Art historian John Peffer’s book Art and the End of Apartheid (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) reveals the manner in which Black artists, or as he nuances the category artists who were influenced by Black Consciousness, were aesthetically and formally “post-apartheid” far in advance of the official political liberalization of the 1990s. He details the significance of artist collectives that produced art, theatre, and criticism in support of the antiapartheid movement, making tremendous inroads into “the look” of art in South Africa, and made an impact on the debates surrounding how art could best address the immediate concerns of the struggle. Instead of treating South African art as “commodities on a supermarket shelf,” his work seeks to communicate how art was actually made, and to detail the lived experiences of those “contemplative” people who made art “during a time of great duress.” Neelika Jayawardane asked him about his research findings.

In Art and the End of Apartheid, you are careful to discuss the nuances of work by black South African artists in the decades leading up to 1994. What are the stereotypical notions, often repeated, that you found important to avoid, reveal, and complicate?

One is the tenacious notion that South African artists suddenly became “free” to make Art with a capital “A” after the elections of 1994, as opposed to “political art” during apartheid. I wanted to show that serious aesthetic issues were tackled throughout the struggle years. Black artists like Sekoto and Mancoba (and later Kumalo) were prominent already by the mid-20th century in South Africa, and they built upon earlier forms of cosmopolitanism.

I was also interested in unwinding the notion that “black art” need necessarily be only thought of as a racially separate/separatist category. In one sense this has been useful, most notably during the formative 1960s-1970s years of the Black Consciousness Movement when artists of color and their allies attempted to formulate core values from which to draw inspiration and empowerment. In other respects it has resulted in deepening the rhetorical ghettoization of black artists within the larger art community both in South Africa and abroad. In my research I was interested in exploring the forms of aesthetic hybridity and the socially collective practices that have also characterized the “black art scene” since mid-century–how artists worked within what I refer to metaphorically as “grey areas,” that is, in ways that contradicted the separatist mentality so pervasive during the apartheid years. Black artists (even “BC” artists), I found, were “post-apartheid” far in advance of the official political liberalization of the 1990s. They inherently resisted segregation while striving for excellence and for recognition on their own terms. Along these lines I began my study by interrogating the ghettoizing description of all black artists’ work as “Township art” (a term popularized in the 1960s, and still used in certain quarters today). The term falsely implied that depictions of “black life,” especially images of abject poverty in urban areas, were the only appropriate or viable subjects for black artists.

You are particularly attentive to artist collectives, such as the Thupelo Art Project and the Medu Art Ensemble – something I have not seen addressed before. Can you explain the significance of these collectives? Who funded them, and how were they seen by the aparthied government?

A. Medu has also been explored in some detail by Diana Wylie in her book Art and Revolution: The Life and Death of Thami Mnyele, and in the exhibition and catalogue produced by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Thami Mnyele + Medu Art Ensemble. Medu was a collective formed by South African activists and artists living over the border in Gaborone, Botswana, and was joined by other allies in the struggle. It was an ANC allied group that produced art, theatre, and criticism in support of the antiapartheid movement. Medu was considered an enemy of the State, and it was raided (and several members murdered) by South African forces in 1985, but not before it had made a tremendous impact on the look of art in South Africa and on the debates surrounding how art could best address the urgent concerns of the struggle.

Thupelo was initially a series of workshops for (mostly, but not only) black artists, begun in Johannesburg in 1985 by David Koloane and Bill Ainslie. It evolved into a loose collective of working artists, many of who are among the more prominent artists working in South Africa today. A later version of Thupelo, now more international in scope, continues to run in Cape Town today. Corporate sponsors and an American NGO called the United States-South Africa Leadership Exchange Program (USSALEP) backed the first workshops, but USSALEP soon dropped out and funding was sporadic after that. Because of the American connection and because abstract art was being explored when groups like Medu were urging artists to show their politics on their sleeves, Thupelo was branded by some at the time as being an US-government sponsored program that promoted American imperialist interests. It never was either.

The South African government tolerated Thupelo, though it did harass some of its participants, notably Koloane and Ainslie. The ANC also gave their tacit support to the project. Government perhaps perceived the project to be “safe” since most workshops emphasized practicing abstract art techniques (i.e. not direct propaganda against the State). The ANC, though, understood the endeavor to be one that offered much needed training and access to black artists, and one that operated within non-racial principles opposed to apartheid segregation.

You address, in particular, individuals such as Durant Sihlali and Santu Mofokeng. What was it about these particular artists that drew your interest?

One of the things I find unsatisfying about so many of the books on South African art is that they treat the artists almost like commodities on a supermarket shelf, each with their own shtick. In my book I wanted to tell a more realistic if less directly celebratory story that would also be more resistant to commoditization. I wanted to show how art has actually been made, and to say something about the lived experience of artists as people during a time of great duress, including some of the infighting and the contradictions. That said, artists are also individuals and in order to give presence to the wider story I needed to focus closely on a few whose art, for me, has had a special potency. Durant Sihlali is not well known abroad, but in South Africa he was one of the most important role models for black and white artists, as a teacher, and as an art maker. He worked from the 1950s until his passing in 2004, and his art in a sense encompassed and surpasses the era of apartheid. His art always resisted current trends. He was a classical watercolorist when others shifted to realism or expressionism. Later he moved to a highly politically and spiritually charged form of abstract painting. By writing his life I also meant to write the experience of a particular era from one contemplative man’s perspective.

