The Social Life of South African Prints

Book Review

  • Impressions from South Africa 1965 to Now: Prints from the Museum of Modern Art

  • Judith B. Hecker
  • 96 pages
  • The Museum of Modern Art, 2011
  • $29.95

Impressions From South Africa 1965 to Now is a small book that fills a large gap.1 The catalogue companion to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition of the same name, it is not one of those drearily familiar and vaguely voyeuristic printmaking-in-a-distant-land surveys. Instead it is an examination of the social role of prints in a tumultuous time and place as evidenced through the work of 24 artists, 8 artist collectives, and 22 print-producing organizations that range from internationally familiar entities like David Krut to community centers in black townships that will ring few bells at the Armory Show. It includes William Kentridge etchings and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) posters; Bitterkomix magazines and printed props from Kudzanai Chiurai’s mock elections. Judith B. Hecker, the Assistant Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books who organized the show and wrote the catalogue, has attempted a difficult thing: framing visual images in terms of political context and utility while still treating them as “art,” and simultaneously acknowledging the determining role of technique.

Hecker adopts a peculiar taxonomy to manage this—her discussion is divided into the sections Linocut, Political Posters, Intaglio, Photo-processes, and Post-apartheid. This is risky. Attaching the word “politics” to art is almost as certain to undermine the art as attaching “and crafts”. To do both—to call attention to both “linocut” and “post-apartheid”—is a double threat. But Hecker sees processes and social utility as interdependent in South African art, and she views prints as an integrated cultural force that move in and out of the high culture domain: “these works,” she writes, “dispense with notions of classification that distinguish between contemporary and traditional, fine art and craft, high and low art, the art world and community arts.”

Sandile Goje, Meeting of Two Cultures (1993), linoleum cut, 35 × 49.8 cm. Edition of 100. Printed and published by the artist, Grahamstown, South Africa. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Ralph E. Shikes Fund, ©2011 Sandile Goje.

Sandile Goje, Meeting of Two Cultures (1993), linoleum cut, 35 × 49.8 cm. Edition of 100. Printed and published by the artist, Grahamstown, South Africa. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Ralph E. Shikes Fund, ©2011 Sandile Goje.

Helpfully, Hecker has set up her book as an essential reference: the back matter includes a chronology of South African art, history and politics; biographies for all participating artists and collectives; bibliographies for individual artists and for South African art in general; even a reproduction of the Freedom Charter, the incendiary 1955 document that proclaimed, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.”

The catalogue opens with Azaria Mbatha’s linocut, The woman who loved and was…/innocent from accusation, which shows a naked woman standing before a densely packed chorus, rendered through insistent white line and dot. The drawing style, composition, costuming, and figures appear stylistically African; the Biblical subject matter, narrative conceits, and print technique are all European/Levantine in origin. The print was produced in 1965 at Rorke’s Drift (ELC Art and Craft Centre), an institution established by Swedish artists on the site of the 1897 battle in which 4000 Zulu fighters were killed by 139 British soldiers (immortalized in the film Zulu!). Founded on the Bauhaus ideal of merging art and craft/industry, Rorke’s Drift aimed to provide black artists with both an outlet and a living in a country where they were excluded from any formal art training. The dynamic, unfussy linocuts produced there, like John Muafengejo’s Natal Where Art School Is (1974), speak to exactly the kind of category-breaching that Hecker claims for South African art.

The same is true of some of the screenprinted political posters from the active resistance movements of the ’80s, such as You Have Struck a Rock by the Medu Art Ensemble, which exploits both native lettering styles and European socialist-realist propaganda models. Through the ’70s and ’80s, the catalogue shows two distinct worlds of response to Apartheid: documents of objective struggle (mostly from black artists), and subjective statements on the experience of living in a world structurally predicated on injustice (mostly from white artists).

Kudzanai Chiurai, We Always Have Reason to Fear (2008),  one of two lithographed posters, 60.8 × 43 cm. Edition of 250. Printed by Lucas Kutu, published by the artist, Johannesburg. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the generosity of the Vascovitz Family, ©2011 Kudzanai Chiurai.

Kudzanai Chiurai, We Always Have Reason to Fear (2008), one of two lithographed posters, 60.8 × 43 cm. Edition of 250. Printed by Lucas Kutu, published by the artist, Johannesburg. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the generosity of the Vascovitz Family, ©2011 Kudzanai Chiurai.

With the dismantling of Apartheid in the 1990s, that single overpowering subject—the outrage of denying self-determination to three-quarters of the population—gave way to a set of complicated realities: the proliferation of small betrayals even in the absence of institutional evil (Diane Victor); the complex recipe books of individual identity (Anton Kannemeyer); the material realities of lives lived (Zwelethu Mthethwa). South African artists have, Hecker writes, abandoned “political certainties to invite unstructured, unscripted responses from the viewer.”

