Mirte Haenen talks about the presence of apartheid in the post-apartheid work of the artists Fred Sam, Chris Ledochowski and Berni Searle. The murals of Sam give deprived and excluded communities a sense of identity and pride, an identity which rather than promoting drugs, guns and ‘bling’, promotes social gains, movement, and mobility. Ledochowski’s photos are an attempt at respectfully revealing aspects of South African township culture that have hitherto remained largely hidden. By altering the tone of her skin in ‘Snow White’, Searle moves between the categories of apartheid hierarchy and counters the value that were and still are attached to the colour of one’s skin.
CHALLENGING THE “POST” IN POST-APARTHEID
The visual counter-narratives of three contemporary Cape Town-based artists
This article is an exploration of the lingering presence of apartheid in post-apartheid Cape Town through the analysis of three selected contemporary art projects by Cape Town-based artists. The artists differ in age, gender, ethnicity and background, thus representing a cross section of Cape Town, the city in which they all live and work. Notwithstanding the differences between the artists, all three of them idiosyncratically address the persistent presence of apartheid in their post-apartheid work. A severe regime such as apartheid does not end simply with a political decision to do so. Since 1994, political and social change has been on the agenda, but grand scale change takes generations. It is still the early days and in almost every aspect of daily life in this post-apartheid era ripples of past segregation are still noticeable. I do not state this to downplay the changes that already have been implemented, but it is important to be aware of what is still affecting contemporary society. As memory theorist Marianne Hirsch formulates: “These events happened in the past, but their effects continue into the present.” In this article I will argue that the three art projects and the artists that created them implicitly address the encounters with the recent past in the present. From their different backgrounds and the different disciplines of their art I argue that all three artists create projects that enable the viewer to reflect on and question the presumed closure of the apartheid era. The euphoric victory of the overthrow of the apartheid government did carry weight, enforcing the belief in the power of togetherness. However, this was just the beginning; a united South Africa was – and still is – far from being achieved. The artists confront the lacunas in the narrative of the ‘post’ status of apartheid with their own counter-narratives. They visualise the contemporary burden of the past – which the brunt of apartheid, in the post-era still weighs on those who carried it during those oppressive years.
Graffiti artist Freddy Sam (b. 1984) has worked on the rejuvenation project of the Percy Bartley House, a boys’ home in Woodstock, Cape Town. He created two inspirational murals on the walls of the courtyard corridor. These colourful murals show portraits of two boys from the home surrounded by slogans to inspire change. Photographer Chris Ledochowski (b. 1956) captures the underexposed art and culture of the Cape Flat townships. Instead of presenting the outskirts of the city as an ungoverned wasteland filled with crime and poverty he takes photographs to convey another image of the townships. In contrast to Sam and Ledochowski, lens-based artist Berni Searle’s (b. 1964) approach is very physical and personal. Her intimate style of work is characterized by the video Snow White, in which her heavily connotated ‘coloured’ body, slowly turns white in a steady dusting of flour. As a woman formerly categorised as ‘coloured,’ Searle inserts her own history into her art. Art is a mirror of the zeitgeist, and by discussing contemporary art in relation to the continuous lingering of apartheid, it is clear that a city almost two decades into the post-apartheid era is still actively dealing with the aftermath.
Freddy Sam is determined to use his art to counter recent history, to cross this divide and build towards an inclusive community. In both of his murals at the Percy Bartley House, brightly coloured inspirational words jump out of the lustrously coloured geometrical shapes that surround a boy’s face. Embedded in diamond shapes with overwhelming orange, brown and pink accents, one mural reads on the left side: “You are searching your world for treasure” followed by “The real treasure is you” on the right. Enclosed by angled shapes is another very lifelike portrait. On the opposite wall the colours are mostly green, purple and blue and there are more words to encourage the boys to be proud, to love, and to strive. “This is for you to inspire yourself to inspire others” is one message. On the loud-coloured wall the absence of colour in the portraits is striking. The black-and-white portraits are serious, realistic, and not at all comical. The opposite placing of the murals adds an extra dimension to the space in-between. Painting the boys directly opposite to each other implies a dialogue between the oldest and the youngest resident. This suggestion tempts one to pause for a moment, to take in both sides and figure out what occurs in relation to one another. The two walls seem to be drawn to each other, but the bright colours prevent the corridor from feeling narrow, instead it becomes inviting. With these portraits Freddy Sam honours the boys, contributing to a positive future for the disadvantaged young men that live at the Percy Bartley House and directly deal with the inheritance of social division on a daily basis.
