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NEXT TO THE ENTRANCE to the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the chief justices meet to uphold what has been called the “most progressive” of constitutions, stands a bronze sculpture by Dumile Feni, a South African of Xhosa descent. It is based on a smaller clay work made in 1987, at the height of the violent struggle to topple the apartheid regime, and it depicts a man, larger than life, crouching on all fours like a beast of burden, yoked to a cart on which two people, a man and a woman, are seated on the back of yet another person. At first glance one might think it represents the intolerable oppression that constituted apartheid in South Africa. But South Africa’s Constitutional Court Justices Albie Sachs and Edwin Cameron see it differently: “Artist Dumile Feni did not create any racial differentiation between the four figures,” they write, “and the man drawing the cart is the only figure who is large and strong enough to accomplish this task. The title of the work is History, and the four figures carry each other in a way that reflects the dependence, the interconnectedness, and the tension that have always characterized human relationships.” Feni himself put it this way: “Sometimes you carry, and sometimes you are carried.”

 

R5: A Visual Arts Seminar and Studio in South Africa

 

Like most Americans of my generation, I read as a teenager the bestselling novel Cry, the Beloved Country, published in 1948 by Alan Paton right at the moment the National Party of the Dutch Afrikaners came to power. Years later, I had only vague recollections of the story and knew little of the history and culture of South Africa. So when I first traveled to South Africa to investigate the potential for a visual arts project there, I was unprepared for what I found. South Africa is often described as a place of contrasts. But I soon discovered that it is in actuality a place of extremes, where the best and the worst coexist in such close proximity that it is hard to separate them: incomparable natural beauty and desiccated landscapes, manicured, gated neighborhoods of luxurious mansions built right next to “informal settlements” of shacks assembled of corrugated tin and found materials that stretch to the horizon. I saw the persistent effects of the mind-numbing dehumanization of apartheid, a system of discriminatory laws based on race that rivaled the Jim Crow laws of the United States. I observed firsthand the realities of the “new,” post-apartheid South Africa—a country with an incidence of violence and crime that prompts anyone who can afford it to live and work behind layers of security systems and walls, a broken educational system, communities devastated by the loss of a whole generation of young adults to aids, and children being raised without parents—a country rife with corruption at every level of government and economic enterprise. But I had also experienced numerous examples of hospitality, sacrificial love and forgiveness, and a capacity for joy in the midst of hardship that put me to shame. By the end of that short visit I was convinced that South Africa had much to teach us and that it was just the right place for the visual arts seminar I had been charged with developing. This is the story of that seminar, the experiences that informed it, and the art it inspired.

In June 2013, twenty artists and educators from the United States and six African countries—Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—gathered in South Africa for two weeks of living, learning, and creating together. They undertook an intensive program of engagement with South Africa—its history, culture, and contemporary reality—through what we called “R5: A Visual Arts Studio and Seminar in South Africa,” a seminar sponsored by the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity. R5 refers to five themes South African artists deal with in significant measure and borrows the name for the five-rand coin as a mnemonic device:

Remembrance: the intertwined and contested histories of varied
people groups

Resistance: the old, vivid, and continuing tradition of prophetic artistry

Reconciliation: persistent questions over how to justly reconcile
aggrieved people

Representation: in a postcolonial, multicultural society, who may
represent whom?

Re-visioning: how does hope factor into artistic imagination?

Dumile Deni. History, 2003. Bronze. 70 x 117 x 39 inches. Photo: Keith Barker.

We recognized that the issues raised by the experience of South Africa have application everywhere, and that South African artists could signal fresh ways that artists elsewhere might address the complexities of both our present reality and our future hope. During those two weeks we met with countless individuals who introduced us to a host of enterprises and endeavors—from the artistic to the practical, dealing with both material realities and spiritual truths. They shared their experience and expertise with us along with their desire to bring into being a society in keeping with Nelson Mandela’s vision of the “rainbow nation,” where people of every color, ethnicity, and creed may live together in harmony. Their stories—their sorrows and joys, their struggles and aspirations, their hopes and dreams—guided our thoughts and conversations.

Our time with Zenzile Khoisan, poet and chief investigator of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was especially significant. While our meeting was intended to inform us about the work of the TRC, it was Khoisan’s poetic zeal in describing the relationship between art and the pursuit of a more just world that captured our imagination. He described how artists are given the gift of seeing how “to walk between the shadow and the light.” As we grappled with the complexities of South Africa, where good and evil persist in fierce and visible struggle, that phrase came to encapsulate the fundamental challenge of human life in any time or place. It also gave us the title of the traveling art exhibition we produced.

