Exhibition Marks 30 Years of Democracy with Returned Apartheid-era South African Artworks

A selection of South African artworks created during apartheid and now in international art collections is on show in Johannesburg to commemorate the country’s transition to democracy in 1994.

The majority of the artworks were removed from the country by foreign tourists and diplomats who saw them at the Australian Embassy in Pretoria, the capital. The embassy had opened its doors to Black artists from the townships, allowing them to be acknowledged and put their works on full display for the public.

The artworks, which depict the daily challenges of the country’s Black majority during apartheid and the consequences of racial segregation regulations, are displayed alongside works by some of South Africa’s most fascinating contemporary artists.

The show presents a variety of viewpoints on South Africa through the eyes of artists who lived through and after the country’s most challenging period.

It is the conclusion of efforts by groups such as the Ifa Lethu Foundation, which is sponsoring the show, to return African artworks, antiquities, and priceless cultural items to Africa.

The organization has returned over 700 artifacts, including works by South African artist Gerard Sekoto, who died in Paris in 1993.

Similar efforts have been attempted throughout Africa, including Benin and Nigeria.

Some of the exhibit’s highlights include an undated piece named “For the Children” by renowned South African artist and sculptor Dumile Feni, who died in New York in 1991 before returning to South Africa to witness the end of apartheid.

The show also includes a 1987 sculpture titled “Mineworkers” by South African artist Mike Khali, which highlights the condition of migrant workers in South African gold mines. It is held at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

Michael Selekane, a modern artist whose work is featured in the exhibition, discussed some of the technical challenges faced by painters before him.

“The use of material was limited for them. That is why most of their work is black and white, and it is prints. Painting was an expensive medium to work on, their conditions were tough,” he said.

Selekane’s “Rosy Future” and “Shattered” are part of the exhibition.

“We need to reflect on the fact that we did not just magically emerge as artists, there were people who laid the way forward regardless of whether their context was difficult, complicated, undoable, they were resilient in what they were doing,” said Lawrence Lemaoana, a contemporary artist whose work is also on show.

“In this period, art by black artists was not considered worth including in South African museums, galleries or corporate or private collections,” notes exhibition curator Carol Brown.

“With the exception of a few outliers — including workshops such as Polly Street in Johannesburg and the Evangelical Lutheran Centre at Rorke’s Drift, established by foreign missionaries in the former province of Natal — art education for black artists was minimal.”

“For much of their lives, art materials, books and exhibitions were denied to them,” Brown writes in her curator’s statement.

The works have been grouped thematically, she says: Suffering and Conflict, Dreams of the Future, Leisure and Culture, City of Gold, Whose Land Is It? and The Beginning.

“These themes invite contemplation of the socio-political landscape of present-day South Africa, but also allow us to see how the past influences and shapes the present — and how contemporary visions can highlight the modernity in the overlooked and undervalued art produced under the terrible constraints of apartheid,” she said.

The exhibition runs until July 31.

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