Art in dark times

Interview with historian Dan Magaziner about his new book, The Art of Life in South Africa, about one of the few art schools training black art teachers under Apartheid.

Image: Cedric Nunn

The Art of Life in South Africa is about an art school, Ndaleni, in what is now South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. The school, on the property of a former mission station, was established in 1952 and closed in 1981. If you’re looking at a map, Ndaleni is less than 100km from Durban, the biggest city in the northeastern coastal province of South Africa. The closest town to Ndaleni is Richmond, which became infamous in the late 1980s and 1990s for political violence, first between the ANC and Apartheid proxies and later for internecine ANC conflict. Ndaleni was established to train art teachers for the Department of Bantu Education (responsible for developing education for the black majority after 1953). The adult students came to study for one year at a time. Importantly, the art school coincided with a very violent political period in South Africa’s history, of authoritarianism and bold-faced racism against black South Africa through South Africa’s own form of colonialism,  Apartheid.

At the heart of the book, as author Dan Magaziner writes, is the conundrum: This community of the students and their mostly white teachers came together to “nurture its own ideals and practices and promoted nothing less than a new way of being in the world,” but did so within the compromised institution of Bantu Education. They mostly enjoyed the experience and wanted “find of beauty, solace, and community within the ugliness of their times.” How does one write about this part of Apartheid, which is not the familiar story of resistance and martyrdom? As Magaziner asks: “What else was life in twentieth century South Africa, beyond the well worn keys” of the struggle? Magaziner suggests that “… the work of self making was ongoing under Apartheid, in ways that were beholden neither to the state nor to its opposition yet were nonetheless deeply implicated in the structures of their time and place.”

The following is an interview I, Sean Jacobs, conducted with Dan Magaziner to get a little more background on this extensive work.

What do you mean by “the work of art”?

The “work of art” is a concept I glean from the writings of interwar arts theorists, mostly progressive American and British theorists like John Dewey and Herbert Read. Both were anxious that mass education include aesthetic education; Dewey in particular argued that art did critical social work by ‘harmonizing society.’ His theory was essentially psychoanalytic: individuals proceed through tension to resolution and harmony. Art was how individuals managed their tensions and achieved critical resolution; by learning how to express themselves, whether in writing, visual arts, music, individuals combatted society’s stifling tendencies. The more people were granted the opportunity for self-expression, the more harmonious (and democratic) society would become. My book explores some of the ways in which these progressive concepts found their way to South Africa.

Yet, even while Dewey and others were generating these ideas, interwar thinkers associated with Functionalist Anthropology and Volkekunde (how anthropology was practiced by racist academics in the years leading up to South African Apartheid) – and even Négritude – were developing a parallel notion of the work of art , which also took root in South Africa. For thinkers like Bronislav Malinowski, the arts were where a community expressed its cultural integrity. Malinowski was one among a number of theorists who were appalled by the process of cultural erasure and homogeneity that attended some forms of imperialism. Instead, early cultural relativists insisted that the imperative to govern with humanity demanded that imperial powers do whatever they could to ensure the survival of cultural distinction – and that the arts were a vital sphere for the preservation of difference. So for these thinkers, the work of art was to enshrine the essential differences between communities. Not surprisingly, this concept of the work of art found an eager audience in South African raciologists, who saw the obvious utility of these ideas in the project of separate development.

As the book shows, these two concepts of the work of art flowed together in interwar South Africa and were institutionalized shortly thereafter. One, the conviction that every person benefits from the opportunity to do things with their hands and that this is critical to the fashioning of selfhood; the other, the faith that if different racial groups did art, the art that resulted would reflect their authentic racial selves, thus continuing the work of constructing racial difference.

Was the idea to do a book on Apartheid without making Apartheid the main character?

I wouldn’t say it was my idea to do so, but I do think it ended up that way. I did not initially set out to do such a project; indeed, the Art of Life in South Africa began as an inquiry into the ways in which politics had infiltrated and helped to produce particular artistic forms over the course of black people’s long struggle with white supremacy. Yet, exploring the Ndaleni school archive forced me to consider the extent to which my own heuristic – politics, Apartheid, struggle, etc. – were so powerfully overdetermined. This archive revealed decades worth of stories of black people living under Apartheid, while also living with Apartheid, which is to say that they were not always living against, not always (or even frequently) grappling with it, but always doing their best to lives the lives they imagined, while rubbing up against the limits that the system imposed. What that convoluted sentence is trying to say is this: in the archive I learned about the tremendous violence history does by reducing lives to the circumstances we insist matter about experience – but also that once we unlearn our heuristics, we can more clearly see what it actually meant to live with systems like Apartheid. One of my favorite examples from the book is the annual assignment students were given to make art with something they found in their home area over the winter holiday. The Ndaleni school was desperately poor; those in which Ndaleni graduates would teach were frequently more so. But institutionalized poverty was no excuse; you still had to make art. One student was from the rural Eastern Cape and there were very few materials available. She wanted green, so she mixed some sheep feces – which is green – with egg to create a paste, which she then applied to her surface. It turned brown after a time, but for a moment, there it was – a bright, beautiful green. There’s a metaphor there.

