The Art of Life in South Africa is the kind of thought-provoking institutional history that fits Charles Joyner’s description of microhistory as a genre able to pose “large questions in small places” (Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture , 1). Daniel Magaziner’s “small place” is a school for training specialist African “arts and crafts” teachers that was financed by the South African government’s Department of Bantu Education between the 1950s and 1980s. This school was part of a larger educational complex located at Indaleni, originally a nineteenth-century Methodist missionary settlement, some thirty miles southwest of Pietermaritzburg in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). Drawing on a variety of written, visual, and oral sources (at their heart are several wonderful collections located at the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban), Magaziner tells us much that is fascinating about both teachers and students. He explains who they were, where they came from (in the case of students, around 1,000 men and women in all, deliberately selected from many parts of South Africa), their ideas, their experiences, and, of course, the art that was produced. Yet, as its clever title implies, The Art of Life in South Africa is more than an intrinsically interesting case study. As Magaziner explains, the title was taken from a letter to his teacher by an Indaleni student who reflected that he had been rewarded in life not so much by any artistic prowess as by his marriage, children, and career, by “the art of life” (21). Through examining the experiences of Indaleni students, many of whom were or became teachers of art in government schools, Magaziner’s book becomes a story about the complexity of generalizing about life or ambitions for those who were racialized as Africans under apartheid. To this end, Magaziner argues that “it becomes too easy to sit back, satisfied that we know the whole story” (5). Instead we should recognize (perhaps most scholars outside South African historiography already do?) that, as Magaziner reads political philosopher Richard Iton, “life is multiple and contradictory” and could, even for Africans in apartheid South Africa, encompass more than “struggles” (5). The art of living under apartheid was to embrace moments of personal success or experience of beauty whenever you could. Magaziner suggests that apartheid “as a way of life” rather than a concept “is still little understood” (5). This is worth stating, given that twentieth-century South African history is commonly taught, not least outside the country, only as a bifurcated political story of racial oppression and resistance. Much of the existing secondary literature is also along these lines. At its least nuanced, this can be history literally and figuratively depicted too starkly in black and white terms, where complexities or contradictions in lives within (or between) such reified and seemingly monolithic categories are missing. Magaziner’s book is impressive in the direct and skillful way in which it challenges such simplicity, the well-known “grand narrative” history of apartheid. It suggests that the complexity of life for students at Indaleni stemmed from the fact that, though they may have constantly faced economic difficulties, shortages of materials, and racial discrimination (and not only in which toilets they could use when visiting art galleries in “white” urban areas), they also experienced “the freedom to work, innovate, and create,” and “the surprise of the new” (123). Yet, in making this persuasive argument, Magaziner might helpfully have mentioned some existing studies of the complex apartheid “everyday” that do exist, which indirectly support his perspective on the lives of Indaleni students. Much of this work has involved urban studies of one kind or another, often informed by oral testimony. Several Cape Town examples begin to illustrate this. Archie Mafeje and Monica Wilson published a pioneering work as long ago as the early 1960s on Langa township (Langa: A Study of Social Groups in an African Township ). This book drew on numerous interviews with African residents to demonstrate the existence of intricate social divisions along the lines of kinship, language, religious belief, politics, and extent of urbanization. It also revealed that such factors explained the wide variety of concomitant social identities and often richly creative associational lives that were lived there, amid political and economic hardship. Life histories collected by Bill Nasson in the 1980s from former residents of District Six—a multiracial inner-city suburb that was declared a “white group area” in 1966 and then gradually demolished—had everyday experiences at their very center. Nasson used these adroitly to provide vivid portraits of a vivacious neighborhood community of cinema going, street life, and music (“‘She preferred living in a cave with Harry the snake-catcher’: Towards an Oral History of Popular Leisure and Class Expression in District Six, Cape Town c. 1920s to 1950s,” in Philip Bonner, Isabel Hofmeyr, Deborah James, and Tom Lodge, eds., Holding Their Ground: Class, Locality, and Culture in 19th and 20th Century South Africa , 