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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, October 26, 2001

The artistic legacy of apartheid The artistic legacy of apartheid (October 26, 2001)

"Liberated Voices" taps into South Africa's search for a new identity

by Robyn Israel

South Africa is probably more known for its music thanits art. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba and Johnny Clegg readily spring to mind as ambassadors of the country's rich musical heritage. But ask someone to name a South African visual artist, and they'll probably be hard-pressed to come up with a response.

Those seeking an education about the country's contemporary art need only visit Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center, where nearly 60 works by 13 ethnically diverse artists are currently on display. Entitled "Liberated Voices," the exhibition features a cross-section of paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and videos created since the end of apartheid in 1994. Organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, the exhibition runs until Jan. 6.

Beginning with Resistance Art -- the politically inspired movement that flourished during apartheid -- "Liberated Voices" explores major trends in contemporary art that followed the change in government. Universal themes are expressed throughout the exhibition: the struggle against oppression, the quest for self-determination, the power of grass-roots activism to effect social change and the maintenance of dignity despite overwhelming odds.

"This exhibit is so powerful," said Manuel Jordan, curator for arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Cantor Arts Center. "People are able to cope with such incredible duress and then get to a point where they look into themselves and make something out of this horrific situation. They're searching for personal identity and configuring what contemporary art means."

No individual better represents the persecution that persisted under apartheid than activist Steve Biko, who was tortured and killed in 1977. Two years later, artist and fellow activist Paul Stopforth created "The Interrogators" from autopsy photographs he managed to obtain at the time. Comprised of three graphite drawings, the stark black and white work details the three policemen who killed his dear friend.

David Nthubu Koloane revisited Biko's story 21 years later in "The Journey," a series of 20 drawings. Five of the works are reproduced at Stanford, comprised of acrylic and oil pastels on paper. In contrast to Stopforth's dark piece, "The Journey" is rife with color, but still chronicles Biko's tortured last days. Koloane created the piece after the police officers who claimed responsibility for his interrogation applied for amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, set up in 1994 to investigate humans-rights violations committed during the apartheid era. (The primary precondition for the granting of amnesty was a full disclosure of the details leading to the violations).

"It shows the idea of coping -- some artists have had to look back and revisit situations in order to deal with them," Jordan said.

"X Roads," a 1994 work by Cape Town artist Willie Bester, reflects on the socio-economic inequities of the apartheid era that the current government has yet to address. The images are taken from Bester's photographs of a sampling of township residents: a man too old to work, groups of children who surround visitors, an African matriarch. The mixed-media work, crafted from oil paint, wire, tins cans and newsprint, shows that in spite of economic degradation, the spirit of humanity still triumphs.

That pride is pervasive in the color photographs of Zwelethu Mthethwa, which depict individuals residing in settlements in Paarl, Cape Town. Taken in 1999, the images show homes in which recycled materials are used decoratively, like newspaper for wallpaper. In spite of their poverty, their dignity shines through.

"They have a healing quality," Jordan said of the photographs. "In all this oppression and this dismal economic situation, they're still able to construct out of somebody's trash their beautiful surroundings."

The use of color is critical, Mthethwa said, in conveying the people's proud spirit.

"For me, color restores people's dignity," Mthethwa said in "Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa," the companion book to the exhibit. "I ask myself why we, as photographers, should deny these people color while it plays such an important part in their lives. I cannot imagine how drab the photographs I am currently taking would look in black and white, and how desolate their state would be to the viewer's eye."

The white South African experience is highlighted in "Guilt and Innocence 1960-1990," an installation featuring 130 snapshots of artist Brett Murray with his family and friends. Mapping out Murray's life from early infancy to adulthood, the photographs depict the life of a sheltered white suburban kid: as a child at the beach, as a member of various sporting teams, as a graduate, with girlfriends, traveling overseas and so on.

The oppressive nature of apartheid on white South Africans is depicted in "Lokke," a carving by Claudette Schreuders. Crafted of wood, steel, pine and oil paint, the 1994 work shows a teenaged white girl standing on top of a desk, arms extended in a martyr-like position. The inspiration for the piece came from Schreuders' first day of high school in 1986, when a girl nicknamed Lokke was made to stand on a table in front of the school and was mocked because of her unshaven legs.

"Images of martyrs found in religious sculpture (especially Spanish and South American) reminded me of Lokke's position in our school," Schreuders said in "Liberated Voices." "While at school I felt relieved that I was not in her shoes, a fate I felt I only narrowly escaped."

Both the horror and healing of apartheid are evident in "Truth Games: The Series," an interactive work by Sue Williamson. Each of the four pieces in the series pictures an accuser, a defender, and an image of the event in question. At no time are all three images visible, as text printed on slats obscures sections. Viewers are invited to slide these slats across different parts of the images to conceal or reveal parts -- a parallel of South Africa still trying to decide whether the truth is being spoken or hidden in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

One of Williamson's pieces is based on the story of Stanford student Amy Biehl, who was working at the University of Western Cape when she was stoned and stabbed to death by young Pan-African Congress members during a schools boycott. Slats on the piece feature text like "I stabbed her," "horrible sadness" and "remorse." The work includes photographs of Biehl and her mother, Linda, who has publicly stated that her daughter was in the wrong place at the wrong time and has offered her forgiveness of the accused.

"There's the notion of reconciliation in many of the pieces," Jordan said. "It's the idea of 'We're willing to forgive , because it's more important to know exactly what happened, so we can achieve a sense of closure, and move into the future with a relatively clear conscience."

"Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art From South Africa," runs through Jan. 6 at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center, Museum Way and Lomita Drive, off Palm Drive, on the Stanford Campus. The center is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; Thursday until 8 p.m. Admission is free. Call (650) 723-4177.

What: :"Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art From South Africa." Free tours of the exhibition take place on Thursdays at 12:15 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 3:15 p.m. Tours do not require a reservation for groups of 10 or fewer. Call (650) 723-3469 to request tours for larger groups.

Where: Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center, Museum Way and Lomita Drive, off Palm Drive, on the Stanford Campus.

When: Through Jan. 6. The center is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; Thursday until 8 p.m.

Cost: Admission is free.

Info: Call (650) 723-4177 or visit
Additional events:
Artists Paul Stopforth, Thabiso Phokompe and Gary van Wyck will discuss contemporary art trends in South Africa today from 1-4 p.m. at the center. Admission is free.
"Long Night's Journey into Day" (2000), a film that follows several Truth and Reconciliation Commission cases over a two-year period, will screen on Nov. 3, 18 and 24 at 1 and 3 p.m. at the center. Admission is free. For more information about this film, visit
The Umzansi dancers from South Africa will perform and conduct a workshop on Nov. 11 at the center. Admission is free.


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