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As with all significant anniversaries, the Investec Cape Town Art Fair's 10-year one being celebrated this year has provided an opportunity for reflection. To coincide with this, a group of established artists from Brett Murray to Frances Goodman to rising stars such as Kimathi Mafofo and Bonolo Kavula, who have regularly shown their works on this annual platform, was encouraged to consider their legacies for a series of short films for the lead sponsor, Investec. Their responses were varied and interesting with many considering the characteristics of art that remained valuable to society in the long term.
Some of South Africa’s leading artists are more focussed on smoothing the path for the next generation or making the work of their contemporaries more visible. Others, such as Athi-Patra Ruga and Sue Williamson are also interested in documenting and reframing history and creating lasting bodies of knowledge. For those like Usha Seejarim, who wasn't able to follow in the footsteps of an artist from her community, existing and surviving as an artist has in itself become her legacy.
Preserving the Xhosa legacy
When artist Athi-Patra Ruga hit his late thirties he says he started to consider his impact.
“You start to think about whether you are going to leave this world for the better or worse.”
When faced with this existential crisis, which was further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Ruga broadened his interests beyond his artistic practice, co-founding Victory of the Word with curator Anelisa Mangcu. The association was designed to support the work of the historic Lovedale Printing Press in Alice in the Eastern Cape. This 200-year-old printing press, established by Scottish missionaries with members of the Xhosa nation, documented the oral history and language of the Xhosa for posterity.
For this reason, Ruga was determined to ensure that it didn’t have to close its doors and that its custodians could preserve its legacy. This led the duo to further establish the Bodyland residency and incubator, which invited eight artists to engage with the history of the press, and the vast body of knowledge it documented.
Ruga has worked with many young aspiring artists throughout his career. Given his work has involved so many different mediums from performance, painting, drawing, film, sculpture, installation, stained glass and tapestry – he has had to collaborate or work with other artists. His White Women of Azania performances saw the artist bravely parade through busy public arteries in a balloon costume and heels, often accompanied by young dancers and performance artists, who would go on to make similarly daring live performances in their careers.
“It invigorates me to know that I can also use my artistic practice to further other people's artistic practices. Once you reach a certain place (in your career) you should facilitate for other people to come through the door. And then you get the hell off the dance floor, having left something solid behind (to inspire future artists),” observes Ruga.
Giving marginalised communities a voice
Undoubtedly, Ruga has left a fairly solid trail of works not only to inspire other artists but indeed for society more broadly to consider, for so much of his artistic practice has centred on highlighting figures or communities that have been marginalised in the telling of South African history.
Not only queer men such as activist Simon Nkoli, who Ruga paid homage to via an OTT monument fashioned from faux flowers and baubles, but figures such as Nongqawuse, the seemingly unruly Xhosa prophetess who was imprisoned on Robben Island in the late 1800s.
“What I'm trying to do with Victory of the Word is the same as what I am doing in my studio as well. I'm trying to create an encyclopaedia,” says Ruga.
As Ruga reclaims his own heritage, he does so for future generations, though in a more satisfying way than pure documentation. At the core of his practice, he is a storyteller, so it is not surprising this is how he wishes to be remembered. Not that he has set out to create art for future generations.
“I don't want to be remembered as a good artist. For me, it's about the impact I want to have while I'm still alive. And then leave those stories, which will probably become moral tales. We have to remember things that we have forgotten because there's still so much that we need to uncover as a country without having a defensiveness (about our history).”
Clearing a path for the next generation
For Joburg-based artist Usha Seejarim it has been such a challenge to pursue a life as an artist that simply having survived and continued with her practice is a legacy in and of itself.
“I'm of Indian heritage and in my community, there is a particular role a woman is expected to follow. When you go against that it's not so accepted.”
It is perhaps due to her determination to remain an artist that she has played a role in clearing a path for the next generation of Indian artists.
“I could count how many South African female artists of Indian heritage there were in the country when I started, and now there's so many artists and they're making incredible and very provocative work. Some female artists are very open about their sexual identity, which was unheard of in my time. I think the conservative nature of these communities is changing slowly.”
Fittingly, Seejarim has utilised the challenges in her life as a woman as the substance for her art, forging a practice that delves into domestic labour. Irons, pegs, brooms, and all the tools for cleaning and organising the home are the found materials she uses to make her art, which she often elevates, by presenting them en masse or enlarging their scale.
Her public sculptures, such as The Mundane and the Magical, an imposing angel-wing structure made from hundreds of disused clothes irons that entreat viewers to take up a position on the podium it frames and become an earthly angel, may well outlive her.
Some may assume that artmaking is a solipsistic pursuit, but Seejarim believes that the value of art in the long term is being able to create a form of expression art that resonates with people beyond herself.
“If I make work that I think is great, but nobody understands it and it's not accessible, then it's a bit pointless for me because an artwork's importance is about the relationship between the audience and the maker. Who are you making work for? Is it just for yourself? Is it just to get it out of your system? Or is it about something that starts a conversation between people who experience it and the people who make it?”
For Seejarim making art is about arriving at a balance between engaging with an audience while exploring a topic through different (and unconventional) mediums in her case. Ultimately, she wants to be remembered for being an explorer of sorts.
“I think making art is like searching. It's like you're trying to find something and you're looking at it from different angles. If you get to the answer, then is it over? The search for me is the exciting bit. I'd like to be remembered for doing 'the search' in the most intense way,” says Seejarim.
Dissecting apartheid era narratives
Sue Williamson believes that male artists are more concerned about their legacy than their female counterparts.
“As women, we're more interested in making the work and sharing things, whereas I think men want to know that their name is going to live on, that they're going to still be remembered in catalogues and museum shows,” she says.
Interestingly, it seems likely that Williamson’s name will live on in catalogues and museum shows, given this veteran artist, who started out as a journalist, has over time created a substantial body of photographic-based works that have become synonymous with a dissection of apartheid era rhetoric and narratives.
The Truth Game (1998) series is one of the most well-known historical works by Williamson. In it, she juxtaposes statements made by different parties during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Reflecting it on now, she suggests that it was always intended to serve future audiences.
“At the time that I made it one of the critics said: ‘We've seen all that stuff in the newspapers already.’ But I wasn't making it for them. I was making it for the generations to come who wouldn’t have heard about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” says Williamson.
As was the case with the Truth Game series, Williamson's oeuvre has been focussed on presenting multiple and/or alternative narratives, so like Ruga, she views herself as a storyteller documenting history.
“I'm not that concerned with what people think about me after I've gone. What I have tried to do is record things that have happened in this country. I've tried to make an artistic record of contemporary history,” she says.
Williamson has also played a fundamental role in documenting South African art history, through publishing books on contemporary artists. In Resistance Art in South Africa, first published in 1989, she catalogues and describes the practices of prominent local artists who created art during the apartheid era. It is considered a seminal book on art from this country.
In the mid-90s she would go on to co-author another book capturing the character and work of artists during that time in Art of South Africa: The Future Present.
Longevity, for artists, relies on evolving your work and core interests, says Williamson.
“If you want a long career, you've got to be able to change your work and develop, you can't just churn out the same thing for the next 20 years. So many artists that graduate now expect to make millions in their first couple of years. Some do, but they often crash and burn. I would advise (young artists) not to pay too much attention to the (art) market,” she concludes.