South African Art – Politics And Progress For The Masters?

South African art, its masters, world renowned paintings and grass roots artists alike have all been shaped to some extent by the politics of social change over the past century. Artistic practice in much of South Africa has been affected by official policies of racial segregation, wars, economic and political migration, and an infinite number of marginal influences that combine to form the creative identity of the artist and their choice of subject. In the early years of British colonial rule great masters such as Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (1886 -1957) were exiled in Holland due to the Anglo-Boer Wars. Undoubtedly artists such as him evolved their creative genius through painting and education abroad. These skills and influences were then adopted by other South African painters when these old masters returned from their exile.The exchange of ideas between European colonial artists and their native black counterparts was not just a one-way process. Although missionaries, patrons and educators exposed African artists to western artistic practices, so too did many white South African modernists adopt African aesthetic elements and collaborate with like minded black South African artists. Walter Battiss (1906 -1982), Alexis Preller (1911-1975), and many other South African artists united to form The New Group. These artists explored an unconventional modern art whose foundation was centred about the integration of African and European aesthetics. They also organised exhibitions celebrating the paintings of black South African artists such as Gerard Sekoto (1913 – 1993). This social trend continued throughout the early 1900s, until the Era of apartheid that began in 1948.During apartheid, artistic practice and the subject matter of paintings in South Africa took a radical shift. African art in general could be considered as activist art, always provoking reactionary attitudes in those that view it. Much of the artwork produced in this era is anything but passive in its visual impact or political message, its purpose was social change! Although artists played a prominent role in the resistance movement, politically minded artists such as Michael Maapola (1964 – present) were persecuted, and black artists work was rarely exhibited. Much township art was destroyed by security forces, leaving a significant gap in the nation’s cultural legacy. Louis Khela Maqhubela (1939 – present) whose paintings are a combination of abstract figures, symbolism, and genre scenes of everyday life, continued to exhibit his work during apartheid. Artistic protest took the global stage at the height of sanctions and the cultural boycott. A French based association called Artists of the World against Apartheid launched a global appeal for artists to contribute to a collection of anti-apartheid paintings. This significant fusion of works is perhaps South Africa’s single most valuable international art collection once estimated at over 13 Million Rand. The end of apartheid in 1990 saw the home-coming of the collection, and the full integration of South African artists into international artistic community following elimination of the United Nations cultural boycott.South African Paintings Achieve Records For Established Art MastersApartheid undoubtedly inspired a lot of influential art in South Africa. The liberating voices of artists did much to capture the attitudes and opinions of people during this time. The cultural value of these works is indisputably priceless, however what of the monetary value? Has South African art seen a progressive increase in value since the end of apartheid? Can South African Masters set records at auction like their European counterparts have been doing in recent years?The South African art market would indeed seem to be following world trends, South African paintings have been realising fabulous prices. The art market is booming on a global level and South Africa is no exception. In 2007, Bonhams of London established their first-ever auction solely devoted to South African art. It saw over $2,000,000 worth of art being auctioned, the sale included works by major South African masters. It is a valuable indication therefore about the position of modern South African art internationally, and that these paintings are no longer of interest only to the domestic art market.Irma Stern’s The Tomato Picker was knocked down for $310,000 against the catalogue pre-sale estimate of $160,000-$240,000. Sekoto’s Wash Day achieved a hammer price of $140,000, and Alexis Preller’s Portrait of a Girl fetched $64,000, more than double the upper pre-sale estimate of $30,000. Walter Battiss’ portrait of his wife, artist Grace Anderson, was bid at four times the higher estimate, fetching $20,000. Jentsch also sold well with a top hammer price of $64,000 for The Namib Desert.Gerard Sekoto’s works seem to be at the crest of the wave that has propelled contemporary South African art into the leading edge of the global art market, seeing a 300% rise in recent years. Sekoto’s self portrait shattered previous world auction records for the artist and fetched an amazing $246,900. Given this current trend 2008 should be an exciting year for contemporary South African art. Private buyers, collectors and museum and gallery curators from the USA, Europe and beyond have all registered serious interest in Bonhams’ forthcoming sales in 2008.The Evolution – Nurturing The New South African Art MastersWho will be the masters of tomorrow?It is evident that artistic practice in South Africa has been affected by racial segregation, wars, and political migration, but what of the artists themselves? Apart from rendering future influences in creative style and expression through their paintings, what else have they done to nurture the next promising generations of South African masters?Gerard Sekoto has been described as: “South Africa’s pioneer of urban black art and social realism”. Following his death in 1993, The Gerard Sekoto Foundation was formed. It was Sekoto’s expressed wish that his Estate should be used to uplift art education for young South African children. He knew that formal art education was not offered in schools during the apartheid era, and The Foundation goes some way to rectify the wrongs of the past. South Africa will someday celebrate its new masters, due to the efforts of institutions such as The Foundation, The National Arts Council and workshops run by Thupelo. However let’s not just dream of the future, what of the present day?Contemporary art emerging from South Africa is exciting in its breadth and expression. Any creative works to come from a nation with such a unique and varied history deserves unrestrained attention. One should not just think in terms of safari and wildlife paintings. Although a commercially popular genre this does not come close to characterising the depth and variety of works currently been created by educated and professional artists in South Africa. Browse through our galleries and you may just stumble upon the next South African Master!

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