Campus News

The Luggage is Still Labeled: Blackness in South African Art

Story posted March 21, 2003

A stint at CBB Capetown and subsequent trips to South Africa have permitted Julie McGee, visiting assistant professor of Africana Studies, to collaborate with South African artists on a project that has enriched her life, and that she hopes will give a voice to those not often heard. A documentary she co-produced, The Luggage is Still Labeled: Blackness in South African Art, along with related exhibit and lectures will give members of the Bowdoin and Brunswick communities a sense of the current climate in South African art. (Information on times and places of events follows this article)

McGee '82 went to South Africa in the summer and fall of 2001as one of the teachers and leaders of the CBB Cape Town program. Long interested in South African art, she planned to teach "Contemporary South African Art" and "Arts of Resistance." In South Africa, she was immediately impressed by the passion and dedication of the artists and arts educators she met, but was told by many about lack of support and funding for the arts, particularly as they related to black artists.

She became determined to find a way to introduce her students to artists and give them an understanding of their experiences beyond what they would find in textbooks or one-day fieldtrips to galleries. After her first week in Cape Town, spent meeting with artists and community arts organizers, an idea came to her. Throughout the course of the semester she and the students in the "Contemporary South African Art" class would work with artists from the townships around Cape Town to put together an exhibit of their work in the community center of the township Langa. Each student had the opportunity to interview an artist and produce a biography and a description of the artist's work for inclusion in the catalog. The result was Homecoming, an exhibit of sculpture, paintings and prints by seven South African artists. Though the artists in the show had all exhibited before, their work was not as well known as that of white artists and had seldom been seen beyond their own communities. Working on the exhibit was a rewarding experience for all of those involved, and the experience of meeting and working with the artists left McGee wanting to do more.

"I knew I wanted to go back there, and I knew I wanted to be involved with these artists," she said. "I just didn't want it to be all about me."

She wanted any project she undertook to be beneficial to the artists and to showcase their lives and work in a way that it hadn't been viewed before.

"The historical legacy is that when, and if, a black artist has been discussed, it's by a white person," McGee said. She didn't want her project to be "something another white person did."

The Luggage is Still Labeled: Blackness in South African Art
McGee had become interested in the situation confronting black artists in South Africa, and she had developed a friendship with Vuyile Cameron Voyiya, a local artist, arts educator and native of Cape Town who curated the Homecoming exhibit. McGee and Voyiya began talking about doing a documentary.

"For me, as a researcher, I really felt that the most effective way to be involved with the material was a way that would help the artists first," McGee said.

McGee knew that Voyiya had the internal knowledge of the South African arts scene and access to many artists, and she had resources that could allow them to produce the documentary.

Black artists face unique challenges in the post-apartheid South Africa. Many have not had access to arts education, but they have a strong desire to make their voices heard through their art. Many of these artists are not well known outside their own communities and some of them are now approaching their 80s. No one had ever sat down with these artists and asked them questions about their experiences. There was no repository for their knowledge. While the goal was to make a documentary, it was also to preserve this information for the future, because it wasn't being done, McGee said.

"I wanted to provide a way for the them to tell their stories," she said. "It was just clear from my interactions with people...that this information was primarily information that black artists sit around and talk to each other about."

McGee returned to South Africa in January of 2002. She and Voyiya worked together to interview more than 20 artists. The title of the documentary, "The Luggage is Still labeled: Blackness in South African Art," comes from a quote from Peter E. Clarke, one of the artists interviewed. "The journey has ended, but the luggage is still labeled," which expresses the continuing struggle that the artists face.

"Part of it is that apartheid created a bankrupt education for everyone but whites," McGee said.

Art wasn't a part of the limited education that blacks received. Now, though art is nominally a part of the curriculum in black schools, there is no one trained to teach the students, so the situation is slow to change. The more advanced arts programs that exist are inherently colonial and European in structure, and it's difficult for black artists to enter these programs, since they don't have the background the programs require.

With the end of apartheid, artists, along with other groups, hoped they would see their situation improve. It has happened in some parts of society. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has addressed racist acts that took place under apartheid. There has also been a big push to eliminate racism in sports. Sports was seen as a vehicle for democracy in South Africa and a Minister of Sports was appointed to see that the system was changed. But according to McGee, the same has not happened in the arts.

"No one's pressuring arts institutions to change, McGee said. "Artists will say there was not Truth and Reconciliation program for the arts system."

Artists' Voices
The first interview Voyiya and McGee conducted for the documentary was in January of 2002, with Thembinkosi Goniwe. McGee met Goniwe after he gave a talk at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, where he earned a master or fine arts degree. He is now studying at Cornell towards his doctorate in art history.

He hasn't seen the documentary yet, but he hopes that it fulfills McGee's goals and is truly a way for the artists' voices to be heard.

"One of the expectations of the that it will give a sense of, an understanding about, South African Art and its politics," Goniwe said. Though he cautioned, "It will give limited view, because South Africa is very complex, with many pressing issues."

The experience of white and black artists in South Africa is very different. Goniwe was wary of speaking generally since South African artists have many perspectives and opinions, and he was sure some would disagree with him.

