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South Africa is home to some of the most ancient
and beautiful art in the world - the rock art of the ancestors of
today's Bushman or San. It is also the scene of a host of vibrant
and challenging contemporary artists producing new and important
During the colonial era, what artists there were in South Africa
tended to concentrate on depicting this "new world" in
detail as accurate as they could make it - though sometimes this
led to selective emphasis. Artists such as Thomas Baines travelled
the country recording its flora, fauna, people and landscapes -
a form of reporting for people back in the metropolis.
Towards the end of the 19th century, painters Jan
Volschenk and Hugo Naudé and the sculptor Anton van Wouw
began, through their work, to establish a locally rooted art. Their
work is the first glimpse of an artistic vision engaging with life
as lived in South Africa, for its own sake, rather than as a "report"
to the colonial master. It is the art of the moment in which
Africa, with Union in 1910 and thus the formal end of the colonial
era, was beginning to acquire its own national identity.
In the first decades of the 20th century, the Dutch-born
painter JH Pierneef brought a coolly geometric sensibility to the
South African landscape, finding in it a strict but beautiful order;
he also, in a way that fed into Afrikaner nationalist ideology,
found it bereft of human inhabitants.
By the 1930s, two women artists, Maggie Laubscher
and Irma Stern, brought a different kind of subjective gaze to South
African art by using the techniques and sensibilities of post-impressionism
and expressionism. Their bold way with colour and composition, and
the assumption of a highly personal point of view, rather scandalised
those with old-fashioned concepts of acceptable art.
Yet already younger artists such as Gregoire Boonzaier,
Maud Sumner and Moses Kottler were rejoicing in the new spirit of
cosmopolitanism they were able to bring to South African art.
Art and Apartheid
The apartheid years of South African history (1948-1994) saw a great
diversity in South African art, ranging from landscape painting
to abstract art, engagements with currents burgeoning in Europe
and the United States, to a fiercely local sense of what it meant
to be an artist in this country during troubled times. Sometimes
South African art seemed to float above the political issues of
the day; at other times it tackled them with vigour and insight.
Inevitably, in the early years of apartheid, as
in the colonial era, black artists were largely neglected. It was
left to white artists (who had the training and the resources, as
well as a supportive gallery system) to build a corpus of South
After World War II, returning soldiers and some
immigrants brought European ideas to the South African art world.
In the 1940s, Jean Welz, for instance, born in Austria in 1900,
brought a detailed, nuanced and sophisticated style to still lifes,
portraits, nudes and landscape paintings.
Maurice van Essche, born in Belgium in 1906, brought
the modernist techniques of his teacher Matisse to specifically
African subject matter, with powerfully stylised forms and often
bright ("fauve" or wild) colourings.