 

Learning from South African Art

 

Everywhere in South Africa we saw works of art that amazed and unsettled us through their ingenious artistry and probing, provocative content: a crucified Christ carved from Bibles in the eleven official languages of the new South African republic titled Commune: Suspension of Disbelief by Wim Botha (2001); stained glass recounting the long and ultimately violent struggle for freedom in a church in the former township of Soweto where the altar was damaged by gunfire during the final days of the movement. We saw a stunning triptych by Judith Mason in the Constitutional Court Building in Johannesburg that came to be known simply as The Blue Dress (1998), inspired by the true story of one woman’s attempt to maintain her dignity after being jailed, stripped naked, and tortured for days: she fashioned a pair of panties out of a blue plastic bag left in her cell. Her body was later found, hastily buried, with that bit of blue plastic her only covering. Another work, Prison Hacks by Willem Boshoff (2003), also in the Constitutional Court, took the form of slabs of polished black stone inscribed with tally marks representing the 9,377 days—nearly twenty-six years—Nelson Mandela was imprisoned beginning at Robben Island. It was inspired by the actual marks Mandela made on the wall of his cell to mark the passage of time.

We learned about an interracial collaborative project titled The Journey to Freedom Narratives (2003–07) aimed at reconciliation between blacks and whites that recounted the long history of the freedom struggle. And we saw a sculpture by Jane Alexander titled Butcher Boys (1986), produced at the peak of the violence that called to mind the paradoxical truth that oppressive systems dehumanize victims and perpetrators alike, imprisoning each in their own distinctive way—a process described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his book No Future Without Forgiveness (1997).

We also learned about several extensive group art projects, inspired by major medieval and renaissance European artworks like the Bayeux Tapestry and the Ghent Altarpiece, undertaken by a rural community devastated by the aids epidemic in the impoverished Eastern Cape. The Keiskamma Altarpiece (2005) was modelled after the sixteenth-century Isenheim Altarpiece, designed by Matthias Grünewald to provide comfort and hope to people suffering from a mysterious disease that was sweeping through Europe, decimating whole communities, not unlike the scourge of HIV/AIDS in Africa today. The Keiskamma Altarpiece provided a means for that community to deal with the loss of a whole generation of young adults by allowing them to tell their story in vibrant embroidery and beadwork. Like the work that inspired it, the altarpiece opens on hinges to reveal interior images, here monumental sepia-tone photographs of grandmothers with their children’s children sheltered by a glorious beaded Tree of Life, the promise of a future for the ravaged community.

Everywhere in South Africa we found artists who act as prophets and seers, confirming what Okwui Enwezor, one of Africa’s most respected art critics, has written: “[In South Africa] art is not just an interpretation or facsimile of history, but a moral force in the production of a new reality, and hope for a damaged society.”

 

Righteous Anger in the Art of Diane Victor

 

Nowhere is Enwezor’s statement more clearly evident than in the art and person of Diane Victor, a leading South African artist whose work has been exhibited around the globe. Victor’s passion for the most troubling issues confronting South Africa today is palpable. Among the variety of social themes on her mind and in her art are the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS on individuals and their communities, and violence against women, which has reached the highest rates in the world for a nation that is not at war. Her art, Victor says, is her way of dealing with her anger at what she witnesses daily.

I had encountered Victor’s work on my first visit to South Africa and was struck by its graphic, visceral quality. Frequently drawing on Christian iconography of saints and martyrs, she turns that tradition on its head, probing the complex human condition and upsetting common assumptions about her subjects. The work I saw reminded me of Ivan Albright’s painting Into the World Came a Soul Named Ida (1929–30). It was at once beautiful and grotesque, seducing the eye with texture and tone even as it repelled the moral sensibilities with the dark realities it revealed.

Victor’s highly detailed figural renderings of key players in South Africa’s traumatic history and current events are like Flannery O’Connor characters: exaggerated, startlingly drawn figures that turn our perception inward, revealing the wayward inclinations of the human heart and opening tightly shuttered histories to view. While Victor’s work is rooted in the South African experience, it is not restricted to it. Fundamental truths of the human condition are brought into sharp focus, and we viewers are implicated in what we see. We confront ourselves, not just some distant other.

