South Africa to reclaim its township masterpieces

Click to follow
The Independent Online

South Africa has launched a major campaign to recover and protect lost township art that chronicles the turbulent decades of the anti-apartheid struggle.

The drive to get the works back, many of which were bought by foreign diplomats and businessmen visiting South Africa during apartheid, is being hailed as crucial to securing some of the country's most influential art.

The effort is being led by the Ifa Lethu (Our Heritage) foundation, which said much of the art found its way to boardrooms and private collections in the UK, United States, Australia, Canada and Germany.

Township art depicts the harsh lives led by those living in South Africa's impoverished townships in the 1970s and 1980s -- the two most violent decades of the anti-apartheid struggle.

A number of works already recovered were on display at the launch of the new campaign, including paintings, sculptures and African artworks made out of wood, oil, clay and metal.

Pallo Jordan, the culture minister, said racism had failed to silence the artists who had given a voice to those rendered voiceless at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle.

"Through arts, they could express ideas, aspirations and values, and became an integral element of democracy," he said. "They communicated anger, sadness, and even joy that an end of apartheid era would surely come."

The foundation's head, Mamphela Ramphele, said the daunting task to recover artworks believed to be outside South Africa was now underway.

She said it would enlist the help of foreign missions in South Africa in trying to locate the lost treasures. People holding artworks abroad or anyone willing to co-operate in the exercise were welcome to help.

A former managing director of the World Bank, Ms Ramphele said the art would give South Africans a sense of pride over home-grown work.

Nelson Mandela, the former president who is a keen artist, has hailed the art recovery effort, saying it would help in the "reconstruction and development of the [South African] soul".

Major international companies are lining up to bankroll the recovery exercise with the world's largest mining company, BHP Billiton, recently donating £100,000.

The Ifa Lethu project began when Diane Johnstone, the former Australian High Commissioner to South Africa, gave it her collection of South African art.

Ms Johnstone served in South Africa in the 1970s and built strong links with artists working in the townships. She said she had assembled the collection with a view to giving it back to South Africa once the country ended institutionalised racial segregation.

When it came, her gift raised questions about the number of historically important works being held in foreign collections.

The Ifa Lethu collection will be housed at the Pretoria Art Museum in Tshwane, from where it will tour art galleries across South Africa.