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A Decade of Democracy: Witnessing South Africa

April 2, 2004 - November 14, 2004

A Decade of Democracy: Witnessing South Africa presents some of the ways that artists in South Africa are inventing new identities.

In it, artists who are aware of how race and geography have compartmentalized people interrogate the apartheid legacy with the intention of creating identities that are self-affirming.

Their works in this exhibition address some of the issues facing a South Africa in transition.

For a decade, South Africa has been reconfiguring its social, political, and cultural environments.

April 27, 2004 marks the country’s tenth anniversary of democracy following the election of President Nelson Mandela in April of 1994.

Since then, the country has witnessed many changes, some of which were obscured by the over-simplified discourse of rainbow nationalism.

A Decade of Democracy: Witnessing South Africa brings together emerging and established artists who are responding to post- Apartheid South Africa.

Some of these artists explore new modes of representation while drawing upon existing traditions. They are inspired by a strong vision of the “self” as a major factor in reconstituting their own subjectivities.

Other artists use idioms of social commentary idiom to challenge existing prejudices. These approaches to art-making bear witness to present realities, as well as to the shared experiences of injustice under apartheid.

Certain themes emerged from the works in this exhibition. For example, the body—physically and metaphorically- remains the focus for identification and discrimination in the post-apartheid era.

Clearly, issues concerning race and identity have not vanished, but instead are reinterpreted. Other defining themes present in the social landscape include Ceremony, Spirituality, Gender, Sexuality, and Urban Realities.

These themes, expressed symbolically, celebrate and acknowledge the influence of African and foreign cultures in contemporary South Africa.

A Decade of Democracy: Witnessing South Africa testifies to the changes and acknowledges the divergent viewpoints in South Africa today.

It does not claim to represent the country in its entirety. Instead, it looks at the challenges and contradictions facing artists as they negotiate the tensions between what was, what is, and what is to come through the medium of their art.

RACE AND IDENTITY

“The concept of race as generally referenced, is not biologically based, but rather a set of socio-political categories created to differentiate one group from another.” (Jemadari Kamara, 2004)

Under apartheid, the black majority of South Africans experienced repression, racism, and social inequality in accordance with the rule of laws based on racial differences.

Philosophically, these injustices were justified by the principles of apartheid that espoused the notion of separate development. However, apartheid laws of racial difference affected both black and white South Africans.

With the transformation of the political landscape in 1994 and the subsequent birth of democracy, South Africans were forced to change how they viewed themselves.

Black South Africans were no longer official victims and white South Africans had to reckon with relinquishing power and privileges.

This remains a contested territory where negotiations to reconcile racial disparities persevere.

In works probing race and identity, the body remains an icon referring to the complex racial classifications that linger in the legacy of apartheid.

Many artists are visualizing through their work new identities that redefine the current environment and eliminate apartheid era separation and discrimination.

GENDER AND SEXUALITY

The struggle for gender equality and sexual freedom in South Africa continues in the post-apartheid South Africa.

Individual freedoms constantly clash with cultural and religious traditions that continue to uphold conventions that infringe upon the democratic rights of individuals as enshrined in our constitution.

The idea of same sex relationships challenges and contradicts cultural norms and values cherished by many.

Artists exploring these issues attempt to examine ways in which society has tried to insulate itself from existing social realities such as homosexuality.

They interrogate relationships between same-sex partners while confronting sexual taboos within their communities.

These artists probe existing social and cultural differences, challenge the process of societal transformation, and advocate for individual freedoms to extend beyond the political arena and into everyday life.

CEREMONY AND SPIRITUALITY

Apartheid practices in South Africa affected people physically, mentally, and especially spiritually.

As social activities brought competing claims for political and cultural rights into focus, the need for reflection and refuge grew more acute.

This need was met through religion, which nurtured a collective identity based on faith and performed in private and public domains such as household dwellings, parks, stadiums, churches, mosques, and synagogues.

Rituals and ceremonies became catalysts for many artists exploring their cultural heritage. Their investigations traversed boundaries between rural and urban.

Local and foreign sensibilities were brought to the examination rituals such as initiations, sacrifices, libations, and prayer all of which tended to foster positive associations between individuals and groups.

Their use of natural materials suggested the presence of the spiritual in all things surrounding them. In part, their art drew its inspiration from the African philosophy known as “Ubuntu”, which demonstrated compassion for others beyond the self.

The approach recalled President Thabo Mbeki’s concept of African Renaissance in which the collective experience is called upon to envision a new reality for Africa.

Art works rooted in such thought became tremendously important in examining the role of cultural traditions within modern societies, because they illustrate—figuratively and conceptually—the integration of traditional culture and daily life.

Bongi Bengu
Pitso Chinzima
Matthew Hindley
Nicholas Hlobo
Fanie Jason
Alison Kearney
Nkosinathi Khanyile
Jeannot M.M. Laderia
Fritha Langerman
Brenton Maart

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Thando Mama
Colbert Mashile
Pauline Mazibuko
Mthunzi Ndimande
Rudzani Nemasetoni
Christian Nerf
Charles Nkosi
Roderick Kevin Sauls
Nirupa Sing
Nontsikelelo Veleko
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Project Team
Tumelo Mosaka, Curator
Sophia Ainslie and
Thembinkosi Goniwe, Associate Curators
Sipho Mdanda, Assistant Curator
Edmund Barry Gaither, Advisor
Gary Van Wyk, Advisor and Editor
Donna M. Keefe, Project Director

Organized by sondela, a project of the South African Development Fund, Inc.,
and the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists

The exhibition is partially funded by the Rockefeller Foundation with additional support from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, which receives support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and is an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.