286–295; “Oral History and the Reconstruction of District Six,” in Shamil Jeppie and Crain Soudien, eds., The Struggle for District Six: Past and Present , 44–66). They are portraits that Jane Jacobs, who fought to preserve Greenwich Village from “slum clearance” in the 1950s and 1960s, would have appreciated. African writers from the 1940s to the 1960s such as Can Themba and Lewis Nkosi had done much the same in articles or short stories describing predominantly black areas of Johannesburg in this period, and particularly the suburb of Sophiatown. Can Themba said that black writers of the 1950s consciously intended to capture “the fullest expression of the bubbling life around us and the restless spirit within us” (“Here It Is at Last,” Drum, May 1959, reprinted in Requiem for Sophiatown , 47), Nkosi that “my senses opened to that keen dry Johannesburg air that was so exhilarating; I was fascinated by the garish lights, by the colour and the rumble of the city” (Home and Exile , 26). A chapter in my recent book, The Emergence of the South African Metropolis (2016), attempted to convey something of the Baudelairian style of both the literature and lives of black writers, the sharp juxtapositions of everyday experience that both expressed, influenced in turn by the local (apartheid South Africa) context and international cultural exposure. Similar juxtapositions appear in Jacob Dlamini’s (autobiographical) reflections in Native Nostalgia (2009) on growing up in the Boksburg township Katlehong. Dlamini acknowledges that the place was dirty and dangerous; but he chooses to also recall enjoyable times there, like listening to Zulu dramas or American rock music on South African radio, or watching football on one of the township’s first television sets. Dlamini is perfectly aware that for a black South African to remember urban life under apartheid in any other than an entirely negative fashion challenges prevailing wisdom. He has nonetheless asserted the right to recollect both good and bad in his own everyday experiences. Magaziner suggests that the lives of students at Indaleni consisted of similar juxtapositions, and the institutional story that reveals such complexity deserves to be told. Much of The Art of Life focuses on precisely what was taught at Indaleni, and why. To this end, Magaziner includes detailed discussion of practical matters such as the construction of a kiln at the school, as well as much discussion of the art history syllabus. The syllabus on offer in 1969, for instance, began with “Bushman” art, proceeded with Egyptian, Greek, and Roman, then included discussion of West African “masks, figures, Bronzes” before ending with the moderns: “impressionists, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Picasso and Pierneef” (145). The publishers have rightly allowed plentiful illustrations that not only give us a sense of the range and variety of art, pottery, and sculpture that students subsequently produced but also thereby aid consideration of the arguments made about them, whether by contemporaries or by Magaziner himself. Making the point, for instance, near the start of the book, about the problem of cost and availability of materials, as well as demonstrating ways in which talented students could produce striking work despite such problems, is the author’s photograph of Winston Radebe’s arresting depiction of a man. Radebe used only black and brown Nugget shoe polish to achieve what is a hauntingly vital image. He included this in a letter written to Lorna Peirson, his teacher at Indaleni, in 1965. In turn, numerous other photographs help to give humanizing and individualizing faces and forms to at least some of the institution’s students and teachers. Magaziner uses his institutional history and the themes mentioned to ponder large questions, questions that should surely be of interest to any scholar, not just of apartheid South Africa but of Africa, or indeed of art history in general. These questions should surely also be considered by those currently absorbed by matters of cultural (including educational curricula) “decolonization.” Hence, there is considerable discussion of the debate within and beyond Indaleni as to what might be meant by “art” compared to “craft,” about whether there was an art or craft “tradition” of any magnitude in precolonial southern Africa (compared to, say, West Africa), and indeed (the heart of the matter) about what might be meant by the very term “African art” itself. Magaziner demonstrates that these were all questions that concerned critics, observers, and some practitioners of art (and crafts) in mid-twentieth-century South Africa, whether white or black, liberal or conservative. Many were troubled by the possibility that Western aesthetic influences or the onset of modernity that accompanied colonial settlement had tainted, and continued to taint, a supposedly unique African creativity. Apartheid ideologues and bureaucrats predictably worried about how to maintain or revive what they believed to be an endangered (by this Western influence and modernity) African art and crafts “tradition” still marked by its “virility” and “adaptiveness” (50). They saw this quest as a necessary part of maintaining the idea