Even in the post-apartheid era, youth from troubled backgrounds (often inherited from apartheid) deal with negative feedback from society. This is enforced through media coverage which views them in relation to crime, gangs and violence. This negative perspective is addressed in the South Africa’s government note on youth development, the National Youth Policy 2009–2014 (NYP). Despite the inherent altisonant tone of a governmental document, the values formulated in the NYP voice Freddy Sam’s counter-narrative to society’s perception of ‘lost’ boys and their inevitable road to a life of crime: “The provision of services should … reflect respect for the worth and dignity of youth as human beings who should be supported to unleash their inherent strengths and potential thus countering the view of widespread deficiency and pathology-oriented perception.” ‘Youth as human beings’ signifies a perception of youth as people who are valuable for society. These painted portraits are of boys who would not have been positively depicted during apartheid. This is what Freddy Sam considers to be important. To borrow the words of architect and public art theorist Katherine Beinhart,the murals can be seen to “[give] deprived and excluded communities a sense of identity and pride, an identity which rather than promoting drugs, guns and ‘bling’, promotes social gains, movement, and mobility.”
While Freddy Sam aspires to achieve something positive in life, Chris Ledochowski shows that these positive aspirations are present in local township art and homes. Ledochowski has used his work to focus on other lingering implications of apartheid, namely the townships in the Cape Flats that were born out of displacement. Ledochowski documents the aftermath of the forced removals as a result from the Group Areas Act, which was first implemented in
Chris Ledochowski, Shack Home of Pirate Soccer Fan, 1997
1950, then amended in 1957 and 1966. Throughout his career the artist shows ‘details’ of art, real life events, homes and places in a very careful and idiosyncratic manner, capturing the narrative of cultural life in townships in a visually as well as socially considered manner. Photographing the different townships on the Cape Flats from the late eighties far into post-apartheid, Ledochowski shows the flats in a different light as a counter-narrative to the commonly-held bleak view. South African townships are often one-sidedly portrayed in the media as rough polarised areas outside the city which are ruled by gangs, have a large criminal economy, high AIDS infection rates, and high rape and murder charts. I do not want to downplay the pressing issues of post-apartheid, as I do not think Ledochowski would either. However, by moving the focus to their culture, Ledochowski humanises the different townships on the Cape Flats. His involvement with the people who physically suffered the brunt of the forced removals grew throughout his career.The project Cape Flats Details: Life and Culture in the Townships of Cape Town (2003) was 25 years in the making and was brought together in a publication of his own hand. In his three-page introduction Ledochowski explains his project and the way he went about it. After the introduction, 160 pages of full colour photographs are shown, 156 of which are the main content of the book. These are titled, numbered and accompanied by a caption. A large body (68) of this collection captured art, mostly the murals of local artists. Each photograph has its own contradiction – be it contrasting symbols, colours or cultures – that keeps the spectator on his toes. These paradoxes evoke a certain feeling of estrangement, inviting the viewer to engage to keep looking. The deliberate arrangement of the photographs throughout the publication adds another layer to the work, inviting the viewer to connect these photographs together. In this way, the interpretation becomes more than the single image. Ledochowski describes his project as “an attempt at respectfully revealing aspects of South African township culture that have hitherto remained largely hidden.” By publishing and exhibiting Ledochowski takes the image outside the township context, showing a larger public the present creative culture that is mostly invisible. In documenting township culture Ledochowski makes this theme visible in post-apartheid South Africa. He creates “memorial markers,” a term coined by social theorist Heidi Grunebaum-Ralph, who uses it in her description of an alternative township tour. She writes, “Bereft of memorial markers … it is the stories narrated at the sites that endow the places with memorial significance.” The photographs in the project are visual stories narrated by Ledochowski’s framing, opening up a different view on township lives.
