Curated by Gavin Jantjes, the exhibition Strengths and Convictions, which deals with the life and times of the South African Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, occupies five galleries and is organised (more or less) thematically and chronologically.
The first room introduces the visitor to our British colonial history, starting somewhat incongruously with James Ford’s Holiday Time in Cape Town in the Twentieth Century (1891-99), and includes portraits of powerful men of the time as well as familiar faces of the apartheid regime. Accompanying these works are a series of painted portraits and photographs (gleaned from public and private archives) examining the public lives and achievements of the four Nobel Peace Prize laureates.The rise and fall of apartheid unfolds through seven short documentary films and a sequence of iconic works, including Gerard Sekoto’s Song of the Pick (1946/7), Ranjith Kally’s 1958 photographic portrait of Albert Luthuli, Dumile Feni’s African Guernica (1967), Michael Goldberg’s filing cabinet offered as readymade, Monument to the Nationalist Government (1978, remade 2009), Paul Stopforth’s The Interrogators (1979), Valente N. Malangatana’s Apartheid (1982) and Marlene Dumas’ The Next Generation (1994-99).Memorable early photographs by David Goldblatt, particularly one of the commando that escorted Hendrik Verwoerd to the National Party’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1964, offer perspectives on Afrikaner nationalism, while Constance Stuart Larrabee’s lens dwells on dignified rural black African women and poor whites in Johannesburg in the 1940s. George Hallett’s chronicle of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 1997 prepares the viewer for William Kentridge’s film Ubu Tells the Truth (1996). Jantjes, however, does not always tell the truth. His hagiography of the African National Congress virtually excludes the role that other liberation movements and organisations played in the struggle for freedom; there are no portraits of Steve Biko or Robert Sobukwe, for example. In both the display and the 200-page catalogue, Jantjes imposes political readings upon works such as Noria Mabasa’s Carnage II (1988), Nelson Mukhuba’s Dancing Couple (1970) and Sam Nhlengethwa’s mixed-media collage The Brother is Dead (1998). Was Nhlengethwa memorialising apartheid events four years into democracy, or is this an image of its time? The exhibition raises a number of such questions, particularly in the terribly skewed final section.There is nothing amiss in Jantjes’ post-1994 South Africa: even Archbishop Emeritus Tutu, who is usually unambiguous in his criticism, only briefly mentions HIV/Aids denialism and the failure to eradicate poverty in the film covering the years 1993 to 2009. Powerful images by Goldblatt, Churchill Madikida and Santu Mofokeng are not only reminders of the HIV/Aids pandemic, but of the excesses and failures of the ANC government – the reality of which have been elided by the curator. Here the plight of the majority of South Africans for whom political freedom has not translated into personal and economic freedom does not exist. Jantjes is silent on the evils and fear that stalk this country. Three of the Nobel laureates are still alive, but their times – and consequently their legacy – have been cut short.In truth, Strengths and Convictions is really all about the past. According to the printed material, there are 98 “contemporary works of art” on display. What does Jantjes understand by contemporary? There is little sign of South African art now; instead he offers a historical overview of art relevant to the themes of his choice and his version of history and art. A series of projected cartoons by Zapiro barely touch on the present.Where is the contemporary art? Claudette Schreuders’ Burnt by the Sun (2000), which rounds off the exhibition, is ten years old. Few works on show were created during the past decade, the most recent being Mustafa Maluka’s oil and acrylic on canvas portrait Don’t Stand Me Down (2006) and Araminta de Clermont’s Matric Queens (2008-09) series of photographs. Are these the culture barometers for the present and prognosticators for the future? Brett Murray’s Hope and Pray (2007) would be most appropriate here, but it is displayed in another, misleading context.When artists curate exhibitions (or write books on art) they are tempted to include their own work: Jantjes has yielded unashamedly to temptation by featuring three of his own works (and further writing about them in the catalogue). Two of them occupy their own walls, a third hangs in the company of works by luminaries such as Malangatana, Feni and Roberto Matta. Hallett’s role as photo editor has resulted in a surfeit of his own images, and the concomitant exclusion of others.Is Jantjes aware of the conflicts of interest and self-promotion in his conduct? As chair of the session “The artist and the state”, which formed part of a seminar around the exhibition, he led the attack on government and the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC). How many participants knew that he had received an estimated R1 million from then minister of arts and culture, Pallo Jordan, for his ambitious Visual Century project? Jantjes’ “ministerial project”, which comprises four publications, a website and series of documentary films, will, as he wrote in this magazine, offer “a concise record of a century of South African contemporary art production”. Strength and Convictions travels to Oslo in May. One wonders what the Norwegians will make of our “contemporary” world according to Jantjes.Marilyn Martin is an art historian, writer and curator based in Cape Town