Art from the crucible of politics: Impressions of Rorke’s Drift
Even as the nation marks our 20th year of democracy and the completion of our fifth peaceful national elections, we must remember the ugly past from which we have emerged in order to avoid repeating it – to paraphrase Santayana. The remarkable exhibition Impressions of Rorke’s Drift is an excellent way to tap into and explore this history of struggle and creation.
The artists who emerged from Rorke’s Drift Arts and Craft Centre (1962-1982) are some of the most influential of South African artists. But they, and the centre that offered these burgeoning talents sanctuary and tutelage for two decades, survived a literally embattled existence on the site of the iconic 1879 battlefield – black artists, telling their stories to a local and an international audience, through the exchange of art in a time of oppression and isolationism.
“Creatively and politically, Rorke’s Drift was a twofold haven for black artists,” explains exhibition curator Thembinkosi Goniwe, “Not only for the art training and processing of their thoughts and aspirations, but also for developing a body of artworks that introduced them in to the local and international art scene. Rorke’s Drift afforded black artists a resourceful sanctuary to shape their careers and lives, encouraging artistic thinking and crafting skills in a time when virtually the only other choice for black people was hard larbour. In turn black artists exploited the opportunity by producing works and some of them becoming professionals that promoted the significance of Rorke’s Drift.”
Significant Rorke’s Drift Art and Craft Centre ‘alumni’ include Sam Nhlengethwa, Pat Mautloa, John Muafangejo, Kay Hassan, Dumisani Mabaso, Bongiwe Dhlomo, Azaria Mbatha, Paul Sibisi, Lionel Davis and Sandile Zulu, among others. No complete formal archive of the prodigious output of the centre’s artists exists but this collection, curated by Goniwe, is drawn from the Jumuna family’s extensive private collection.
The exhibition, which ran in Johannesburg until 25 May, offers the public the unusual chance to see a significant body of work representing the Rorke’s Drift legacy in a single exhibition, with a view to prompting dialogue on the impact and importance of printing on South African art. In many ways this collection is partial political imprint, one that the apartheid authorities never intended to exist, because of the centre’s vital role in training many black South African artists who would otherwise have been denied the chance to practice and hone their skills.
The exhibition showcases over 100 pieces (mostly prints) from 17 artists, and a fascinating educational program accompanies the show, including input from experts within the print and art sectors. The exhibition moves to Grahamstown from 3 – 16 July 2014, as part of the National Arts Festival.
For more information on the Centre see www.centre-rorkesdrift.com.