The subject of both male artists’ art is the lives of others. It also is directed towards others. This is very much the case of Freddy Sam’s hands-on rejuvenation project, organised to change young lives for the better. Ledochowski’s documentation of the creative culture in the townships is less direct. Berni Searle departs from her own body and, by extension, addresses larger issues of gender and race connected to identity and the physical body. Exteriority has been used as a weapon during apartheid, where the colour of one’s skin decided one’s fate. The hierarchical subdivision of people based on the arbitrary distinction of skin colour has far-reaching effects on the sense of who one is and where one belongs. In Snow White Searle used flour to cover her skin, accentuating the superficiality of skin colour — it is merely a film on the body. Snow White, a “double channel video projection dv caM, [a digital video format] played off compact Flash cards, duration 9 min, colour, sound, synchronized,” was commissioned by the Forum for African arts for the exhibition Authentic/Ex-Centric at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001.
Berni Searle, Snow White, 2001, courtesy Michael Stevenson Gallery Capetown
The feed is projected on opposite walls, one wall showing the scene in birds-eye view, the other at eye-level. The scene is a dark undefined space. It is hard to make Searle out at first, but her contours become more visible as the flour that slowly dusts down on her collects. The flour covers her body – head first – with a thin powdery layer of white. We see her naked, black body slowly becoming visible, as it is dusted into a pale white. This conveys a strong image of the burden of history and the discrimination attached to skin colour throughout history, specifically in apartheid South Africa. When Searle has become completely covered by flour, she wipes off the excess flour that does not cling to her skin. Getting up and shaking it off is an effort and when standing, she stands in the dust. When one steps away there is emptiness where one previously stood, and a new position or attitude must be found to establish a place of belonging in a new landscape of wishful inclusion. By altering the tone of her skin she moves between the categories of apartheid hierarchy and counters the values that were and still are attached to the colour of one’s skin.
The apartheid regime deprived so many of human rights that after its official abolition, artists concerned themselves with bringing back the human aspect and familiarity that binds people together. The contemporary consequences of apartheid are not immediately apparent in their work, but rather are implicitly suggested. Through my framing it becomes more explicit and functions as an essential counter-narrative to the meta-assumption that apartheid ceased to be. Freddy Sam strives to inspire Cape Town boys, giving them positive encouragement. Ledochowski’s photographs portray a vibrant township culture, and Searle’s art emphasizes the fact that skin colour is just a coat, where apartheid had made it a uniform. The art of Freddy Sam, Chris Ledochowski and Berni Searle is pervaded with the echoes of apartheid. This trio of artists shows that regardless of their backgrounds in a country where background was fundamentally defining, their art engages with the discussion of apartheid in the present day.
This article is an abbreviated version of my thesis submitted in fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Arts in Arts and Culture (research), Faculty of Humanities, Leiden University August 2013. If you are interested in obtaining the full thesis or have any questions, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brief biography: “Earning my bachelor degree at Utrecht University studying Liberal Arts and Sciences gave me the opportunity to familiarize myself with different fields of science before deciding on contemporary art, earning a Master of Arts in Arts and Culture (research) with a focus on Contemporary Art in Global Context at Leiden University. Studying a semester in Cape Town at the University of the Western Cape awoke my specific interest in South Africa’s contemporary art scene.”
Beinart, K., “Healing Place: a comparative study of creative spatial interventions as catalysts for reconstructing community identity,” Diss. Oxford Brookes University, (2006).
Dewilde, McGee and Westen, Berni Searle: Interlaced, (Arnhem: Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem, 2011). (Exhibition catalogue).