You argue that most intellectual histories in South Africa, including your previous work, that is your book on Black Consciousness, focused only on important figures, ideologies and organizations (Steve Biko, Pan-Africanism, the Black Consciousness Movement) that wanted to invent theories of the future. But you wanted to write against that tradition. Can you say a little more about that critique and how you think this book undermines that work?

I’m not sure I wanted to write against that tradition, but that might be what I ended up doing. I think this critique is bigger than South African intellectual history, actually. If you survey the continent, most intellectual history is a) about political leaders b) about men and c) about their ideas about things that did not happen – theories of racial unity, post-imperial constructs, etc. – that failed to materialize. South Africa is exemplary here; there’s a huge literature on different intellectual constructs associated with different political parties, movements, etc., most of which were concepts that didn’t really have a chance. My own work is guilty of this as well. My The Law and the Prophets excavated the forward thrusting concepts that became known as Black Consciousness, but it was less successful at narrating the quotidian intellectual work that, I think, ought to comprise a less leader driven, less male, intellectual history. I use the term “work” quite consciously; I have been thinking a lot of about the idea of “work” in history and intellectual history is no different. With the exception of historians like Paul Landau, most of those focusing on the work of intellectual life are ethnographers (Harry West, AdbouMaliq Simone, etc.) I hope The Art of Life in South Africa captures the regular, expansive and limited labor that went into thinking and creating under Apartheid.

A dominant figure at Ndaleni was Lorna Peirson, a white lecturer who taught there for 30 years and whom you describe as more than anyone else, [she] determined what is knowable about Ndaleni.” Can you talk about her impact?

Pierson is a complicated character, who I got to know fairly well before she passed away in 2015. She was what she describes as “a light pink liberal” in 1950s South Africa, teaching art at a mission school when it was taken over by the Department of Bantu Education. Many of her colleagues left teaching rather than collude with the state, but she was dedicated to the craft – and, more apposite, she believed in particular in the importance of art education for young people. She could continue to do this work under Bantu Education, so she did so. In 1963 Ndaleni’s instructor left abruptly after running afoul of the ministry for his politics; she was offered the position and gladly accepted it. In our conversations she made it very clear that was aware of the deal that she had struck – she became a Bantu Education administrator and was subject to department inspectors and policies, and in return she got 20 years of introducing African students to the idea of the “work of art” with which we began this conversation.

On a professional level, she was also critical in changing Ndaleni from being an art school (as previous instructors had tended to imagine it) to one that worked on the terrain of the possible and realistic – the best case scenario for most of her students was that they would get to teach art in a Bantu Education school, which meant that they would deal with questions of bureaucracy, a pervasive lack of appreciation and comprehension and, above all, material want. So she accommodated the Ndaleni syllabus to this reality by mixing classical art training (art history, painting, etc.) with the imperative to “make something out of nothing,” as with the sheep poop example above. She was a consummate professional and she wanted her students to be as well. She only very rarely and obliquely commented on politics; she believed that art education was essential to human development and Bantu Education happened to be how masses of black students would be exposed to this. So she worked the system as best as she could. This wasn’t heroic – in the book I detail her own paternalistic and occasionally racialistic traits – but it was admirable in its way and most students evidently felt tremendous affection for her, as a handful of children christened with the name, Lorna, indicates.

That said, this book is mostly about the students. Black students. What did Ndaleni represent for them?

There were three sorts of teachers who came to be students at Ndaleni. It was a specialist teachers’ course, which meant that you got a slight pay raise for completing the course. So some teachers who came to study for a year came because it promised a slightly better life; others came because even though the mission station was old and dilapidated, it was also beautiful and calm and you got to spend time outside and away from teaching. So one group came for that reason. Another subset were teachers who knew themselves to be artistically inclined; people who attested to the fact that they had always felt the urge to “touch something,” as one put it, to work with their hands. My favorite examples of this latter category were people who had been teaching for decades, literally, and who were not satisfied as they neared the end of their career. For many of them the opportunity to leave family and professional responsibilities and to create was a wonder. This relates to the third, much smaller category, which were black South Africans who wanted to be artists and who saw in Ndaleni to the opportunity to pursue art, even if it came at the cost of needing to go to work as a teacher for a period of time after finishing the certificate. There were more aspirant artists during the early days, before Peirson made it clear that hers was a teacher training course, not an art school, but the idea that one could become an artist died hard.