Victor’s exhibition Ashes to Ashes and Smoke to Dust (2011–12) includes a work titled Like Lambs to the Slaughter, a large smoke-on-paper drawing of the heads of victims of HIV/AIDS, interspersed with the occasional head of a sheep floating above a lamb with a staff across its shoulder. The staff that flares like a torch and the hint of a halo evoke traditional iconography of the Lamb of the Resurrection, and the exhibition title evokes the words spoken at funerals as the dead are returned to the ground and the Psalmist’s injunction that “We are but dust.” In fact, the title was inspired by an unusual venue in which Victor was invited to display one of her ash portraits in 2011: a funeral parlor. The work was leaned against the wall between stacks of coffins waiting to be called into service, where it offered a meditation on the preciousness of life and the inescapability of death.

Diane Victor. No Country for Old Women, 2013. Smoke on glass, wood-framed panels. 13½ x 16½ feet. 

No Country for Old Women (2013) was produced after the murder of her eighty-year-old aunt, who was found buried in her vegetable garden in the country. This murder wasn’t particularly exceptional in South Africa, Victor has explained. It just hit closer to home. Life in South Africa is cheap, people will tell you, and the lives of old women and children are the cheapest. No Country for Old Women commemorates women who had been recently killed, employing the ephemeral medium of smoke on glass and framing the portraits in a series of Gothic arches. The transparent glass emphasizes the fragility of human life and the passage from this world to the next. The figure of the woman laid out in the panels at their feet recalls European altarpieces in which a panel just beneath the primary scene often depicts Christ’s body, laid out and ready for the grave. In those altarpieces it is no accident that the body of Christ is situated directly above the altar, where the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ, so that all may be united, if only momentarily. The recumbent body flips between the sacred and the profane as sacrament or sacrilege.

By her choice of media—smoke wafting from a lit candle where one false move might set the work aflame, ash from burned books that shaped her subject’s lives—Victor imbues her works with additional layers of meaning. Smudges, fingerprints, and water stains reveal the artist’s hand visibly struggling to get it right, to create images fraught with intention and a sacramental power. Victor’s art may be fueled by anger, but also by a deep longing for things to be different. It is a call for real, substantive change. In Enwezor’s words, it is art that serves as “a moral force” to provide “hope for a damaged society.”

 

Between the Shadow & the Light, A Traveling Exhibition

 

On their acceptance to the R5 Seminar, participating artists committed to produce works of art in response to their shared experience in South Africa. That work constitutes the exhibition Between the Shadow & the Light, which opened in New Orleans in September 2014 and will travel the US into 2018. While the artworks address a range of subjects related to the five Rs, it is the experiential realities of history, identity, and place that unite them.

We frequently encountered surprising correspondences between South African and American history. The Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria commemorating the Great Trek of the Dutch Boers (farmers) into the South African heartland in the 1830s in search of land and freedom from British rule presented one startling example. The monument’s Dutch Boers in their covered wagons could well have been mistaken for American pioneers crossing the North American plains. The Great Trek brought them into violent clashes with the Zulu, not unlike the conflicts between European settlers and Native Americans. In each country, the settlers’ quest resulted in the displacement, forced removals, and subjugation of native peoples.

Such similarities emerge in From My Side of the World, a collaboration between American Michelle Westmark-Wingard and South African Magdel van Rooyen. The work offers a record of the visual and written correspondence the two artists kept up for more than six months on returning home after the seminar. One photo captures a statue of a pioneer woman Westmark-Wingard stumbled upon at the Minnesota State Fair that could be the twin of one we saw in Pretoria. The complex consequences of the movement of peoples around the world and across history continued to impress itself on both artists. On Columbus Day, Westmark-Wingard wrote: “[It is] a day that is complex. It was the discovery of an already inhabited new world.” Van Rooyen, an Afrikaner, a descendant of the Dutch settlers, responded: “Loss and destruction, progress and prosperity.”

Valentine Mettle. From Struggle to Victory: Release, 2013. Acrylic, thread, and fabric on canvas. 49 x 59 inches.

Valentine Mettle describes his triptych From Struggle to Victory as “a tribute to South Africans’ struggle for 350 years to gain equality and justice.” Significantly, the work presents the entire continent of Africa, not just South Africa. South Africa’s struggle is, in many respects, representative of that of the continent as a whole. Initially a fight for freedom from colonial rule, the struggles continue to this day as people in nations across Africa resist corrupt, oppressive, and often violent powers. As a Nigerian who left his home country to escape the widespread violence there, Mettle understands this well. But he also recognizes the role faith has played in sustaining people in the midst of hardship and uncertainty, providing hope where hope is hard to find.

