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A Black Aesthetic And The Contest of Art History
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George Pemba, New Brighton, Port Elizabeth ( 1960 / Oil on Canvas)George Pemba, New Brighton, Port Elizabeth ( 1960 / Oil on Canvas)

Art history in South Africa and globally is often marked by key exhibitions that help us to make sense of artistic outputs of particular eras. By bringing together key collections, artists and artworks, curators are at times proposing ways to making and reading meaning from shared cultural experiences.


The new exhibition curated by Dr Same Mdluli, A Black Aesthetic: A view of  South African Artists (1970 - 1990) showing at the Standard Bank Gallery from 22 February to 18 April 2019 marks an historical epoch of important artworks.


The exhibition consists of the largest body of work by Black South African modernist artists who were working before the dawn of democracy and draws primarily from the University of Fort Hare Art collection. Representing almost 100 creatives, the exhibition also features works on loan from the Johannesburg Art Gallery and some pieces from the Standard Bank Corporate Collection. These pieces are a significant contribution in completing the overall narrative that the exhibition seeks to highlight.


At the heart of the exhibition is an overarching need and call to appreciate this historic collection of artworks and artists, at a scholarly level prompts a reconsideration of their place in South African art history.


This collection of artworks was originally appraised by ED De Jager in a book published in 1992 and titled, Images of Man, contemporary South African Black art and artists: a pictorial and historical guide to the collection of the University of Fort Hare housed in the De Beers Centenary Art Gallery. De Jager’s project shared the values of another book published in 1988, The Neglected Tradition: Towards a New History of South African Art (1930-1988) by Steven Sacks. These projects and their vision of redressing the South African art historical record for contemporary art publics are key departure points for Dr Same Mdluli’s curatorial effort.

She has mounted a show that foregrounds critically engaging artworks by pioneering modern Black artists to ever emerge from Southern Africa.


Consider that Ernest Mancoba, who left the country to settle in Europe in 1938 was already experimenting with abstract expressionism years before its famed North American proponents. His titled Drawing V2 is an example of this stream of works.

Mancoba’s sculpture, Bantu Madonna is one of the better icons of Black modern art exploring ways to contemplate theology and the divine.


Also included in the show are works by George Pemba, a masterful painter with an uncanny appreciation for colour and the power of everyday life as worthy subject of high art. Pemba presided over a long productive painterly career toiling in obscurity largely unacknowledged. It was only after his death that he finally received some recognition by the state when the democratic government awarded him the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold for his contribution to Arts and Culture.

A pioneer of Black Urban Realism, Gerard Sekoto is also featured, with the inclusion of iconic works like the idiosyncratic portraits, Senegal Woman and Girl with Orange along with Mine Boy. The works are best examples of Sekoto’s keen eye for everyday subjects as worthy themes in high art.


The show features work of Gladys Mgudlandlu, who is credited as the first black woman to have a commercial solo exhibition in 1964. Notable among her works on exhibition are the oil paintings titled, Fetching Wood and Birds Perch. These works show off her use of impasto style with rapid strokes. Along with monumental drawings like Dumile Feni’s African Guernica, the exhibition offers much more than a contestation of history. The show is a feast of creative virtuosity too. This might be the show’s loftier offering, an excellent display of the idea that beauty is possible, even among the wretched of the earth.


  • A Black Aesthetic: A view Black South African Artists (1970 - 1990) runs at the Standard Bank Gallery from 22 February to 18 April 2019