Posted on February 20, 2013
'Uncontained: opening the Community Arts Project archive', which was first held at Art.B Gallery in Bellville (8 May - 18 June 2012) before moving to Iziko: South African National Gallery (18 August 2012 - 12 April 2013), has sparked a great deal of interest. So has the book accompanying the exhibition, in which 31 authors from universities, cultural organisations and NGOs celebrate printmaking at the now defunct Community Arts Project (CAP) through engaging the work of artists associated with the organisation.* There was even an article on the book and exhibition by features writer Matthew Reisz in Times Higher Education, 'the leading general interest magazine aimed at the British academic and beyond.'

And this is what South African artist and curator Gavin Jantjes, now the Director of the National Museum of Norway, wrote via email: 'Please pass my congratulations to Emile for getting this together. It was once a sad reality that all the work done at CAP would be lost because nobody wanted to take care of it and evaluate the contributions artists made to the nation's political struggle.'

Consisting of mainly linocuts, 'Uncontained' makes available a selection of work by mainly black artists from an archive that was once marginalised, denigrated and dismissed by some white art connoisseurs and art museum curators as so-called 'low art' - art that is said to be unsophisticated and lacking in creative intelligence. Yet, on the other hand, works such as those on 'Uncontained' were highly valued by many with links to the liberation struggle as prime examples of the counter-hegemonic culture of the 1980s, or people's culture. As such, they were displayed in the homes of some activists, both here and abroad, to demonstrate their anti-apartheid credentials and support for the struggle, as Jane Taylor, Heidi Grunebaum and Premesh Lalu note in the book. Such were the contradictions of the apartheid world.

The story of the exhibition goes back to early 2010, when I was invited to attend a series of meetings at the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) to discuss the university's art collections. These include the UWC Art Collection, the Albie Sachs Collection of Mozambican Art and the Community Arts Project Collection, which was donated to the university in 2008. What prompted this new focus on the university's art collections was the CHR's interest in fostering debates and research on artistic production, and in exploring the relation between aesthetics, politics and society. But what was also probably uppermost in the mind of Prof Premesh Lalu, who chaired the meetings, was the need to invigorate the humanities at UWC, particularly because education in the sciences, technology and business have been so privileged by government policy.

What emerged subsequent to these meetings was the idea of a project around the CAP collection, one outcome of which had to be an exhibition. I remember thinking at the time that a project on CAP, an organisation intimately linked to the cultural emancipation of the oppressed under apartheid and in its aftermath, was so perfectly suitable for UWC. This was because it would give concrete expression to the university's commitment to 'help conserve and explore the environmental and cultural resources of the southern African region and to encourage a wide awareness of these resources in the community', as stated in its mission statement.

But before I could even think of developing an exhibition, there was first the task of stabilising the collection. This involved unpacking the works from about 20 or so large boxes, securing storage space at the overcrowded and cramped UWC-RIM Mayibuye Archives storeroom on the campus, and painstakingly accessioning and photographing them. The laborious job of accessioning the works is still an ongoing task, although we've so far managed to documents and photograph all of the prints (linocuts, monoprints, and a few etchings, woodcuts and screenprints), amounting to about 800 works, and a fair proportion of the posters. We have yet to get to the numerous drawings and paintings, and also the photographs and sculptures that constitute the rest of the collection.

CAP is probably best known for its posters, produced by a host of political, civic, youth and cultural organisations in the 1980s and early 1990s. Because the posters are so intimately connected with CAP, because they are so much part of the cultural fabric of the 1980s, and because they are powerful expressions of people's culture, I initially thought that these works would make for an important exhibition. But the posters have been shown before, particularly at the Robben Island Museum (Gateway) in 2003 and also on 'Struggle Ink' at the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto in 2005.

Having changed my mind about the posters, and while accessioning and assessing the collection, it was the linocuts, I thought, that needed to be shown, although some of them would probably also have been seen before on exhibitions like 'Water in a dry place' at Iziko: South African National Gallery in 1999 - a show that celebrated and reflected on 'the complex forces that have animated CAP.' In the first place, this was because I was struck by their penetrating aesthetic power and the artists' clarity of vision and technical ingenuity. Besides this, the works were very accessible, in such sharp contrast to much of what passes as good art today.

But there were also other compelling reasons that drew me to thinking about an exhibition of linocuts. For one thing, linocuts by artists from CAP have never been shown as a comprehensive body of work; for another, they are intimately connected to a modern black aesthetic; and for still another, many of the artists most closely associated with CAP, like Billy Mandindi, Mpathi Gocini, Sophie Peters, Velile Voyiya, David Hlongwane and Robert Siwangaza, all made linocuts. And besides all of this, if CAP was established to promote the cultural voice of the oppressed, and to empower people through creativity in the face of circumstances that dehumanised them, then it was through an exhibition of linocuts that this story could be effectively told.