 

History, Truth, and Representation

 

Phumlani Mtabe. The Hole Truth, 2013. Cardboard and paper with markings and barbed wire. 14¼ x 8 x 5 inches.

The Hole Truth by South African Phumlani Mtabe was inspired by the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976, when the youth of the township of Soweto protested against being taught in the Dutch South African language of Afrikaans. Their peaceful protest ended in the slaughter of children as young as thirteen by South African police and issued a wake-up call to South Africans of every color, marking the beginning of the end of apartheid. As the struggle intensified through the 1970s and ’80s, violence escalated and stacks of coffins became a common sight in the townships. Mtabe’s small cardboard coffin pierced by barbed wire is a poignant reminder of the brutality of the system, the will of the people to undo it, and the many lives lost. Peering through a small hole in the lid, one can just glimpse the words “Holy Peace” and “The Hole Truth”—a reminder that truth is required for genuine healing.

American Jonathan Anderson’s Memorial takes its inspiration from a commemorative monument, a stone pile in the lime quarry where Mandela and other prisoners worked on Robben Island each day. It was erected by a gathering of former political prisoners and friends to honor Mandela’s release from prison after twenty-seven years. But as former Robben Island political prisoner Lionel Davis has said, “We can’t build South Africa on bitterness. The idea of reconciliation would not have been a reality if Mandela had not made it a reality. It is up to us to continue to make that legacy a reality.” The Old Testament records a number of instances where piles of stones were set up at important sites as reminders of God’s presence along life’s arduous journey. Memorial is composed of stones gathered in South Africa piled in the center of a tattered European lace tablecloth. This simple juxtaposition evokes a range of conflicting aspects of South Africa’s complex history—a history that corresponds in many respects with our own.

Phumlani Mtabe. The Hole Truth, 2013. Cardboard and paper with markings and barbed wire. 14¼ x 8 x 5 inches.

Mandela’s response to his imprisonment is perhaps the true miracle of South Africa. Championing a vision of a new South Africa that would belong equally to all of her people regardless of color, he oversaw the drafting of the constitution. His most significant act, however, may be the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which provided a path to a measure of healing for many individuals and the nation. Mandela said, “the spirit told me, ‘do not be a prisoner now that you have been set free.’” That is, do not be bound by anger, resentment, and the desire for retribution.

Jackie Karuti. Stefaans’ Letters, 2013. Acrylic and pastel on canvas.
36 x 32 inches.

Kenyan artist Jackie Karuti took up the story of one of the supporters of apartheid in her work. Her painting Stefaans’ Letters was inspired by the real experience of a young Afrikaner named Stefaans Coetzee. In 1996 Coetzee was convicted of a series of bombings he undertook with a couple of friends in the first years after the end of apartheid. Behind bars, he had a dramatic conversion experience. Karuti’s painting attempts to depict Coetzee’s anguish as he came to realize what he had done. The searing oranges, bruised reds, and drips of paint capture the agony of someone longing for forgiveness. The words “I am sorry” are scrawled repeatedly across the canvas to frame a single beseeching hand thrusting up from the bottom in a poignant, however inadequate, gesture of repentance. Karuti explained, in the “two weeks we spent in South Africa, I came to understand the power of forgiveness, especially based on the impact the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had.”

 

Hybrid Cultures and Identity

 

Contemporary South Africa is composed of a multiplicity of ethnic and racial groups, who arrived under widely differing circumstances. Some were brought as slaves and indentured servants from East Africa, Madagascar, and the East Indies by early European settlers. Laborers came seeking work. After diamonds and gold were discovered in the late nineteenth century, ambitious merchants and professionals, including Mahatma Gandhi, immigrated seeking opportunity. Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and rising Nazi power in Europe sought refuge there. Many stayed, joining the native Bantu and Dutch and British settler populations. As people mixed and married, a complex web of cultures came into being, giving rise to new possibilities and tensions in addition to issues of identity and belonging.

INHABIT: shantytown is a collaborative work by three artists who see themselves as having hybrid identities. Born and raised in Ghana, Margaret Allotey-Pappoe did her graduate work in the United States, where she now lives and works with her husband and family. Jo-Ann VanReeuwyk is Canadian born and bred, but has lived and worked much of her adult life in the United States. Deléne Human is an Afrikaner, of Dutch descent, whose family has lived in South Africa for generations. As a young Afrikaner woman, Human bears the distinct burden of being a member of the minority affiliated most strongly with the apartheid policies of the past. For Afrikaners, South Africa is home. Recalling his ancestors’ arrival in South Africa in 1652, Johan Horn, head of the African Leadership Institute for Community Transformation, explained, “I have no other motherland. I am probably more African than you are American.” INHABIT: shantytown is composed of three vessels. Human’s beaded hessian vessel is zipped open to reveal scribbles on the interior that read like a conflicted mantra, “I am European. I am African. I am European. I am African.”