"I can't speak for all black artists, I can only speak for myself," he said. "It's a very disconcerting experience, being a black artist in South Africa."

Since many black artists don't have access to formal training, it's often difficult for them to learn basic artistic skills, as well as the more commercial skills needed to find an audience, such as working with gallery owners. Many are also working in townships that may not have studio spaces, galleries, dark rooms, telephones, faxes, the Internet and other resources.

"Being in a township, you are very distant from opportunities on many levels," Goniwe said. "Black artists are really on the fringe."

Another part of the struggle for black artists is to express themselves amidst the expectations society seems to have for them, a theme that Goniwe explores in his work.

"You have to wear this very negative cap, this stigma of being different," he said. "There is a pressure to produce an art that is distinct from non-black artists."

An exhibit of Goniwe's work will open at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art on April 15. Negotiation: Body at Stake is an exhibit of mixed media pieces that combine painting, drawing and found objects. He will give a lecture, "Placed or Displaced: Traces and Reflections of a Black South African Artist" in Beam Classroom in the Visual Arts Center at 7:30 on April 15.

In his work, Goniwe deals with his feelings of place and culture. "The ideas that come to mind are all the politics of positioning, identifying and being identified," he said, "how I move from one place to another... a reflection of a journey I've been embarking on."

But don't think this makes for somber artwork.

"More than anything else, the work is fun," he said. "I try to avoid overloading the work with controversial and deterministic ideas."

Berni Searle is another artist featured in the documentary who will soon visit Bowdoin. Searle is from Cape Town, and was officially considered "coloured" under apartheid. (Under apartheid, all South Africans were racially classified into one of three categories: white, black (African), or coloured (of mixed decent). The coloured category included major subgroups of Indians and Asians.) The idea of being "coloured" is a theme she explores in her work, along with issues of women and gender.

Searle was recently named as the Standard Bank Young Artist of 2004. The prize is one of the most prestigious art prizes in South Africa. As part of the honor she will put together a solo show that will tour South Africa. Searle has also been named the Lehman Lecturer at Bowdoin this year. She will give a talk titled "In your culture? Aspects of Duality and Ambiguity in the Work of Berni Searle" at 7:30 p.m. on march 31 in Kresge Auditorium in the Visual Arts Center.

Putting it Together
Working on the project was a challenge for McGee. In many ways, this was the opposite of the type of scholarly work she normally does. The usual work of a researcher is to investigate a question and provide a new, personal view of the topic. In this project, McGee wanted to showcase others points of view.

That meant letting go and letting the documentary have a life of its own. McGee had the resources, but she wanted a true partnership with the South African artists so they could have a forum. The project was about "making public, having said, issues that needed to be aired," McGee said.

After months of interviewing in South Africa, the final work of the project took place here in Brunswick. A Bowdoin sophomore, Steve Gogolak, is the editor, and the original score was composed by local musicians Frank Mauceri and Titus Abbott.

Gogolak taught himself video editing about three years ago and had been taking on editing jobs in his spare time when McGee approached him about working on the documentary. When she first told him she had upwards of 50 hours of tape, Gogolak thought she must be mistaken.

"I thought, there's no way it could be that much, she must be overestimating," he said. It turned out to be true. McGee brought in boxes containing about 60 tapes, each with 15 minutes to an hour of footage. Of that, about 25 hours worth of material was fed into the computer for editing.

A year after the first interview for the documentary, Voyiya came to Brunswick to help put the final product together. He, McGee and Gogolak spent much of January reviewing tape, deciding what to cut and what order to put it in.

Gogolak served mainly as a technical editor and advisor, but he found himself learning a lot about South African artists and occasionally offering an opinion about content.

"I knew absolutely nothing [in the beginning]," he said. "I was familiar with apartheid in a general sense, but not at all how it applied to artists." Gogolak said he's learned a lot about the nuances of the arts system in South Africa and how the legacy of apartheid continues to affect the artists.

"Because they need to earn money, they're forced to create art that will sell, rather than what they want to create," he said.

The film has now been edited down to about an hour, and this month everyone in the Bowdoin community will have the chance to see the results. The Luggage is Still labeled: Blackness in South African Art will be shown at 7:30 p.m., March 27 in Smith Auditorium in Sills Hall. The documentary will also be shown at Colby on April 3 as part of that college's Africa Week.

Events at Bowdoin Related to South African Art
The Luggage is Still labeled: Blackness in South African Art
Documentary film premiere
7:30 p.m., March 27
Smith Auditorium in Sills Hall.

"In your culture? Aspects of Duality and Ambiguity in the Work of Berni Searle"
Lehman Lecture by Berni Searle
7:30 p.m., March 31
Kresge Auditorium, Visual Arts Center.

"Placed or Displaced: Traces and Reflections of a Black South African Artist"
Lecture by Thembinkosi Goniwe
7:30, April 15
Beam Classroom, Visual Arts Center

Negotiation: Body at Stake
Exhibit of mixed media pieces that combine painting, drawing and found objects
Opens April 15
Bowdoin College Museum of Art

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