Anna Koster, public relations manager, Cantor Center for Visual Arts: (650) 725-4657, firstname.lastname@example.org
John Sanford, writer, News Service: (650) 736-2151, email@example.com
Cantor Center exhibit looks at contemporary South African art
Apartheid inspired a lot of art. In a speech several years ago, Gordon Metz, a South African writer and curator, said cultural expression in his country had "primarily been starkly and unavoidably determined by the brutal confrontation with 'the enemy.'
"But after April 27, 1994, the 'enemy' was all of a sudden gone. What do we now photograph, paint or write about? ... Can we learn to create again without 'the enemy?'"
The answers to these questions are abundantly clear in an exhibition on view through Jan. 6 at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts.
Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa is eerie and touching, sometimes laced with profound anger and even more profound sadness. It suggests that the abolition of apartheid has resulted in a more complex palette: A shifting social and political landscape has largely informed the art of South Africa, a country that in many ways is radically different from the days of government-sanctioned segregation and in others is barely distinguishable from them.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a symposium is scheduled for 1-4 p.m. Friday at the center. South African artists and scholars will address art trends in their country and art as a "voice" of post-apartheid expression. The event is free and open to the public.
Organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, the traveling exhibition includes paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and videos by mostly young and present-day artists.
Manuel Jordán, the Phyllis Wattis Curator of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the center, said Stanford was a logical place to bring this exhibition given its Center for African Studies.
"If you think about the earliest art forms that were created in Africa, they were not made for purely aesthetic reasons," Jordán said. "They were meant to address certain human necessities. When you painted an image of animals, it meant that you were addressing the idea of the hunt making a relationship to the environment. What's nice about Liberated Voices is that you see that, for the contemporary artists, art still has a particular meaning. It speaks to a human condition, a political situation, something that has passed, something that's in transition, and prospects for the future."
Walking through the north entrance of the Pigott Family Gallery, viewers are greeted by the only work in the exhibition created before the end of apartheid. The Interrogators (1979), a triptych by Paul Stopforth, sets an uneasy tone. The pale, phantasmic faces of three white men float on black backgrounds; the image of an empty, gray chair is superimposed across the three panels and intersects two of the faces. Stopforth said his "purpose was to show how terribly ordinary these men looked except perhaps the one with dark glasses." The three men are security policemen who "interrogated" Steven Biko, the activist whose story is told in the film Cry Freedom. Biko was murdered in prison. The faces appear wrinkled and distorted with a natural menace. Would they in fact look "ordinary" if separated from an exhibit of contemporary South African work? In any case, the real violence of the piece stems from the empty chair, which radiates a malevolent energy.
Many artists look inward, not outward, for their inspiration. Others examine the way in which the country's past and present have resulted in a nearly impossible tangle of culture and emotions. Some works are difficult to place thematically within any kind of conflict, seeming instead to take their inspiration from centuries-old regional art: for example, Sandile Zulu's Frontline with Centurion Models (1997), an abstract work whose materials "fire, water, wind, soil, metal, wire, reed" conjure the landscape of an industrialized veldt.
A group of works that captures the overall depth and nuance of the exhibition is Sue Williamson's Truth Games, a series based on cases heard by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Established in 1995 to investigate human rights violations committed during the apartheid era, the commission was given the authority to grant amnesty to perpetrators if they offered a detailed confession of their crimes. The series is composed of four distinct but related panels. Each contains three large photographs (reproduced as laser prints), portraying an accuser, a defender and an image related to the event in question. Short phrases and words taken from the hearings appear on translucent plastic rectangles that slide, in the manner of a patio door, across the laser prints. Laser-print images also appear on some of these slats, causing, from time to time, the superimposition of a face on another face.
One Truth Games panel focuses on the murder of Amy Biehl, a 1989 Stanford graduate who was stabbed and stoned to death by young members of the Pan-African National Congress. Biehl, her mother and the hand of one of the killers are pictured. "I stabbed her," "horrible sadness," "impossible to apportion blame" are some of the phrases that appear on plastic slats. As they move over the three images, their meanings are subtly altered and expanded. Stanford is considering acquiring all four works, said Anna Koster, public relations coordinator at the Cantor Arts Center.
Brett Murray's Guilt and Innocence (1998) is somewhat different. It comprises 130 snapshots of the artist by himself or together with family and friends. The work recalls a jumble of framed pictures on a fireplace mantle; there is nothing to suggest a socio-political conflict raging in the background. Yet the dates of snapshots 1962 to 1990 correspond to the period during which Nelson Mandela and others convicted in the Rivonia treason trials were incarcerated on Robben Island. (The installation, in a less developed form, was first shown on the island after Mandela and his associates were released.)
Free tours of Liberated Voices are held at 12:15 p.m. Thursdays, and 2 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. Sundays. Tours do not require a reservation for groups of 10 people or fewer. To request larger group tours, call (650) 723-3469.
In addition, free screenings of a Long Night's Journey into Day, a 94-minute video that follows several Truth and Reconciliation Commission cases over a two-year period, are scheduled at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Nov. 3, 18 and 24.
By John Sanford