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Article on South African Art at Arcy Art Original Oil Paintings

A Critical Assessment of Literature on Black South African Artists
By Rudi Carstens Editor and Artist of Arcy Art Original Oil Paintings

In this article I aim to evaluate the available literature on black artists of South Africa. I will be taking a closer look at three specific books to illustrate the shortcomings and ideological biases that are often evident in literature on black South African artists. It is significant to note that all three of the books that I will be discussing are written by white authors as most of the literature on black South African artists are written by white authors. The three books under discussion will be Esmé Berman's Art and Artists of South Africa, De Jager's Images of Man and Gavin Younge's Art of South African Townships.

Lize Van Robbroeck (1992:50-64) mentions that the literature on black South African artists are more likely to contain stringent classifications of artists than literature on white South African artists. In all three the books under discussion terms such as 'traditional art', 'transitional art' , 'township art' and 'protest art' are often found in reference to the art of black South African artists and these artists are often grouped under these classifications in a very arbitrary manner.

The placing of artists in broad categories such as 'township art' has the danger of denying the distinct individual styles and experiences of these artists. Although the work of an artist may be influenced by his/her life in the township, it is not the only influence on his/her art or life. The classification of artists also runs the risk of encouraging black South African artists to be studied and written about as a group. This group approach denies the individual contribution of the artist as well as the unique approach by each individual artist to the subject matter. Matsemela Manaka in Echoes of African Art (1987) critices this group approach to black artists when he states that the art of white people living in town are not called 'town art', 'city art' or 'suburban art'.

Van Robbroeck also highlights the difficult position that the concept of contemporary 'urban black art', as a merger of African and western traditions, places a black South African artist. If the artist's works independently of the so-called 'Pan African' aesthetic he/she is either condemned for espousing a 'Eurocentric' approach or congratulated on negotiating the 'universal' art arena. If a black South African artist consciously incorporates 'neo african' trends they are in turn congratulated on producing distinctly indigenous 'African art' or criticised for perpetuating a contrived and parochial Africanness (Van Robbroek: 1992).

In Gavin Younge's Art of South African Townships one is confronted by a variety of categories under which the black South African artist that he writes about are placed. He also places a lot of emphasis on the political influences in the work of the artists giving the book a strong political undertone. The influence of the political situation on the individual artist is ignored in favour of an approach that investigates how these political situations influenced black South African artists as a group. Gavin Younge's writing on black South African artists tends to imply that there is some kind of innate 'Africaness' that these artists poses. Text such as "Africa's artists have never depended on expensive art materials" (Young:1988) implies that a black artist possess certain qualities that is African because the artist is black. Furthermore this implies that the artist's use of inexpensive materials such as charcoal and pencils on cheap paper is related in some way to African artists relying on inexpensive materials through out history. This clearly ignores other factors which influences the choice of materials such as poverty, lack of space and uncomfortable living conditions.

De Jager in Images of Man writes about black South Africans by once again placing these artists in a variety of categories. In the introduction and conclusion there are many generalisations regarding black South African artists to be found. Von Robbroek (1992) points out that the subsequent complexity of the biographical detail given on the artist denies a common heritage and belies De Jager's generalisations.

The arbitrary nature of De Jager's classifications in Images of Man is emphasised by the manner in which black South African artists are grouped under the category of 'Township Art'. Out of the thirteen artists discussed only five were born in Johannesburg townships. Most of the artists received training at the Polly Street Art Centre which was not located in a township but in the centre of Johannesburg (Van Robbroek:1992).

De Jager also supports the notion of an innate 'Africaness' as seen in the following text: "The black artist has an innate urge and ability to react to human situations, his motivations are invariabily directed at the human being, and he is a humanist at heart" (De Jager:1992). At various parts in the book he writes about the African iconography and attributes this to the innate 'Africanness' which is in every black artist. Other more likely influences are ignored such as the influence which the white market has on what a black South African artist creates with its appetite for work which possess this perceived 'Africaness'.

In Art and Artists of South Africa, Esmé Berman aims to treat black and white South African artist in an equal manner. The book consists of an alphabetical list of artists with a short biography and a list of exhibitions on each South African artist. Von Robbroeck (1992) points out that this approach circumvents the problem of dealing with the art of black South African artists. Berman's criteria for including artists include the artist having had a solo exhibition. This immediately excludes a large section of black South African artists as many prominent black artists only participated in group exhibitions up until the writing of the book. At the art centres, where many black South African artists received their art training, group exhibitions were encouraged over solo exhibitions. In the 1950's and 1960's, in an attempt to reinforce the group status of black South African artists, galleries would only exhibit the work of black artists only in joint exhibitions. These factors have resulted in the exclusion of important black South African artists such as Kumalu, Motau, Mangona and Sihlali (Van Robbroeck:1996). Writers on black artists should become aware of the different circumstances under which these artists created their art and take it in consideration when writing and compiling books on South African art.


Berman, E. 1993. Art and artists of South Africa. Halfway House: Southern Book (Publishers).
De Jager, E. 1992. Images of Man - Contemporary South African black art and artist. Alice: Fort Hare University Press.
Podlashuc, A. 1989. Icon and authority: perspectives on a new paternalism, in diversity and interaction: Proceedings of 5th Annual Conferences, South African Association of Art Historians, University of Natal, 17-19 July 1989: 125-134.
Richards, C. 1987. " Deceiving history: Some thoughtful and thoughtless practices in South African art history now", in proceedings of 3rd Annual Conference, South African Association of Art Historians, University of Stellenbosch: 69-87.
Van Robbroeck, L. 1990. Review article: a question of objectives. de Arte 41:37-42
Vab Robbroeck, L. 1992. Urban "Black Art" in South African art historical literature: a discourse of otherness. Revised frameworks and extended boundaries in research and education: Proceedings of 8th Annual Conference, South African Association of Art Historians, Unisa, 13-15 July 1992: 50-64.
Younge, G. 1988. Art of the South African Townships. London: Thames & Hudson.

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