But to answer your specific question: Ndaleni represented an opportunity. For some it was an escape from daily life, for others a chance to explore mediums and modes of expression. It was a chance to be surrounded by other who wanted to hack at wood and sketch and think about what they had to say and for many it was a transformative experience.

There are some tragic characters? One whose story stand out is Samson Mahlobo?

Mahlobo was one of the small subset who just wanted desperately to be an artist. He grew up in Nigel, near Johannesburg, and was a talented draftsman. Like so many other talented black South Africans his career prospects topped out at “teacher,” and he leapt at the opportunity actually to study art as part of his teaching practice. But he wasn’t really interested in teaching – Mahlobo pops up in all sorts of archives trying to drum up interest in his art. I found him writing to people in the U.S, writing to South African intellectuals like Nat Nakasa, in local newspapers. He was forever trying to relocate to Johannesburg to be closer to the art scene and to put on a solo show. But like so many others, his aspirations crashed against the hard reality that he had no materials with which to work. He frequently wrote to Peirson requesting stone or paint or wood. In the mid-1960s he finally arranged to have a solo show, staged at a gallery in Joburg, but he couldn’t get the necessary materials and the show was canceled. Shortly thereafter, he killed himself.

I was also particularly taken by two figures, Selby Mvusi and Eric Ngcobo. I know Mvusi is the subject of your current research, but can you say more about how they represented two archetypes of black intellectual experiences under Apartheid.

Ngcobo and Mvusi were classmates during Ndaleni’s very first years of operation in the early 1950s. They were both talented artists and highly intelligent and learned individuals and together they represent both the limits and possibilities of the world I’m trying to describe. Ngcobo was perhaps the ultimate example of someone who did what he could with the system as it presented itself to him. He taught, he created, he excelled and eventually became the organizer of arts and crafts in the KwaZulu bantustan. He extolled the ideas and values of the work of art and he insisted that it was possible for black students and possible through the institutions of separate development. My evidence suggests, however, that he knew it wasn’t so and that his students political and economic circumstances were a barrier that even art could not surmount. He died in a car crash near Ulundi in the early 1980s.

Mvusi and Ngcobo had a lot in common; they even taught in the same school in Durban for a while. But Mvusi saw the shape of things in a way that Ngcobo did not and he got out. He knew that under Apartheid all the talk about how art promoted self-expression and humanity was functionally worthless and he strived to make it first as an artist and eventually as an educator beyond the geographical and intellectual limits South Africa imposed. He left the country in 1957 and spent the next decade in the U.S., Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Ghana and, ultimately, Kenya, where he helped to found the continent’s first program in industrial design at the University of Nairobi. Along the way, Mvusi turned from creating – he was a tremendously accomplished painter and sculptor – to think about how African humanity and identity needed to rescued from both conservative ideas about African tradition and regressive ideas about racial identification and limitation. He reflected on technological modernity and cities and was intrigued by computers’ potential to help produce totally new cultural forms that reflected only the here and now. He did not accept limits and refused to work within them. The great tragedy was that he too died young, also in a car crash outside of Nairobi almost exactly a decade after he left South Africa.

Here’s something that I found interesting. You are 204 pages in when you introduce the spectacular violence of Apartheid. It is not that Apartheid isn’t there already in the book. After all it’s how the school was conceived, it was a space of Bantu Education. You also earlier mention everyday humiliations, how when the students go on excursions they couldn’t stop to go to a bathroom because as Peirson joked it was as if South Africa wasn’t prepared for black people to have bladders. Or if students went on shopping excursions to Richmond, they had to be back at the college campus by nightfall because of laws about black mobility. When you introduce the spectacular violence of Apartheid, you do so very dramatically. You start Chapter 5: “On Monday, September 15, 1980, Silverman Jara was stoned to death. He was killed by his own students as he attempted to prevent them from burning their school

In a sense, the potential for such a dramatic moment of spectacular violence was what Mvusi had intuited in the 1950s and which had led him to get out. Ndaleni teachers who became students, who became art teachers, wanted to believe that Bantu Education schools could be studios – which is to say they wanted to believe that through the medium of art education in the Bantu Education school other young black people would be given the means to create, to know themselves differently, to see the world differently, to be transformed by the practice of making oneself visible in the world – which is what art is all about. This is the crux of my argument. These people believed that their lives could be like works of art – evidence of the mastery of material, the mastery of possibility. But just like works of art are transformed once they are loosed from their creators’ control and cast into the world of markets and galleries, so too were Ndaleni teachers’ lives transformed once they left the school and had to engage with the realities of teaching, administration and politics in wider South African society.

