UNCONTAINED, THE COMMUNITY ARTS PROJECT ARCHIVE. Curated by Emile Maurice and Heidi Grunebaum. An exhibition at Iziko National Gallery until April 12. LUCINDA JOLLY reviews
FIVE years ago The Centre for Humanities Research at UWC acquired an important body of neglected artworks stored in approximately 15 boxes.
Consisting mainly of prints done in the “turbulent 1980s” the boxes were from the storerooms of the disbanded Community Arts Project (CAP) and the Arts and Media Access Centre.
Had it not been for the “driving visionary force” in the form of questions about the connection between art and politics of Premesh Lalu, who is Professor of History at the University of the Western Cape and director of the Centre of Humanities Research, this body of work may never have seen the light of day. That, and the dedication of curators Emile Maurice and Heidi Grunebaum.
Uncontained, the title of the exhibition, invites the viewer to examine and unpack – the box which assumes a metaphor here – a particular time in South African history and make connections with what has remained the same.
One of the seminal questions (which is highly pertinent to this exhibition) asked by playwright and executive director of the African Arts Institute, Mike van Graan, is “Where is the voice of resistance in today’s society?”
It is vital, however, that these prints are not just acknowledged as a visual document, but also as having aesthetic value.
For, as co-curator Heidi Grunebaum points out, “if it’s tagged, like black writing, somehow it becomes sociological and then is devalued”.
The exhibition was launched last year at the Arts Association of Belleville at the time of the Brett Murray Spear debacle. For both historical and aesthetic reasons it is fitting that an exhibition of this kind should be housed in our National Gallery.
The structure of the exhibition is thematically diverse rather than being limited to the “narratives of resistance”.
It deals with gender issues, the Struggle, intimate relationships, portraits, landscapes, book illustrations and it showcases lino-cuts, a medium which is closely associated with the CAP project and the modern black art practice in South Africa.
Grunebaum points out that “the history of print-making goes beyond the South African townships”.
“As a genre it enabled a certain kind of view of society that was undergoing an industrialising process from a position where it can talk about it, using its means of production, or at least subverting it.”
Co-curator Emile Maurice points out that “high art such as oil painting defines Western art” and that prints such as lino-cuts are “not lesser but in opposition to”.
His interpretation of the prints from Uncontained is that they are “not low art, but art with its own power and resonance in its own terms”.
The exhibits “are not presented as only a struggle collection”.
“Uncontained is also about opening up a box that is as much a physical one as a conceptual one.
“It’s also about how we box our understanding of history and time. How ’94 becomes a line in the sand with everything on the one side and everything on the other.”
As Maurice reflects, “CAP has been through many incarnations from training to combining with Media Works to form Amac and to finally be dismantled. There are a 1 000 different CAPs for every person who has taught or participated”.
Maurice’s CAP was one of “self- realisation”.
He explains that CAP’s primary aim was “to spread creativity and to provide training to people marginalised by apartheid”.
In doing so it fostered an “incredible belief that people can claim their lives through creativity” and so “their humanity was fostered. Creativity is for everybody – that was the big message”.
And, “if you don’t have that right you are not seen as a human being with that full complex humanity”.
The exhibition “asks questions less about apartheid”, and more about “what does it mean to be a human being?”
It “celebrates an interiority” and “the ability to imagine and give aesthetic vision to an imagining. It’s a creative piece showing interior emotional worlds.”
Look out for Sophie Peters’s complex, atmospheric landscapes.
A meaty book titled Uncontained, Opening the Community Arts Project Archive, edited by Grunebaum and Maurice, accompanies the exhibition.
Thirty writers from diverse backgrounds, including academics, NGOs and creative writers were given images related to their concerns.
Instead of analysing the images, they were encouraged to “activate a fictional narrative voice” in response to the images.
The book, like the exhibition, is sectioned thematically into time, subjectivity and space and is well worth a read for its interpretative diversity.
Go see and celebrate what is an essential “part of our National Estate and Heritage”.