Archive for May, 2017


Slices of JHB number 3



AWake: ambivalence 04 by Michael Matthews


THE SAARTJIE GUIDE TO UNDERSTANDING HISTORY: Part 1.01. Surviving the Mid-Life Crisis.

What is the culture of visual understanding in South Africa?

In recent years, due to cultural boycotts, South Africans have been limited in the breadth of their visual experience. This atrophied visual understanding may have resulted in an ‘innocence of vision’, a vision that is inward looking, static and isolated.

The question that is foremost is whether the contemporary South African visual understanding is a ‘developing’ or ‘potentially active’ one. This question is based on the premise that the South African vision is an ‘innocent understanding’ of the ‘virtual’ image – an image that is always changing or in a state of potential fulfilment, in other words an innocent understanding of a potentially active environment. Therefore, what is implicit in this question is that the ‘innocent eye’ may reveal a mind that is disempowered, rather than an informed one.

The next question in untangling this mystery is if empowerment can be achieved through an innocence of vision. Here one may think that the question includes only the artist or the artworks, but our history of disempowerment can be encountered in the gallery system as well – a system that has, for the last century at least, offered the public images in a pristine vacuum of Neo-Colonialism. In South Africa, in the 1980’s, the gallery system embraced artworks that were treated as isolated from the experience of collective visual meanings, or that had been created by proxy. This gallery system was structured in such a way as to establish a visual comparison with other images in similar circumstances – images in a state of decontextualisation.

The situation of a disempowered visual understanding in society is not unique to South Africa. What is unique to this country is that the images South African artists and historians have been exposed to over the last 30 years or more are pedantic reinterpretations of badly printed photographic magazines, such as ‘Art in America’ and ‘ArtForum’. These magazines have been sold at selected stores in competition with other magazines, such as ‘Stag’ and ‘Hustler’. Not to belittle the role of these photo-journalistic magazines of women, but, as with pornography, the understanding of the determining signifiers (the images of women/printed images of art), in universal cultural meaning (the ‘ideal’ depiction of women/the art object) has always been by proxy and has led to an erogenous and erroneous view of women/art. As the photograph of the, so-called, desired or observed object is removed to the conceptual vision, so too with the South African understanding of contemporary art. The effect has been devastating in many ways. In others, it has led to a genesis in creativity – albeit a genesis based on misconceptions.

Under these circumstances the South African artists, galleries and historians that matured after the 1980’s do not offer an “innocence” of vision. Their so-called innocence of vision is a misinterpretation of visual coding. This misunderstanding of meaning has led to a way of coding that reassesses the virtual coding process itself. The result is that South African art, not fed into art from consumable culture as with most art trends in Europe and America, has used processed ‘international high art’ as a consumable culture, before it itself has been re-ingested into ‘contemporary South African culture’.

At this point in South African cultural history we are at the age of becoming. We have had to rely on our misinterpretations of Western Art on the one hand and our misunderstood indigenous heritage on the other to form a coding system that has morphed out of the virtual system. This has resulted in an independent system: the result of the removed sanctions is a unique system that is dynamic, a virtual system of its own that is a virus to the dominant systems’ infecting and changing them. We are now in our so-called mid-life crisis waiting the high period of the African renaissance. Or…

Surviving the crisis