Art Interview: Stefan Hundt – A Century Of South African Art, Or Curating Culture

October 16, 2018

[vc_row][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]Centennial: A Century Of South African Art From The Sanlam Art Collection 1918 – 2018: Sanlam Art Lounge, 11 Alice Lane, Sandton, Johannesburg, until 14 December 2018


From Botha’s devastating Butterfly Box and Kentridge’s eerily abandoned Stadium to the perpetually discharging pistol of Van der Merwe’s Gaste and the #RhodesMustFall reference behind Mudariki’s The Model, is art the most truthful documentation of a nation’s history? And if so, what does Sanlam’s Centennial exhibition say about the transformation of SA? The exhibition
commemorates Sanlam’s centenary and is one-of-a-kind in its objective to showcase SA history.
Curator Stefan Hundt takes visitors on a journey through the last 100 years, a journey that brings one face-to-face with chapters of colonial hegemony, political repression, a triumphant democracy and the economically unbalanced society that followed.

Hundt shares his thoughts on the exhibition.


The exhibition consists of a selection of 70 works. This is 70 works out of how many? And why were these particular works chosen?

The Sanlam collection holds some 2000 item in a diversity of media, from traditional painting, sculpture and printmaking right through to installations and video-based artworks. There are two principles that provide the themes and sub-themes for this exhibition: the first being that the exhibition should contain works that in some way or other reflect the social political transformation in South Africa over the century. The second is how art and aesthetic thinking has changed over this century as reflected by a selection of artworks from the Sanlam Art Collection. The century from 1918 – 2018 covers the most dramatic changes that have occurred in South Africa since the advent of colonialism on the continent. The visual arts mostly unconsciously, but at times deliberately, reflect upon the transformation of South Africa over this time.

Besides the principles mentioned above, the exhibition was to contain some of the celebrated pieces in the collection too.  The exhibition can be loosely divided into five “periods”:

1918 – 1948: From the end of World War 1 to the fall of the Smuts government and the rise to power of the conservative National Party and the introduction of legislated and enforced apartheid. Most celebrated artists took their lead from Europe and, depending where they sought their inspiration, this determined the character of the work they would produce. As SA was a British colony, the dominant approach to art-making was heavily influenced and guided by the values of the British academy – also actively promoted by influential and power individuals in the art world at the time such Edward Roworth, then director and the National Gallery and the Michaelis School of Art. There are exceptions – Maggie Laubser and Irma Stern, for instance. Both these painters provide a significant counterpoint to the established impressionist and naturalist traditions that dominate the art scene. Also, there are also innovators who push modified these traditions, such JH Pierneef and Gerard Sekoto. Ideologically speaking, these artists are dependent on an established set of aesthetic conventions that have reached their maturity in Europe and are, albeit in a modified way, applied to the experience of South Africans.

1948 – 1968: Post-war South Africa starts industrialising and the National Party firms up its grip on the economy and implements its proposals around apartheid. Artists travel overseas, mainly to the UK, although some travel to France. The UK is still the main influencer in terms of art. Christo Coetsee, for instance, travels to the UK to study and develop his approach towards abstraction; Stanley Pinker as well. For South African artists, this period sees the development of abstraction and growing interest in African artistic forms. Walter Battiss develops his visual language using “Bushman” imagery. The growing dominance of abstraction becomes manifest throughout the SA art world and it becomes “official culture” in the sense that it is abstract works that get selected for exhibitions overseas and at the Sao Paolo and Venice Biennale. The Amadlozi group is formed by Egon Ghuenter and the idea of African form is given concrete expression. Ezrom Legae and Sydney Kumalo begin to develop successful careers as sculptors under the mentorship of Cecil Skotnes through exhibition in SA and UK. Although the politics of the country come under fire internationally, it is only in 1968 that SA is excluded from the Venice Biennale.  There are few artists that at this time who use their art to make any direct political statements.  During this time, SA art tracks international trends as artists travel and experience art in USA and Europe.

1968 – 1991:  This is South Africa’s most fecund period artistically, and socio-politically the most fraught. The Soweto uprising and the call of the ANC for the struggle to be taken up a step internally forces the state to increase its suppression of resistance and protest resulting in the declaration of a state of emergency in 1985, which continues through to 1986. There are many fateful events impressed on the artistic conscience at the time. The 1980s sees the rise of “Resistance Art”, following the State of Art Conference at UCT in 1979, and artists begin to express their dissatisfaction with regime or reflect on the general state of unease gripping the country. The works of William Kentridge, Paul Emsley, Dumile Feni and Elza Botha reflect on this period. This period also sees rethinking around the role of art history and its building of hierarchies and categories within the fine arts. The work rural indigenous Africans produce is reconsidered and reevaluated. Beadwork from rural KwaZulu-Natal and other areas in Southern Africa become incorporated into the art museum and the sculptures produced by Venda carvers such Jackson Hlungwane, Paul Tavanha and Johannes Maswanganye are shown alongside celebrated white urban artists in exhibitions such as Tributaries, curated by Ricky Burnett.

Overall, the 1980s are years of turmoil in SA society and in the SA art scene. It is the last decade of establishment authority in almost all spheres. The power relations that had controlled and managed the art scene were being challenged in a variety of ways. By 1991, it was clear that the regime was about to capitulate and that a new era was to begin.