In the book I show how each of these factors inhibited the possibility that schools could be studios as teachers hoped. Jara was the most extreme example of this, but especially during the second half of the 1970s, after the Soweto uprising, his experience was not uncommon. Ndaleni teachers were, after all, teachers in Bantu Education schools, which meant that they were on the wrong side when lines were drawn. Moreover, many of them, if not most, truly believed in the work that was being done in the schools. Which meant that some experienced Soweto and its aftermath not as a moment of revolutionary possibility, but of tragedy. Students boycotted and the work of art was made impossible. The grand narrative of South African history tells this story in one way, but many of the teachers associated with Ndaleni experienced it quite differently. The system quickly declined thereafter, as Bantu Education was plunged into recurring crises. By the early 1980s it was determined to bring all the specialist courses to Pretoria, so plans were made to move the program. Peirson and her colleagues also thought that the quality of their students declined over its last years, even as increasing numbers came to campus. To some extent this probably reflected the more strident politics of the era, which white teachers experienced in part as a decline in discipline in the hostels and on campus. By 1981 the program was closed.

I have suggested elsewhere that the fact that the choices for black people under colonialism and Apartheid boiled down to either martyrdom or compromise was part of the injustice of the system. Why it is that black South Africans always have to be so much better than everybody else, especially white South Africans?

This I think is an ironic byproduct of the success of the global struggle against Apartheid. Over the course of the 20th century South Africa was transformed from one among a number of profoundly iniquitous and racial societies into a morality tale – a fable – and fables cannot deal in shades of grey and complexity. That’s why they’re for children and development organizations. Complexity doesn’t reproduce well on placards. I sometimes think that as a discipline history’s task is to stand astride time and just shake its head regretfully and say “it was all terribly complicated.”

What for you is the takeaway of the book?

It’s hard to suggest just one takeaway. As a story-teller, to some extent I’d be thrilled if people just find themselves caught up in the lives that these people lived. Like fiction, I think one of history’s greatest tools – too frequently underutilized – is empathy and I’ve tried to unpack these lives and stories with as much empathy as I can muster. They’re profoundly human lives in their unremarkableness – people getting married, divorcing, having children, trying, failing, trying again, struggling. They are lives made remarkable because of where, when and with what means they took place. I’m struck again and again by their humanity in an Apartheid society so frequently understood – correctly – as inhumane. So to me another takeaway is how these lives cast the Apartheid experience into different relief, while also, I hope, allowing us to consider similar such experiences in times and places removed from 20th century South Africa. As I get older I’m increasingly aware of the ways in which I struggle within systems that aren’t of my creation; I only rarely can conceive of alternatives. I’m not Mvusi and I don’t think most people are Mvusi – most people just muddle through, doing what they can to live good, meaningful, ethical lives. Artists enter into a dialogue between selves and material reality when they create; so, I think, do people in general. We work our circumstances and try to make something beautiful of them and we fail more than we succeed.

Finally, what happened to the school after apartheid?

The school closed in 1982 and the teachers dispersed to other positions. Ndaleni was housed in one of KZN’s oldest mission stations. After the training college shut down, some of the site was abandoned; over time, the old art studios and some other buildings were incorporated into a provincial school for the deaf. The region saw tremendous violence during the last half of the 1980s and 1990s. It was one of main venues for the Inkatha/ANC rivalries that dominated the end of Apartheid and the advent of democracy. Tens of thousands of people moved out of the former bantustan to inhabit the open valley between the Indaleni Mission and Richmond town. Their new township took the mission’s name and its residents turned to the abandoned mission station for building materials. One of the most interesting aspects of the study for me has been returning to the site year after year to witness its deconstruction. Buildings have come down, roofs come off, murals art students painted in the 1950s and 1960s are destroyed by the elements, etc. Yet there is still much art preserved in the fence of the Indaleni School for the Deaf – statues, murals, mosaics, a stucco frieze that still belts the main hall. There’s a great deal that’s sad about this project; perhaps the saddest moment for me personally was when (via a sign language translator) I asked students what they thought about these objects. One volunteered that they had been created by “white people.” This devastated me. But the objects are still there, evidence of this now forgotten community, marking their time in this space. I’m comforted by that.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.