In An Intentional Intersection American Larry Thompson investigates the relationships among our individuality, racial and cultural distinctness, and our common humanity. Alternating fragments of his own face with that of his R5 seminar roommate, Nigerian Valentine Mettle, Thompson presents us with an arresting vision of what theologian Jeremy Begbie calls “enriching difference.” Using the example of music, Begbie demonstrates how notes from two very different instruments can blend to create an aural resonance that allows each voice to remain distinct even as it enhances the unique qualities of the other. An Intentional Intersection achieves a similar result visually. The block letters spelling out WE’RE THE SAME TRIBE say it all. But the reality is that it takes a very long time for individuals and societies to put aside their differences and heal from the wounds of the past.

Larry Thompson. An Intentional Intersection, 2013. Oil on canvas.
49 x 49 inches.

Despite the tremendous advances South Africa has made toward achieving Nelson Mandela’s vision of a rainbow nation—a remarkable constitution, a level of healing for some individuals and society, open elections, freedom of movement and economic opportunities that did not exist for the majority only a couple of decades ago—problems remain, and new challenges threaten the health of the democracy and the well-being of the people and the state. Limited educational resources for a growing population, the devastation of certain populations by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, unemployment estimated at 30 to 50 percent, and corruption undermine nearly every aspect of society and government.

These realities and their implications for the future are graphically described in a 2015 book by South African journalist, historian, and political scientist R.W. Johnson, How Long Will South Africa Survive? The Looming Crisis. The picture he paints is bleak. South Africa threatens to follow the example of many of her African neighbors, where a sense of entitlement among the governing elite undermines economic, political, and social stability, and leaders pile up wealth at the expense of the very people they are supposed to serve.

 

Place and the Movement of Peoples

 

Human history has been shaped by the movement of people seeking fertile ground, a better life, a fresh start. These migrations have fueled the development in a manner that binds the world together in vital and productive ways. But they have also introduced fault lines. Drought and volcanic eruptions, invading armies and civil war, and referendums to divide what we had thought were settled nations continue to alter both natural and political geography. The mass migrations of Syrian war refugees is but the most recent example of the continuous movement of people around the world—and its consequences. The racial tensions we currently see in the United States make clear how deep these fissures can run, and how unresolved differences can build up pressure that wreaks havoc when something triggers its release. Like people living on a geological fault line, many of us have been lulled into a false sense of security. We suppose that all is well, that we are on solid ground, only to see cracks beneath our very feet and realize that our neighborhood is anything but settled.

While European settlers saw the land—in South Africa and in North America—as uninhabited because there weren’t permanent homesteads or villages there, native nomadic peoples claimed it as essential for hunting and grazing. Trespassers on Our Own Land by American Joseph Cory was inspired by the poignant opening lines of a poem by South African poet James Matthews:

We watched the white man’s arrival
In strange-shaped ships we did not know
Now we have become trespassers
On the shores of our land

Shadowy apparitions barely identifiable as human figures appear from the murky darkness to overtake the small canvas. The vaguely menacing quality of the work captures perfectly how fundamental differences in conceptions of land usage and ownership would eventually result in the establishment of laws that would displace people from land that had been theirs. Cory’s companion painting, All That Lies Behind Us, reminds us that memory is both a powerful and slippery thing. The work takes its title from a phrase in Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poem about memory, “There is No Clear Light.” Here, ghostly figures emerge as if from a fog, reflecting the way that the past—or our memories of the past, to be more precise—haunt us if we fail to deal with them.

Charles Nkomo. Reflections, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. 29½ x 39½ inches.

Zimbabwean artist Charles Nkomo painted Reflections as a response to the forced removals of the residents of the Cape Town neighborhood of District Six in the 1970s, one of many communities displaced for political or economic purposes. One can just glimpse the roof-lines of homes through a kaleidoscope of color that is commonly seen in both the multicultural neighborhoods of Cape Town and the shacks of the outlying townships to which people were relegated. The vibrant color is testimony to their resilience and the will to make the most of what little they had.