1991 -2008: South Africa returns to the international fold art-wise and politically, the country becomes a democracy. This turns out to be painful birth of a new country and where earlier the country seemed to be in the midst of a civil war, it now became a country where crime seemed to be out of control and corruption started to set in. Diane Victor’s Disasters Of Peace Series captures some key moments in the transition of South Africa through to democracy. The Johannesburg Biennales in 1995 and 1997 mark a significant shift in the South African art world. SA artists realise that the more than 30 years of isolation have severely compromised the development of South African art and that the narrow focus of debates on Eurocentrism is not productive.  This is a really a period where the concept of Post-Modernism becomes manifest, as there is a veritable explosion of artistic creativity and a diversity of practices from performance, installation and video art become part of the mainstream as artists look internationally to establish broaden their careers.

2008 – 2018: By this time, SA has become part of the international art world and the art market for historical and contemporary art has grown exponentially. Distinct trends over this decade become difficult to define. The contemporary art market has become obsessed with art fairs locally and internationally. Public art museums play almost no role in this market, where previously they were seen as the custodians of quality. The rise of private collections and art museums have taken over the space where preciously the corporate art collection had its place. The effect on South African artists has been significant as more often than not artworks are produced to match the requirements and demands of the private collector or museum or what the dealer deems to be saleable.  Intellectually, debates have been skewed on one hand by the constant demand for transformation and decolonisation and on the other by a seemingly a historical infatuation with derivative forms of abstraction in painting and sculpture.

This exhibition provides some insights into each one of these periods. The selection of each work on the exhibition in some way functions as a point of departure to engage with one or other aspect of the South African art world or socio-political condition. No doubt there are many gaps, and of course there are many artworks which could have been included from the collection, but choices have to be made. The selection presents the visitor with a representative sample of what kind of work is in the collection and what has been produced in South Africa over the last century.


How long did it take to narrow the number of works to 70?

Fortunately, I have been involved in curating the collection and compiling exhibitions for some 20 years now. To make a selection is never easy as there are so many to choose from.  It took about two weeks to come to a final decision as to what to show and what to leave out. But in reality, one should say 20 years and two weeks.


The Sanlam Art Collection came into being in 1965 with the acquisition of 12 paintings – which artists were among those first acquisitions?

The 12 paintings acquired were all by celebrated artists at the time and reflect the taste and specific aesthetic of the independent panel of advisors at the time. They included Walter Battiss, Francois Krige, Frans Oerder, Irma Stern, Gregoire Boonzaier, Alfred Krenz and Eleanor Esmonde White.


What does it take to preserve a large art collection such as this one?

For Sanlam, looking after and preserving a collection of this size requires a t least a dedicated curator and the support, moral and financial from the company. The collection is on display in 13 different sites. There are two gallery spaces – the Sanlam Art Gallery in Bellville at the Sanlam Head Office and the Sanlam Art Lounge at the Sanlam offices at 11 Alice Lane, Sandton. Then there are a number of office environments where a selection of works are on display: in Durbanville, Stellenbosch, Pretoria, Houghton and Tyger Valley. Sanlam also lends works for exhibition purposes and long-term loan to institutions such as public museums and university art galleries. We also lend to other corporate art collections for exhibition purposes, such as Standard Bank for their Christo Coetzee exhibition coming up next month.

A number of works are also kept in storage as exhibitions are changed regularly so artworks get to be seen on a rotational basis. When Sanlam began its collection, it was easily managed within the confines of the company’s headquarters. However, it grew rapidly and soon some of  collection needed to be stored in proper conditions and a storage facility was built when the company renovated its head office in Bellville. Also, the office environment changed dramatically over the years. Where once discrete offices made up the head office space, a new open-plan environment was built, meaning that the display of original artworks became risky and difficult to manage. The building of the art gallery at the Sanlam Head Office was a significant and necessary step for the company to take to ensure the preservation of the collection, but more than anything, to be able to share the collection with its employees and the public.


Do you have a favourite work from this collection?

There are many favourites, as each period in South Africa’s art historical development is unique in which works stand out as significant. The early paintings by Maggie Laubser from the 1920s, in their expressive approach to the landscape and portraits, stand out for the period. How does one make a preference when the superb bronze by a Sydney Kumalo or Ezrom Legae stand next to a equally engaging bronze by an artist such as Anton van Wouw or an abstract by Edoardo Villa? The diversity of art produced in SA provides one with opportunities to engage on many levels – from the conceptual cerebral challenge presented by a Willem Boshoff to the beautiful, painterly presentation of daily life by Gerard Sekoto.


Which is your favourite period of South African art and why?

Probably the last 27 years, from 1991 to today. South Africa has experienced significant change, both positive and negative and it has been artists who have through their works, reflected on this change in such novel and clever ways. They have reminded us of the past and that the present is both familiar and also strange, while the future, although unknown, is already being anticipated. A little more than 20 years ago, South Africa and its art world was isolated Today, the country plays its role globally and South African artists participate in this global art world far more actively and successfully than some wealthier countries.


Why is it important that the art collection is opened up to the public?

To build an art collection is to invest in care for a country’s unique culture. By sharing it with everyone, Sanlam provides the opportunity for everyone to engage with art, and to recognise its value as a vehicle for engagement between individuals on all levels about the most pleasing and disastrous aspects of our society. Sharing art means sharing visions that, when acknowledged and appreciated, become the building blocks for social cohesion and a better future for generations to come.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]