and black, but ignored in official histories and marginalised in museums.

It's a slow process, however, marked by fits and starts; where the 1985 Cape Town Triennial showed one black artist out of 90 and had an all-white selection panel, the 1991 Triennial had progressed to 22 black artists (of 137) and the nine-member selection panel included two blacks. This year will see a South African presence at the Venice Biennale for the first time in decades, and it is fairly predictable that the colour of the artists' skins will matter as much as the colour of their paints.

The hated Bantu Education Act ensured that there has never been much art education available for blacks in schools, and to this day what education there is comes from the numerous community art centres set up from the Fifties by liberal whites. Cecil Skotnes, doyen of white artists and son of Salvation Army missionaries, opened the Polly Street Centre in Johannesburg in 1948 with the evangelical idea of 'reintroducing what I thought should be there - giving their black heritage to black South Africans: a cross-pollination of ideas'. From the resulting synthesis of African and European cultures many successful artists emerged.

At Rorke's Drift in Natal, the Swedish Lutheran Church established an art and crafts centre in the Sixties whose alumni have similarly made their mark. And in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape the Dakawa Art and Craft Project - originally set up by the ANC in exile in Dakawa, Tanzania - teaches printmaking and weaving. Last year, its first in South Africa, 43 people applied for 15 places; this year 975 have applied.

Energy and passion are the overriding forces in South African art today. Whether it is the illiterate Chickenman's poignant road signs (ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE) or Willie Bester's collages reflecting the violence and squalor of township life ('You could die getting a bucket of water'), the art produced by black South Africans, in reflecting their society, must inevitably be an art of protest. This even though Cecil Skotnes claims that 'people are bored with agit-prop'.

Still, any discussion of art in South Africa is inevitably a discussion of the relationship between art and politics. A year ago, four uniformed members of the extreme right wing group, the Afrikaner Weerstandbeweging (Afrikaans Resistance Movement), marched into the National Gallery in Cape Town and, with hammers and jackboots, destroyed a ceramic sculpture depicting Eugene Terre'blanche and his Two Sidekicks in order to defend the honour of their leader. The culprits warned that they would not tolerate 'monstrous images' of Terre'blanche, and that next time they would use explosives to 'blow the place up'. Robert Hughes once suggested that no artwork ever changed society; this act demonstrated how powerfully it can move, challenge, provoke. In this society, art is a weapon of the struggle, not just an adjunct.

(Photograph omitted)