William Kentridge is by far the best known of these artists. Kentridge’s complex, mannered, and self-reflective exploration of power as an interpersonal event—not simply a political trope—universalized aspects of the South African experience for an international audience. (He is represented here by etchings from the now-familiar Ubu and Casspirs series, as well as by a spectacular linocut Walking Man (2000). MoMA has been buying Kentridge works since the late 1990s, and its substantial collection was the focus of the 2010 exhibition “Five Themes”2 as well as the inspiration for Hecker’s initial exploration of the broader background of South Africa printmaking. She first traveled to South Africa in 2004, and began acquiring South African prints for the department the following year. (Mbatha’s 1965 print had entered the collection as a gift, but the subsequent boycott of South Africa during Apartheid meant that almost nothing was acquired for the following 30 years.)

Like the British Museum’s Out of Australia, Impressions From South Africa looks at the recent print production of a largely Anglophone country that has for decades existed at the periphery of art world distribution networks and consciousness. Both catalogues efficiently condense a vast and messy subject, providing nutshell histories of local art production along with detailed biographies of artists and other key players. Both examine the relationship between a dominant culture of European descent, with its historic skills, attitudes and privileged economic and political position, and a long-oppressed indigenous culture that—over the course of the time period discussed—becomes increasingly self-assured and influential, both politically and culturally.

But at a fundamental level, these are two quite different stories: indigenous people account for less than 3% of Australia’s population, whereas South African whites are outnumbered 9 to 1. The overarching narrative in the Australia book is one of self-consciously juggling the identities “British,” “provincial,” and “indigenous;” South Africa’s art of the past half-century, on the other hand, is inseparable from the history of Apartheid and the resistance to it, its eventual destruction and the heroic attempt at cultural reconciliation that replaced it.

Paul Edmunds, The same but different (2001), linoleum cut, 182.1 × 95.6 cm. Edition of 10. Printed by Artist Proof Studio, published by the artist. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Alexandra Herzan Fund, ©2011 Paul Edmunds.

Paul Edmunds, The same but different (2001), linoleum cut, 182.1 × 95.6 cm. Edition of 10. Printed by Artist Proof Studio, published by the artist. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Alexandra Herzan Fund, ©2011 Paul Edmunds.

Apartheid not only separated white from black, it kept South Africa apart from the rest of world. The international boycott of South African goods and institutions that ran through the ‘70s and ‘80s effectively kept South African art in South Africa. But even without that externally enforced isolation, it may not have traveled well: the South African experience for both white and black was almost unfathomably foreign to most international art audiences. The “international” art movements of the late 20th century—Pop, Minimalism, Post-modernism—were driven by concerns that were to some extent a luxury of living in stable, prosperous places.

The dismantling of Apartheid has allowed South Africa to become—in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s term—cosmopolitan. The things that concern South African artists today have more in common with the things that motivate artists in Europe, or North America, or Australia than they did twenty years ago. Comparing the earliest works in this book to the most recent, it is clear that “South African Art” remains distinctly South African, but is no longer exotically South African. (It is also now impossible for the casual reader to guess the race of the artist simply by looking at the image.)

If Sandile Goje’s 1993 linocut Meeting of Two Cultures seems now both charming and naïve in its depiction of a suburban bungalow shaking hands with an African round hut, some of the more recent work in Impressions stands as evidence of that handshake’s power: it can be seen when Senzeni Marasela combines linocut, silhouette, and dressmaking patterns in powerful depictions of her schizophrenic mother, or when Paul Edmunds draws on the legacies of Minimalism, process art, and Zulu wire plaiting.

The fact that this art is the subject of a substantial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, drawn from the museum’s own holdings, is indicative of both the gradual de-centering of the art world and the increasing permeability of the printed art/printed matter distinction. These two trends are related, since moving outside the North Atlantic axis necessarily means accommodating different roles for printed imagery. Impressions from South Africa acts as a reminder that not all great prints are made with Solander boxes in mind, and that even those that are come about through the melding of social context, available technologies, and individual responses to circumstance—a fact as true for Jasper Johns as for John Muafengejo.

Share:Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page


  1. The last major work on the subject of South African prints was Phillipa Hobbs’ and Elisabeth Rankin’s Printmaking in a Transforming South Africa (1997), which is encyclopedic (it lists 785 printmakers!) but 15 years old. Hobbs and Rankin also published Rorke’s Drift: Empowering Prints. Twenty Years of Printmaking in South Africa (Cape Town: Double Storey Books, 2003), which Hecker acknowledges as “an enormous scholarly contribution.” []
  2. “Five Themes” was, Hecker says, “the culminating opportunity to showcase MoMA’s Kentridge holdings across curatorial departments.” The touring exhibition was organized by Mark Rosenthal, but its iteration at MoMA was augmented by additional collection works, including nearly 40 prints that were absent from the rest of the tour. See Judy Hecker, William Kentridge: Trace. Prints from The Museum of Modern Art, The Museum of Modern Art, 2010; as well as William Kentridge: Five Themes, Yale University Press, 2009. []