Paying homage to our art heroes by celebrating their courage, boldness, commitment and creative spirit, seems the most suitable way to celebrate our 10-20 anniversary. The 15th of August is the 10th anniversary of the opening of our Cape Town gallery, and we have had 20 exciting years in the gallery business - it started in Pretoria in April 1989 and led us to Cape Town via Stellenbosch and Onrus.
What exactly is it that makes good art so seductive, intriguing and inspirational? What are the magical qualities of works of art that seem impossible to rationalise or analyse - so elusive that they keep holding our interest and attention? The talent required to produce such captivating art usually requires a combination of masterful technique, conceptual genius and a unique and fresh approach, which, when presented by a true artist, creates this magic that inspires our lives.
During the process of selecting works for this exhibition, one of the most important aspects of what it takes to be a great artist revealed itself time and time again – the heroism required at all levels of the creative process.
The concept of ‘heroism’ first surfaced during my research of the early Sekoto painting, ‘Family with candle’ – Barbara Lindop describes how Sekoto managed to successfully capture the heroism revealed in ordinary human life in most of his early works. It required a talented artist, an ‘art hero’ in his own right, to identify this and communicate it truthfully.
This awareness of the different aspects of courage displayed in artists’ lives and its presence in their work, made me all the more receptive of the concept, and it became the golden thread throughout this collection of work which was produced over more than a century – from 1906 to 2009.
There are some outstanding examples of the remarkable commitment and perseverance evident in the lives of many of our SA Masters who were often alienated and ridiculed - as is the case with most pioneers. Our first professional artist, Hugo Naudé, was born on a farm near the Boland town of Worcester, to which he returned after his European studies, and where he spent the rest of his life in the quest to add as much as possible to the cultural life of his community. He had to adapt his training as a portrait artist to suit the very different challenges of landscape painting in the African light. Pieter Wenning, an extraordinarily talented Impressionist, suffered bad health and poverty during the last years of his short life, to produce a small but magnificent body of work, whilst also making one of the most important contributions to our early art history by influencing most of the second generation Cape Impressionists such as Gregoire Boonzaier, Terence McCaw, Piet van Heerden and David Botha. Gerard Sekoto is probably the most remarkable example of the extremes to which an artist would go in pursuit of his dream. He progressed from a rural, Pedi background to become a Modernist painter with dogged determination – leaving the relative comfort of early fame and the repressive political situation in South Africa to brave a new beginning in Paris, the ‘centre of the art universe’ at the time, in spite of the handicaps of being black, poor and not knowing the language or culture. Maggie Laubser grew up on a farm at the end of the 19th century, but liberated herself through her studies of German Expressionism at a time when it was most unusual for an Afrikaner woman to have such dreams. She pursued her personal vision throughout her life – despite the ridicule and hurtful criticism she suffered during the early years of her career – to become one of our first successful female artists. Irma Stern may have had an easier start in terms of her studies and contact with the early German Expressionist movement whilst living in Berlin, but when she returned to the Cape, she had to ignore the bad reviews and negative sentiment to stay focused on her career whilst fighting her personal demons in a rather unhappy life. Despite all these obstacles, she still produced a most remarkable body of Expressionist paintings, which to this day, inspires artists and art lovers alike.
The challenges facing our contemporary artists may be different to those of the early Masters, but they still require the same tenacious attitude to stand a chance to succeed. The art world today is more competitive than ever – with art schools producing great numbers of potential artists every year, and with the Internet spreading and diffusing new ideas and approaches in a flash, it has become far more challenging to be unique and authentic in the creative process. To produce innovative and fresh concepts that will elevate and distinguish an artist from his or her contemporaries, still requires a combination of remarkable talent and great dedication.
With this exhibition, we would therefore like to celebrate the heroism of all artists, past and present, who have the courage and conviction to start with a ‘blank canvas’ and bare their souls – to share with the world that which they find compelled to communicate, allowing their works to be celebrated or criticised by all.
I have always maintained that the success of any gallery business depends on maintaining a healthy equilibrium between the three groups participating in such an enterprise – the artists, the art lovers or clients, and the gallery. This balancing act requires a respectful attitude from all the parties involved, as this should ensure fair value to all. We are very grateful to still be enjoying the privilege and pleasure of dealing in wonderful art, created by amazingly talented artists (dead or alive), whilst being able to call most of our longstanding clients ‘friends’.
Our very sincere and respectful thanks to all the artists, clients, friends and family who have made this experience possible – may we all continue on this magical journey, courtesy of art that inspires!
August 2009, Cape Town
Opening speech by Elza Miles
In the hands of the Great Mother
This exhibition, apart from honouring the talented women and men, responsible for the works of art in our midst, is also a celebration of Johans’ 20th year as a gallerist. Moreover, it marks the 10th anniversary of his gallery in Cape Town. Enthused by such celebratory mood, I have been seduced to say something on this occasion, and be warned I take liberties.
On 15 August, more than a century ago, Pranas Domsaitis, one of the artists Kunsgalery Johans Borman is honouring, was born. Johans chose a nativity scene from the oeuvre of Domsaitis. The scene reflects the charm and innocence with which we are familiar from bible story pictures of the Redeemer’s birth. The comet and bright star above the humble dwelling tell us that the magi have reached their destination. In their faraway countries, the three wise men saw an unusual star in the sky, understood the message and followed its passage. Each man carried a significant gift that implicated prophetically on the mother’s and newly born infant’s lives.
