A myriad of defining moments in South Africa’s history over the past 100 years, all captured in art can be viewed at Polokwane Art Museum till the 12th of June.
Centennial: A Century of South African Art from the Sanlam Art Collection is a once-in-a-lifetime and one-of-a-kind exhibition which commemorates Sanlam’s centenary.
Long before other corporates followed suit, Sanlam started its collection in 1965 with 12 pieces, growing the collection to more than 2,000 pieces of art.
Curator Stefan Hundt takes visitors on a journey through the last 100 years, a journey that brings one face-to-face with chapters of colonial hegemony, political repression, a triumphant democracy and the economically unbalanced society that followed.
“Artists will always make visible the unseen in our society. They transform the discourses into images and experiences that make us more sensitive to these, whilst allowing for other interpretations,” says curator Stefan Hundt.
The exhibition celebrates Sanlam’s centenary and showcases some of the foremost pieces in one of the country’s biggest corporate collections including William Kentridge, Elza Botha, Maggie Laubser, Cecil Skotness and Irma Stern, all of which document the transformation of a nation that has come through trauma.
It also features some of the country’s foremost celebrated and emerging talent – the likes of Richard Mudariki, Tracey Rose and Ndikumbule Ngqinambe.
This is the first time the Polokwane Art Museum is showcasing numerous pieces from the Sanlam Art Collection, in a unique exhibition which features 70 works.
The 70 art objects have diverse visual voices, and so are the media, styles, genres, the subject matter and perspectives of the artists that Hundt has meticulously chosen.
The exhibition is making rounds around the country; it has been featured in Capetown, Johannesburg, and Bloemfontein, now in Polokwane and is yet to move to Nelson Mandela Bay, Kynsna and George.
“Usually, corporate collections are inaccessible to the public and Sanlam has consciously prioritised doing the opposite. Art is something for us to share; challenges us; to take delight in; and educate ourselves. It’s a critical part of our history and something we all need to have the opportunity to explore.” explains Stefan.
The exhibition includes a series of thought-provoking art workshops with Polokwane school learners, led by visual artists from across South Africa.
Hundt concludes, “This exhibition is a way to immerse people in some of the biggest shifts our nation has seen, told by the artists who have advocated for change. Art has played a crucial role in the realisation of a democratic and free South Africa and it’s as much a way to negotiate our differences as it is to create a shared vision for our future.”
The exhibition features some of the following eras
1950s-1960s: ART AS A WAY TO FORGE IDENTITY:
In the 50s and 60s, South African artists continued to forge a new visual identity to define their time and place in Africa. Additionally, as much as the state tried to inhibit black people’s freedom, strong assertions of individuality emerged. Gladys Mgudlandlu was the only recognised black woman artist of the time, with a liberation-inspired vision that comes through strongly in paintings like Birds (1962). Maggie Laubser and Irma Stern were other women artists who broke the ‘naturalism and realism’ mould by defying conventional norms with expressive works that played with colour and composition.
1970s-1980s: ART AS A LANGUAGE OF STRUGGLE:
In 1976, the Soweto Uprising occurred. That marked a turning point, with many artists in the 1980s either directly declaring their opposition to the state or using their art to provide a political critique. It was a time of Resistance Art.
Kentridge did his Stadium in 1987. The eerie, abandoned stadium references the use of stadiums in Santiago, Chile, as a detention centre following the coup d’état by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973.
And Elza Botha created her Butterfly Box. In 1982, when Botha made the box, the names of people who were banned, imprisoned for political crimes or under detention without trial were forbidden to be published. But this law didn’t extend to art. The Butterfly Box is made from a wooden school desk, with important names listed on its side, including Madiba – still in prison at the time – and Timol and Aggett, both alleged to have committed suicide in detention. The last text – perhaps the most menacing of all – says ‘Geen Naam Verstrek’ (no name provided).
2018: ART AS A MEANS OF FACILITATING DIVERSITY IN DAILY DISCOURSE:
Richard Mudariki’s The Model (2015) was acquired by Sanlam in 2018. The triptych work features a painting studio, in which sits a model being Cecil John Rhodes. This image of Rhodes is derived from the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town – the focal controversy of the #RhodesMustFall movement, which did eventually ‘fall’.
The work highlights how legacies of Apartheid and colonialism exist in our daily discourse, which often remains one-sided, with little room for diverse views.