Santu Mofokeng’s images have always been quite powerful for me as well. They likewise surprise expectation. When others during the 1980s were making photojournalistic images of violence in the townships, Mofokeng instead did sensitive studies of people in their homes. When others in a sense caught on in the 1990s, and made colorful depictions of people in informal settlements, Mofokeng switched to re-photographing old images from black family albums. Then he got into landscapes, something he was told “black artists never do,” and even European subjects. In my personal view, his work is far more cerebral than much of the current “African photography” showing in the galleries. Other photographers with long histories, like Omar Badsha and Chris Ledochowski, could also be mentioned favorably.

I believe that art in South Africa helped model a future society, and artists of course made this art. I mean, societies don’t make art, individuals do. So by telling about the lives of specific artists like Sihlali or Mofokeng, including the messy contradictions, I am also hoping readers will understand how one lived through apartheid and how one made art to survive it. It helps when certain artists are particularly astute observers as well as technically accomplished craftspersons.

Basically, in the rest of the book I set up the larger scene of the social worlds and the intense politics that surrounded creative activity from mid-century to the 1990s. But especially in my biographical chapter on Sihlali I show how one influential person lived through it. His exceptional life tells us so much about both the self-imposed limitations and ultimately the possibilities faced by the rest of the local art scene.

In regards to your take on the role of documentary photography in South Africa: I’m particularly interested in the role documentary photographs play – often decades later – in the construction of the national narrative. What role do you see images of Mofokeng playing, within this national narrative? How would you compare his subject matter and focus to that of David Goldblatt?

Glad you asked. I am currently writing a short essay on this very theme for the French online journal Africultures. If I ever finish, I will send you the link.

I am not sure Mofokeng fits neatly into the national narrative that has become more rote and hardened since the late 1990s. In a nutshell it goes: 1950s/60s liberation movements and Drum magazine, 1980s struggle photography and Afrapix, post 1994 “art photography.”  Clearly certain of the old images are now removed from their contexts and have become iconic, while others are less known if they don’t fit the dominant narrative. Incidentally, there are whole realms of the photographic that have yet to be studied in depth but which made up much of the visual experience of the people living under apartheid–such as pass book photos, magazine spreads, photo novellas, and portrait images. What I find more worrisome is that the nature of the document itself–the it-ness of the photographic document–is not questioned as it ought to be now that the famous old pictures are now being used to “illustrate” a pat history.

That is why Mofokeng’s images do not mesh well with simplified stories of struggle and overcoming. First of all, his images are too murky looking (what are they “of”?). They are too much about questioning the very bases of representation to be used in a utilitarian way. They are harder to co-opt into a monological and heroic national story.

As for your other question, I would not really want to compare Goldblatt to Mofokeng except to say that Goldblatt has been much more successful internationally and that he did at one time shoot pictures for the mining companies– while Mofokeng worked more closely within the struggle movement. This tells us little, though, about the actual political sympathies of the artists or about the formal qualities of their work. They are both very sensitive observers who are good at insinuating themselves amongst those they depict, and they are both exquisite craftsmen. Perhaps Goldblatt is the more classical/Walker Evans type, while Mofokeng is a philosopher of the visual. But both men have such varied bodies of work that even this distinction is hard to support. I am not convinced of the value of a sustained comparison of these two artists, though perhaps examining specific works together does have some value? As a thought exercise, in my book I suggest setting Mofokeng’s study of Soweto commuters (Train Churches, 1986) alongside Goldblatt’s images of night riders on buses from the KwaNdebele homeland (circa 1985-6). The years are similar, and the subjects seem at first to be related. Mofokeng, who is younger, was advised early on by Goldblatt, a great mentor to many young photographers. Both are poignant studies, and both appear to me to be on the side of the people depicted, yet one seems to be coming more from within the middle of the people seen while the other stands outside looking in with compassion. One is about suffering, the other about overcoming. Both are moving.

What brought your interest in art and photography to South Africa? And what is it about this particular time period that you find necessary/significant to make readers aware about?

I was involved in anti-apartheid efforts during the 1980s when I was a student at Indiana University in Bloomington. As a young person I was interested in making art, in then-current multicultural politics of the Reagan years, and in the contestation of what I saw as arbitrary applications of “race.” I also just fell in love with African art as a student of Professor Patrick McNaughton. Studying modern African art, I found, was a great way to combine all these interests. A Fulbright scholar and grad student in my classes at Indiana, Ashley Ward, showed me the kinds of political art then being made in South Africa (he was from Durban). I thought it was the coolest thing, and no one else was writing about it at the time. That was my initial spark. Contemporary African art was on no one’s radar in the US in the 1980s, so I had to figure the whole thing out for myself. But to me it made perfect sense since I wished the arts had more of a central place in our own political culture. As for South African art abroad, even now it is thought of as just one more global market source for art commodities. Our loss. Because of my past connections I see it so differently. I had to learn the skills of art history in order to know how to do the research, but my commitments have never been to the world of art market, gallery, and museum. I was drawn to South Africa because during the 1970s and 1980s the art scene was quite lively and culture was understood to be central to the struggle for political representation. As I wrote about it, the mobilization of culture helped topple a regime. For my study I wanted to know how that worked out (and what did not work)– and the book scratches beneath the surface in a few critical places such as protest art, censorship, children’s toys, abstract art, bodily distortion. It is of course important to stay on top of what has happened since the 1990s, though I think the study of South African art during late apartheid continues to be useful as a model case for other types of revolutions in other locations.