Once I had made the decision to show the linocuts, and after all of them had been accessioned and photographed, I set about dividing the print collection into discrete packages of knowledge, or themes, in order to gain a more exact understanding of what the artists were dealing with in their work. These themes, I realised, could more or less, be divided into two categories. The first pertained to those themes that visualised the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s, and that told of a people's resolve to overcome their oppression. This set of works also raised the notion of the cultural worker - the idea of the artist as an activist who uses his/her work to promote awareness about the conditions and circumstances of oppression and injustice. This category included themes such as the conflict between apartheid's security forces and the youth in the townships, the militant workers' movement of the 1980s, the Soweto Uprising of 1976, forced removals, the victimisation of blacks under the pass laws, as well as more generalised depictions of the black burden under apartheid.

While the first category of themes made for a narrative about the struggle against apartheid, the second consisted of works that conveyed the notion that the world of apartheid in the 1980s was not simply one of oppression and resistance thereto, but rather a tapestry of experiences, not all of which can be simply and directly related to apartheid. Themes in this category pertained to, for example, our relation to nature, pets, music, children, religion and sport, and also our personal and intimate connections with others.

The division of the CAP collection into themes was a crucial step because it served as the underlying structure and content of the exhibition. Works pertaining to the labour movement in the 1980s, or those focusing on gender, AIDS, interpersonal relationships and poverty, for example, were hung in distinct groups, although they are not labelled as such because I didn't want to give too much away. It was also the various themes that informed the accompanying book, as each of the 31 authors were asked to develop a 'thought-piece' around a particular set of works, unified by content.

But more than this, the exhibition was also structured according to the division of the themes into the two distinct categories to make for a two-part narrative - images of the struggle on the one side and those that reflected more personalised dimensions of human experience on the other. In fact at Iziko: South African National Gallery, where the exhibition has been on view for a number of months now, the struggle images were hung in one room, with the rest in another.

In retrospect, however, I have my misgivings about a two-part narrative about life under apartheid - because it all too neatly separates the political from the personal. After all, life under apartheid was a package of experiences, all of which was lived in one go, if I can put it like that. What I mean here is that our lives as agents against apartheid were intertwined with other kinds of experiences, such as raising children, walking in a forest, listening to music, or even partying for that matter. For this reason, I now think, it might have been better to have interspersed works of a more overt political nature with the representations that tell of 'other ways of seeing, and thinking, and being,' as it is put in the exhibition text. The all too neat dichotomy between political and 'apolitical' works in the exhibition was in fact questioned by Athi Mongezeleli Joja in his review of the show for Artthrob. 'The task,' he writes, 'is first to avoid the furtive dichotomy between the struggle and complex human relations.'

Nevertheless, in spite of my misgivings about the exhibition's overarching two-part structure and narrative, what the exhibition does seek is to narrate a story that prises open the 1980s by pushing beyond the representation of the decade as only one of political ferment and agency, as is represented in many history books.

In seeking a broader, more open-ended narrative of the 1980s, 'Uncontained' accords with the central argument in Jacob Dlamini's beautifully crafted book, Native Nostalgia (2009), which presents a cogent case for how we should be dealing with the past. Dlamini's argument is that the public record of black urban life under apartheid - and this is important for archival work - shouldn't only reflect the history of black dispossession and the struggle for human rights and democracy. 'The book,' writes Dlamini, 'should be considered a modest contribution to ongoing attempts to rescue South African history and the telling of it from what Cherryl Walker has correctly identified as the distorting master narrative of black dispossession [and resistance thereto] that dominates the historiography of the struggle... I wanted to show that the world of apartheid was not simply black and white, with resisters on one hand and oppressors on the other.' According to Dlamini, 'the master narrative [of black dispossession] blinds us to a richness, a complexity of life among black South Africans that not even colonialism and apartheid at their worst could destroy.' Dlamini, of course, is spot on, and it is this richness and complexity of life under apartheid that the exhibition seeks to reveal.

But if 'Uncontained' is not only a narrative about black dispossession and artists' responses to this, this does not of course mean that the exhibition does not deal with the notion of resistance art under apartheid. What the show seeks to suggest is that resistance art isn't just a story about how artists engaged with the conditions and circumstances of apartheid, although this is a vitally important component of the exhibition. What it aims at instead is a broader understanding of resistance art.

When the acclaimed poet Rustum Kozain opened the first showing of 'Uncontained' at Art.B Gallery, he said that 'The fundamental crime of apartheid was to deny people their humanity.' And creativity and artistic expression are, of course, integral to our understanding of humanity. But apartheid, as we know, hardly credited blacks as creative beings, innately equipped to express themselves artistically. Instead, they were regarded as only fit to be cheap labourers in apartheid's industrial machine. But by insisting on their creativity through art under conditions where they were hardly regarded as human beings, CAP artists laid claim to their humanity. In so doing, they resisted apartheid's prescriptions about the black being. And it is this meaning of resistance, the idea of art as a weapon for humanisation in the face of denigration and stigmatisation, that lies at the heart of the exhibition. For it gives meaning as much to depictions that show the clenched first, that primary symbol of the struggle, as it does to landscapes, or representations of personal relations with others.