In contrast, Jonathan Anderson’s installation Property Lines is decidedly stark. Two small structures that look a lot like Monopoly houses are placed strategically on a grid of single sheets of white A4 paper, the paper that for decades has been used for official documents throughout South Africa. The position of a pristine white house determines the orientation of the landscape. A second house, charred by fire, sits at the far perimeter. In Anderson’s words, the work is “a response to the role of bureaucratic systems which determined where people could and could not live based on their racial designation.”

Despite the repeal of apartheid more than twenty years ago and a democratically elected government that reflects majority rule, Charles Nkomo notes, “The black majority is still living in abject poverty and the political leadership is getting wealthier as a result of corrupt tendencies.” Ironically, District Six manifested what Nelson Mandela envisioned for South Africa as a whole—a truly multicultural, multiracial society—before it was razed. As Johan Horn told us, “Things are not okay.” Larry Thompson’s provocative painting Barriers Still has these words emblazoned on a bright blue sky with arcs of razor wire slicing across it. Razor wire offers both protection and threat, a barrier designed “to keep something in and keep something out,” Thompson explains. We saw razor wire everywhere we went in South Africa. It was a visible reminder that Horn was right.

 

To Walk Where “Things Are Not Okay”

 

Things are not okay in South Africa—or anywhere else, it seems. “It’s complicated,” the African artists said. Their testimonies about the realities of political oppression in places like Zimbabwe and Nigeria, and the dearth of educational and economic opportunity as well as political corruption and violence elsewhere in Africa revealed that things are not okay in those countries either. South Africa simply held up a mirror for each of us to see the problems of our own country in sharper focus.

Constructing Hope by South African Magdel van Rooyen reflects this tension. This work, painted, significantly, on a sheet of rusting scrap metal, depicts a scene common in today’s South Africa—an all-but-abandoned construction site waiting for someone to come repair or rebuild the road. It is a poignant metaphor for the tenuousness and uncertainty of the nation’s future, and its people’s need for something to believe in.

The truth is that it takes a very long time for individuals and societies to heal from the wounds of the past. Allen Sibanda of Zimbabwe addresses this in his works I know a place (still mending) [see front cover] and Scars will always remain. Sibanda uses sewing as medium and metaphor to convey these concepts. Silhouette and transparency capture the complex relation between what is seen and what is hidden, the outer and the interior selves. Father Michael Lapsley, founder of the Institute for Healing of Memories in Cape Town, has explained “that whatever happens to us in life, it will cause us to diminish or to grow. So it is important for individuals, communities, and nations to fund life-giving responses to the trauma which they have experienced.” More specifically, it is important for people to find ways to acknowledge and let goof that which is destructive inside them…taking from the past that which is life-giving.”

South Africa’s change from apartheid to a democratic republic has frequently been called a miracle. But what South Africa’s story actually reveals is that while miracles of regime change may occur, genuine reconciliation with the past and the true transformation of a society is far more difficult to achieve. In his book, R.W. Johnson presents a bleak prospect for South Africa. But many people who know him personally have observed that he himself does not appear despondent. In fact, he seems downright optimistic. In the last two pages of the book he provides the reasons for his hope, identifying several distinctive and helpful aspects of South Africa’s situation. But his most significant observation may be one he makes early on: as societies develop and change, unanticipated forces always emerge. History never quite follows the path predicted.

In South Africa we found that art can be a moral force, providing hope to a damaged society. But Alan Paton, author of Cry, the Beloved Country knew that there are limits to what art can do: “[Art] will illuminate the road, but it will not lead the way with a lamp. It will expose the crevasse, but not provide the bridge. It will lance the boil, but not purify the blood. It cannot be expected to do more than this; and if we ask it to do more, we are asking too much.”

One of the most valuable lessons one can take away from South Africa is that history matters. But how we respond to our histories matters even more—that affects the present and sets the trajectory of the future. In this light, Dumile Feni’s bronze depiction of history as a complicatedly interdependent quartet of figures moving laboriously forward together seems aptly placed at the entrance to the Constitutional Court building, that symbol of justice in the new South Africa. Feni’s sculpture is not an image of power, but of interconnectedness. As he reminds us, “Sometimes you carry, and sometimes you are carried.”

 

For more information about Between the Shadow and the Light: An Exhibition Out of South Africa, contact Rachel Smith, exhibition curator and project director, at [email protected] Portions of this article are adapted from her exhibition catalogue essay “Coloring the Wind In and Out of South Africa” and her introduction to the “Unsettled Ground” issue of the journal SEEN.


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