The land question in South Africa remains intrinsically linked to the pursuit for a dignified life, a right to decent living conditions and a sense of selfhood. One would think that after twenty-six years of democracy, such a pursuit would be at the core of fundamental human rights attendant to mending loss, trauma and pain experienced first through colonialism and then apartheid. This is however not the case and in many instances this loss and traumatic disconnect from the land is at the center of internalized conflict and instability seen through the eruption of service delivery protests, social unrest and other societal illnesses rampant across South African communities.
Beyond the politics of land, life is dependent on land and throughout history it has been art and artists who have had the ability to crystalize how the two cannot be mutually exclusive. Landscape painting emerged as a genre in Western art in the early 16th century and was essentially inspired by man’s desire for ownership and possession. It became an integral part of a representation of patriarchy, property and wealth. For this reason, landscape art is inherently associated with the socio-politics of dispossession when it comes to Black subjects and a sense selfhood in an anti-Black world. Dispossession is taken to its extremity in the case of women (particularly Black women) who historically have been seen as the prized possession of men and subsequently denied the right to own property let alone their own lives and agency.
In the Land is Ours: South Africa’s first Black Lawyers and the Birth of Constitutionalism Tembeka Ngcukaitobi begins by providing a sobering account of ‘how the land was lost and how this provides a useful entry point in illuminating the larger political formation of South Africa.’ His explanation begins with the loss of land during the wars between the British empire and the Xhosa nation citing ‘the eastern frontier as the site where the paradoxes of Empire were first played out in South Africa which subsequently became the blueprint for the entire country as a whole’. Later in 1884 during what has become known as the Berlin Conference, Europe finally took full control of the African continent effectively instituting the birth of the nation state. The boundaries created did not only institute the separatist notions of divide and conquer but also reimaged Africa as an image reflecting European values and ideals.
Such ideals include the treatment of women and their place in a patriarchal society, which it can be argued differed fundamentally to their stature in African society. With conquest came European modernization that assumed that Africans were uncivilized and savages and therefore in need of salvation. Such ideals around the notion of modernization also assumed that the idea of modernity belonged solely to the western world. Johannes Phokela’s selection of Domus Qunu (House of Qunu) as part of this exhibition is thus an appropriate entry point to encapsulate these ideas and both the subject matter of Setlamorago Mashilo’s and Nhlanhla Nhlapo’s works. As a private commission and in subject matter of centering the late Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Domus Qunu (House of Qunu) speaks poignantly to the notion of land, possession, ownership and dispossession. Madikizela was not only a high profile political figure, but as a Black woman in the South African context, her story embodies the contradictions and complexities of being a revolutionary figure. Although her life story was innately linked to that of her husband the late Nelson Mandela, Madikizela Mandela belonged to no one but herself.
The notion of self or selfhood is boldly expressed in Nhlapo’s work, partly as a means of assertion but also as an act of bearing witness to one’s life. Of the two artists, Nhlapo appears to be more heavily influenced by Phokela’s approach to classical painting. The age of realism in western art was essentially a rejection of romanticism and therefore a call to embracing truth – truth of self. This becomes a powerful statement and testament when inferred with reference to the life and times of a figure such as Winnie Madikizela- Mandela.
Phokela also renders her in the odalisque style which in art history terms suggests a desirable and highly sexualized woman. Her glance at the viewer mimics that of the many (white) women subjects who are forever held captive in this pose in numerous classical art paintings; there is an implied male gaze that she confronts with her arresting beauty. This is in total contrast to Nhlapo’s Lerato I, II and III series which comprises of a portrait of a young Black woman rendered in monochromatic colour and gold leaf paint. Her pose and posture is that of a dignified, composed figure and leaves very little room for any sexualization. She represents a figure of the kind of young lady someone like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela should have been more like – in the eyes of patriarchal society of course. Her restrain is echoed in the portraits of the male subjects which with the exception of Zethembe appear to be studies.
The practice of studies is continued in Nhlapo’s landscape paintings which complement Mashilo’s work of vast monochromatic landscapes. Here the viewer is confronted with the bareness and sometimes barren-ness of the land. Whilst the female figure features in Mashilo’s work she appears to be placed on the peripheries and most times as unrecognizable. Her presence is merely suggestive in comparison to the vastness of the landscape within which she is placed. This could be a metaphoric representation of the place of Black women in society, where often they are the toilers of the land but very rarely reap its full rewards of economic empowerment. The motif of the maize mealie is a reoccurring theme and stands as a representation of a return to the land but also alludes to labour and reproduction. Mashilo takes the idea of the land and subtly brings the viewer into its politicized terrain of its direct connection to economic and social empowerment and freedom. Freedom is more explicitly expressed in the Ways of Escape I, II and III series depicting vast stretches of land with a tarred road cutting through it. One has a sense of breaking through to the unknown. There is no beginning and no end to the road suggesting as sense of infinity and beyond. Yet there is something calming about the uncertainty portrayed in the work.
Life and Land thus reminds us of the complexities and contradictions of defining the purity of self within a tainted landscape. The land question in South Africa remains a contested terrain precisely because of the manner in which it was taken and subsequently employed to disempower and deprive generations of their sense of identity. In this exhibition and body of work it is hoped that a space for contemplation and reflection is provided to begin to map out reparation and collective healing. While this is work that each of the artists asks of the viewer to self-interpret, there is as much a conviction in asking of us what Ngcukaitobi asserts still holds true in stating that: ‘if we are to reimagine our present and imagine our future, we should start by reimagining our past’.
~ Dr Same Mdluli
3 Ngcukaitobi, T. 2018. Land is Ours: South Africa’s first Black Lawyers and the Birth of Constitutionalism. Penguin Books: Cape Town. p6.