That 'Uncontained' spins around a notion of resistance art that is far more expansive than the orthodox meaning of the term - the idea of art as a mirror to apartheid - is a vitally important aspect of the exhibition. But the show is also important as a catalyst for reflecting on issues in the present, one of which is the plight of community arts education and the right of people to nurture their cultural expression. CAP was established in 1977 to provide training in the arts for mainly black aspirant artists, particularly because at the time there were practically no opportunities for such artists to acquire an education in the arts. CAP, of course, was not the only organisation established under apartheid for this purpose as a number of similar organisations sprung up across the country in the 1980s, so creating a vibrant community arts sector. These included the Katlehong Arts Centre (Gauteng), the Alexandra Arts Centre (Johannesburg), the Funda Arts Centre (Soweto), the Community Arts Workshop (Durban) and the Mofolo Art Centre (Soweto). Sadly, all of these collapsed because foreign funding was diverted to other sites of conflict across the globe after the demise of legal apartheid.

In the early years after 1994, however, there was a strong expectation that the state would revive arts education for communities through the development of new community arts centres, particularly as the White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage of 1996 acknowledged cultural expression as a human right. This is what is said: 'Access to, participation in, and enjoyment of the arts, cultural expression, and the preservation of one's heritage are basic human rights; they are not luxuries, nor are they privileges as we generally have been led to believe.'

Yes, the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) did establish a number of community arts centres, across the country in the post-1994 era, such as the Umtata Community Arts Centre, the Mdantsane Arts Centre in East London, the Solomon Mahlangu Arts Centre in Mamelodi, Pretoria, and the Indonsa Art Centre in Ulundi. But these centres are all dysfunctional, from what I have read in reports. This is because they haven't been properly funded and supported by the state in spite of the grand vision of the White Paper. What this tells of is the state's abrogation of its responsibility to develop the creative potential and capacities of people through education in the arts, preferring instead to fund and support utilitarian education, or that which directly serves economic development.

While 'Uncontained' is a platform for considering the 'absence of access to creative arts training in the new South Africa', as Lucy Alexander, a former CAP trustee, comments in the book accompanying the exhibition, it also presents an opportunity for thinking about another critical matter - the role of the artist in the post-apartheid era. Today South Africa is wracked by inequality, massive poverty and unemployment, corruption, greed and self-enrichment, a lack of service delivery and class warfare, as witnessed in the recent strikes by farm workers in the Western Cape. In this respect, as many works give visual voice to the anti-apartheid struggle, the exhibition prompts us think about whether the present South Africa was the one that people, including artists, struggled, sacrificed and died for. To put it another way, the works provoke a re-imagining of the South Africa that we currently live in.

But where in this human crisis that is South Africa today, one should ask, is the critical voice and accusatory finger of the artist that in the 1980s reverberated in exhibitions in community halls and libraries, on the pages of a magazine like Staffrider, and in song, theatre and poetry? Writing in the book accompanying the exhibition, Mike Van Graan, a one-time director of CAP, laments the decline of the critically engaged artist. 'Our artists,' he writes, 'have largely become silent in the ongoing struggles of ordinary people for social justice.'

While the contemporary voice of the artist as social and political commentator is not entirely dead - I'm thinking of artists like Dathini Mzayiya, Ayanda Mabulu (both now working out of Greatmore Studios in Cape Town), Manfred Zylla and, of course, Brett Murray - we need to ask what has brought about this relative silence, how it came to pass. The answer, I think, is simply that many people, including artists, were under the illusion that that there would be an end to oppression after 1994. As it was thought that the struggle was over, artists largely abandoned their role as agents for change, and as critics of society, to pursue other terrains of human experience.

That was a huge mistake and it was not for nothing that someone simply wrote 'aluta continua' in the exhibition's comments' book. But what could he or she have meant? Yes, of course, the comment refers to the ongoing struggle for a more egalitarian and equitable society, and for economic freedom and social justice. But, for me, the comment also alludes to the struggle for a cultural dispensation in which opportunities are once more created at grassroots level for 'ordinary' people to realise their humanity through creativity, as was the case in the days of CAP. We have the vision, as so clearly articulated in the White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage. 'Humans,' it says, 'are holistic beings. They not only need improved material conditions in order that they have a better quality of life. Individuals have psychological, emotional, spiritual and intellectual expression, all of which require nurture and development for them to realise their full potential.'

Yes, of course we need to drastically improve the material welfare of the poor and downtrodden. But we do not live by bread and butter alone. Until the state is able to give real substance to the vision of the White Paper through developing a viable and active community arts dispensation, South Africa will remain an unfinished revolution in more ways than one.

*The book, edited by Heidi Grunebaum and Emile Maurice, is available at the front desk of Iziko: South African National Gallery.

Emile Maurice is an Archival Platform correspondent. He lives and works in Cape Town.