Grunebaum-Ralph, H., “Re-Placing Pasts, Forgetting Presents: Narrative, Place, and Memory in the Time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “Research in African Literature, 32:3, (Fall 2001) pp. 198-212.
Hirsch, M., “The Generation of Post memory, “Poetics Today, 29:1 (Spring 2008) pp. 103-128.
Ledochowski, C., Cape Flats Details: Life and Culture in the Townships of Cape Town, (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2003).
Van der Watt, L., “Tracing: Berni Searle,” African Arts, (Winter 2004b) pp. 74-76 and 97.
Republic of South Africa National Youth Commission, “National Youth Policy 2009-2014,” (Pretoria: The Presidency of South Africa, March 2009). <http://planipolis.iiep.unesco.org/upload/Youth/South%20Africa/South_Africa_YouthPolicy.pdf>.
South African History Online <http://www.sahistory.org.za>.
Goldberg, R. E., “Family Instability and Pathways to Adulthood in Cape Town, South Africa,” Population and Development Review, 39:2 (June 2013) pp 231–256.
Salo, E., ““We’ve got it covered” – what we know about condom use, personhood gender and generation across space in Cape Flats townships,” 72nd International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) General Conference and Council,20-24 August 2006 in Seoul, Korea. pp. 1-10
Standing, A., “The social contradictions of organised crime on the Cape Flats,” Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Paper, 74 (June 2003) pp. 1-15.
I choose to write apartheid without a capital, if written otherwise it was the choice of the cited author.
 M. Hirsch, “The Generation of Post memory, “Poetics Today, 29:1, (Spring 2008) p. 107.
 I will mention the racial categories as formulated during apartheid, only as to show their positioning in former apartheid hierarchy, and how this past affects the artists’ work
 Further reading on the effect of a troubled youth and/or a broken family: R. E. Goldberg, “Family Instability and Pathways to Adulthood in Cape Town, South Africa,” Population and Development Review, 39:2 (June 2013).
 Download the complete policy from: <http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/MediaLib/Downloads/Home/Publications/YouthPublications/NationalYouthPolicyPDF/NYP.pdf>.
 Republic of South Africa National Youth Commission (2009) p 10.
 K. Beinart, “Healing Place: a comparative study of creative spatial interventions as catalysts for reconstructing community identity,” Diss. Oxford Brookes University, (2006) n/p.
 “The Group Areas Act gave the government power to demarcate where each racial group could live and own property. Once an area was proclaimed as belonging to a particular racial group, only members of that group could reside and own property in that area.” Source: South African History Online, “Segregated City.” Available online: <http://www.sahistory.org.za/cape-town/segregated-city-0>. For more information on legislation: South African History Online “Apartheid Legislation 1850s-1970s.” Available online: <http://www.sahistory.org.za/politics-and-society/apartheid-legislation-1850s-1970s>.
 Further reading: A. Standing, “The social contradictions of organised crime on the Cape Flats,” Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Paper, 74 (June 2003) pp. 1-15. See also: E. Salo, ““We’ve got it covered” – what we know about condom use, personhood gender and generation across space in Cape Flats townships,” 72nd International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) General Conference and Council, 20-24 August 2006 in Seoul, Korea. pp. 1-10
 C. Ledochowski, Cape Flats Details: Life and Culture in the Townships of Cape Town (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2003) p. 8.
 H. Grunebaum-Ralph, “Re-Placing Pasts, Forgetting Presents: Narrative, Place, and Memory in the Time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Research in African Literatures, 32:3, (Fall 2001) p. 208.
 Description of the video format from the catalogue of Interlaced. Dewilde, McGee and Westen,“The Power of the Image. Berni Searle,” Berni Searle: Interlaced, M. Dewilde, J. McGee and M.Westen (eds.), (Museum voor (Arnhem: Moderne Kunst Arnhem, 2011) p. 68.
 L. van der Watt, “Tracing: Berni Searle,” African Arts, (winter 2004b) p.77.
(Key Words: (post-) apartheid, contemporary art, Freddy Sam, Chris Ledochowski, Berni Searle.)