of essentialist racial and cultural difference between “Europeans” and “Africans,” and thereby justifying and promoting separate development. Hence W. G. Eiselen, who presided over the 1949 Commission on Native Education, believed that education in general should preserve and transmit separate cultural traditions, and that the teaching of African art and crafts, with Africans encouraged to work with grass and clay, should be part of such education. It was to this end that the Department of Bantu Education supported the training of art teachers at Indaleni. Yet, as the 1969 syllabus demonstrates, students there were exposed not only to Bushman art, Egyptian sculptures, and Benin masks, but also to Van Gogh and Picasso, and thus continued to be “tainted” by “Western” influence. Beyond the Bantu Education department, The World newspaper (aimed at a black African readership) still worried about such contamination in 1966. An editorial argued that Dumile Fenis’s charcoal drawing “Mother and Child,” in which the mother’s head was almost disconnected from her shoulders, and which had won a major art prize, was “not our art,” that Africans should “refuse to have this stuff pushed on us,” that “this stuff” was better suited to decadent Europe, and that “our African art shall be a thing of beauty” (“This Is Not Our Art,” World, October 28, 1966, 4, 5). For many in Magaziner’s book, black and white, a central question, then, is whether art is, or should be, the identifiable product of a distinct race, nation, or culture, with a consequent racial or national aesthetic. Magaziner’s book is a welcome contribution to debates along these lines that, predictably enough, continue in South Africa today. What he terms “racially tinged ideas about education” (247) and art were revitalized in 2015 by the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement founded at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The RMF not only succeeded in having the imperialist’s statue removed from UCT, but also inspired the destruction (during a protest over insufficient student accommodation) of twenty-three paintings by both black and white artists that had adorned student residences: “we have removed whiteness from the walls,” one Fallist tweeted. Such Fallists called not merely for free but for “decolonized” tertiary education, including decolonized institutional culture, faculty, syllabi, and members: all should be more “African,” less “white” or “European.” (Are there echoes here of categorical distinctions used by Cecile Rhodes and Hendrik Verwoerd?) The “Fallist” supporters’ actions and ideology persuaded the university authorities to take down, or cover up, a further seventy-five works of art on campus, irrespective of the politics of the artist or art, including several pieces by Afrikaner rebel Breyten Breytenbach, imprisoned for seven years in 1975 as an anti-apartheid activist. Racially tinged controversy also surrounds art in off-campus institutions. In January 2017, the Iziko National Gallery in Cape Town was accused of inciting race hatred for exhibiting a “Fuck White People” installation. In September that year, the opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, the largest art gallery on the continent, drew criticism from some for the fact that it was the creation of white men and was situated in Cape Town, Africa’s “whitest” city. Mbadi Mdluli, an artist and MA student at the University of the Witwatersrand, was quoted as saying, “Cape Town is really for those who can go to Europe and buy a freaking Picasso” (Jason Burke, “Contemporary, Controversial and Coming Soon: Cape Town’s Vast New Art Museum,” Guardian, September 12, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/12/buzz-building-for-opening-of-zeitz-mocaa-africas-tate-modern). Magaziner affords considerable space near the end of his book to Selby Mvusi, one of the first students at Indaleni Art School, an artist, industrial designer, and supporter of African nationalism. Mvusi’s views on African art, cited with approval by Magaziner, might serve as a suitable epilogue to this review. Mvusi was skeptical of categories like “Western,” “traditional,” “indigenous,” or “African art”; terms like “African,” “Black,” or “Bantu” were, in his view, categories artificially animated by (white) power. Magaziner quotes Mvusi’s claim, delivered on the topic “Toward a Contemporary Art in Africa” at a conference on African culture in 1962, that “African Art is rarely spoke of in term of the specifics found within the discipline of Art [so that] the basis of analysis becomes not Art but the African” (249). For Mvusi, art emerged from the multiple experiences of life. Whether you were categorized as African might, of course, matter a great deal in terms of life experiences, if only most especially in apartheid South Africa. Yet even if that was so, your art was not a product of some racial essentialist African aesthetic. By implication, the definition of African art could (and should) only be a geographical one: art that comes from Africa, and is the product of life, of “the living [life] is,” there (251, 268). © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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