Now pause for a second in front of Erik Laubscher’s Vollemaan, Kouebokkeveld. The moonlight turns the desolate scene into one of mystic beauty and evokes a regal procession: the arrival of angels, the magi and shepherds to honour God se klong (to quote poet, DJ Opperman). The rocks simulate people clad in the robes of yesteryear and the landscape echoes the words “… the stones would immediately call out”.
The implication of the Magi’s gifts and the shepherds’ adoration becomes significant when we join the congregation to worship in Gerard Sekoto’s church. Then the connotation of the gold, the incense and the myrrh unfolds before our eyes: displayed, on the church’s wall is an image of the mother and child whom we met in Domsaitis’ nativity scene. Yet forewarned we know that Mary, the haloed one, will soon taste myrrh’s bitterness when she turns her gaze from the infant and beholds the wasted body of her son on the cross, after his coronation as ‘King of the Jews’.
Unlike the magi’s symbolic gifts, not all predictions can be decoded in the span of a human life time. Turn to the other landscape by Laubscher, Winter dusk, Slanghoek. The valley looks familiar. Is this the virgin land of Hugo Naudé’s Badsberg, Slanghoek Mountains of 1906, almost a century before Laubscher painted his picture of cultivated fields stretching in and reaching out to signify the bountifulness of an expected bumper harvest. Tilling the land on such scale as well as the deliberate division of the different fields is associated with men’s labour. Yet, in this instance it is not that simple. In the distance there is an indication of a mirage. On the one hand this optical occurrence veils the circular and angular shapes of the different crops, thus affecting something mysterious. On the other hand it transforms the scene into a woven cloth or a patchwork blanket, ‘n lappieskombers, ‘n kniekombersie, that covers the earth’s lap.
In the main, weaving and needlework are done by women and these labours of love are the keys which allow us, on this occasion, to enter the realm of the Great Mother. What is more, look carefully at the shapes and colours of the mirage, then turn to Marlene von Durkheim’s homage to Dêmeter. Furthermore, does the tapestry, Interior landscapes, woven and embroidered by Susqya Williams not confirm that this territory belongs to the Great Mother? We also know that spinning and weaving are signifiers of fate which is in the hands of the Great Mother. She commands the recurrence of cycles and inevitably there are specific rites that her daughters are predestined to perform in obedience. There are thresholds to cross (Walter Meyer: Tamboerskloof), and marriages (Ephraim Ngatane and Maurice van Essche) that subsequently will end in motherhood (Pranas Domsaitis, Maggie Laubser, Gerard Sekoto, Majorie Wallace, Ephraim Ngatane) with its ensuing responsibilities.
It is imperative of a mother to provide for her family: thus to protect and to nurture its members. Maggie Laubser shows the mother as she executes with a pestle in each hand the most basic process of milling: to stamp mealies or grain in a handcrafted wooden mortar. While she goes about her task, her baby is securely tied on to her back. The older child is close by under her watchful eye.
Gerard Sekoto also looks at working women. In Washerwomen we meet two of them of whom one carries an infant on her back. Whereas Laubser focuses on a life-style in pre-industrial times, Sekoto gives us a glimpse at urbanisation. Though hardship is not foreign to either, there lingers an idyllic innocence in Laubser’s scene. Sekoto touches on the workers’ dehumanisation in the confined, almost claustrophobic yard, where the women are doing laundry. The child fastened onto the mother’s back feels the rhythmic up and down as she puts another piece of washing on the slab. The two washerwomen’s backbreaking, mechanical thrust and pull of washing in the zinc tub and then the stretching up to peg the laundry on to the line conjures up another tapestry: the fate of the labourer.
A diviner has thrown bones for Simon Lekgetho. Except for the absence of one of the bone tablets, the message is clear; nothing is hidden because the three remaining incised tablets are not ‘silent’; their markings are visible, they speak. Presumably the absent member will match the elliptical piece. In the context of my story, this is telling because the latter simulates the spinner’s spindle/bobbin, associated with life and the temporal. The oval shape of this tablet also echoes the extraordinary flame of the candle in Sekoto’s Family with candle. The draught, from left, pushing the flame off centre is so strong that the candle will soon be spent and replaced (if there is another one).
In the realm of the Great Mother fate is unavoidable. Ezrom Legae’s Wise man turns his gaze inward; likewise the two medicine men: Inyanga in traditional dress and Inyanga with coat by Gerard Bhengu divert their gazes. They seem to listen to inaudible calls. The latter lifts his hand, covers his mouth to obey silence in an attempt to catch every syllable of the message.
Long ago medicine men and women of the Limpopo region began to assimilate the Nguni speaking diviners’ exciting methods of trance-divination and dancing. They were called mokÔmo (Tswana) or mungomo (Venda). These words are similar to isangoma and they all stem from the root, meaning ‘drum’.
When Jackson Hlungwani, sculptor-architect and spiritual leader, carves a self-portrait in the shape of a drum, he incarnates the mokÔmo who since he communicates directly with the ancestors, does not carry a bag of medicines. The hide covering the drum corresponds with the fur caps of Bhengu’s inyangas. His arms, turned into snakes, inevitably call for associations with the feminine principle of vessels entwined by two snakes of Cretan times. When the drum is rapped there is resonance. Hence from the drum messages and predictions resound over and over, and when the Great Mother commands regeneration; the hide of an animal and the wood of a tree reappear in the self-image of an artist.
Fluit fluit my storie is uit. This stunning exhibition is now officially opened and it is your turn to make sense of fates foretold by bones and drums. Baie dankie.
Elza Miles - 2009
A fully illustrated, hard cover catalogue is available at the gallery.