“Impressions From South Africa, 1965 to Now” at MoMA

Prints out of Africa encompass the crafty, the popular and the coolly conceptual.

savethepress “Impressions From South Africa, 1965 to Now” at MoMA

Save the Press.

In  1967, a striking yet slight work by a South African artist named Azaria Mbatha was donated to the Museum of Modern Art. The richly patterned black and white work on paper, printed from a simple sheet of cut linoleum, was made at a school called the Evangelical Lutheran Church and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift. This missionary center-turned-unlikely radical art school developed as one of the few institutions during apartheid-era South Africa to educate black art students, and linoleum prints were the medium of choice there because they were inexpensive to make.

Mr. Mbatha’s The Woman Who Loved and Was … /Innocent From Accusation (1965) not only is the earliest work in “Impressions From South Africa, 1965 to Now,” but it also illustrates succinctly the show’s twin themes of printmaking and protest. It’s a simple premise that a black and white linoleum print might be a cheap and graphic way to depict the struggle between blacks and whites in segregated South Africa. Yet the piece might have languished if the museum hadn’t given it context through the purchase between 2005 and 2010 of dozens of historical and contemporary South African prints. This exhibition, drawn entirely from the museum’s permanent collection demonstrates how Mr. Mbatha’s piece is now part of holdings that illustrate a rich and eclectic history, a print culture of protest.

The three-room exhibition brings together over 60 prints made in South Africa between 1965 and the present. It spans much of the apartheid era and provides a glimpse into how artists under extremely difficult conditions used an affordable medium as a tool for resistance. At a moment when it is easy to associate fine art with excesses in educational and monetary consumption, the show provides a D.I.Y. template for political art today.

The Rorke’s Drift artists turned to biblical allegories to depict apartheid’s injustices. John Muafangejo in Natal Where Art School Is (1974) shows Rorke’s Drift as rich with trees, oxen, farming, sheep and river: an Eden. The thickly patterned linoleum cut repeats figures and objects to decorative effect, rendering the black and white of the prints graphic but not stark. Charles Nkosi’s Submission to Death from his series “Black Crucifixion” (1976) parallels a black Christ’s sufferings on the cross with the plight of the subjugated under apartheid.

Another wall shows the offset posters and screenprints that disseminated the images and goals of political opposition. “Now you have touched the woman you have struck a rock you have dislodged a boulder; you will be crushed” is the message of You Have Struck a Rock by the Medu Art Ensemble (1981). More direct still is the text on a United Democratic Front poster from 1983: “We demand Houses, Security, and Comfort.”

These posters, in which monotone figures and waving flags often appear in silhouette, combine the style of early Soviet graphic design with American civil rights-era protest iconography and British punk posters. Raised fists and people breaking free of shackles predominate. Printed in small editions of 50, 300 or 400 by organizations with names like Save the Press Campaign, United Woman’s Organization, and Junction Avenue Theater, they testify to a galvanized 1980s culture of visual protest. This reliance on mechanical reproduction to disseminate messages of resistance now seems like the prelude to today’s digital methods, with Facebook walls serving as the notice boards of the Arab Spring.

By organizing the show according to medium, curator Judith B. Hecker ties South African printmaking to a history of political prints by European artists including Käthe Kollwitz, Honoré Daumier and James Gillray. Intaglio, a technique used by artists like Goya and Otto Dix, creates a fluid and scratchy line made by etching on a metal plate; the result is often rich in political allusion and narrative. Diane Victor’s series based on Goya’s Disasters of War, 16 drypoint etchings called Disasters of Peace (2001-2003), show the complicated text-and-image combinations this medium affords.

The two artists in this exhibition whom you are most likely to have heard of are Sue Williamson and William Kentridge. Their work mines South Africa’s history through use of semiobsolete media and photographic images; while they share an interest in the documentary role political groups like Afropix advocated for “witness” photography, both artists play with the ways in which a print as an indexical medium is assumed to have a special relationship to the truth.

The show is buoyed by its four Kentridges. His engraving General (1993), made one year before South Africa’s first democratic election (in which Nelson Mandela was elected president), shows an aged and officious white military figure in profile, his glasses and medals signifiers of both the tools of oppression and the fragility of power. Walking Man (2000) is Mr. Kentridge at his most visually complex and subtle, a vertical print in which torsos turn into trees and power lines become ominous tangles.

Casspirs Full of Love (1989), a drypoint and engraving, shows one of the military vehicles deployed against townships, here full of decapitated heads. But perhaps the best of the group is Mr. Kentridge’s simple screenprinted poster Security (1980), in which a white man overfills his black suit. The poster promotes an eponymous theatrical performance; as such it demonstrates the meaningful ties between the visual arts and other creative arts in fighting totalitarian repression.

Sue Williamson’s For Thirty Years Next to His Heart (1990) consists of 49 color xeroxes in handmade frames. Simple, inexpensive and expressive, the work records a government-issued passbook page by page. Black South Africans had to carry such a book at all times. From its emergence from a polyester suit pocket to the monthly signature of an employer, the work becomes a record of the petty bureaucratic humiliations that went on for almost half a century under apartheid, between the years 1948 and 1994.

Paradoxically, one of the failings and pleasures of this show is its inability to unite a disparate group of images produced under different contexts and for diverse audiences under one coherent rubric. The exhibition encompasses the crafty, the popular and the cooly conceptual. Rather than having obvious connections with the often photo-based art going on in New York during this time—think Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems or Kiki Smith—it instead has connections with the history of the political cartoon, including those of Goya, Daumier, Hogarth, James Gillray and Dix, and it also has ties to the punk and craft movements. Both contexts are far from MoMA mainstays. This makes for an interesting presentation. Showing how these South African artists mined the archives of the art of protest—from biblical sources to colonial struggles and the American civil rights movement—to create allegorical images, the exhibition becomes an umbrella for ephemera rather than a series of canonical artistic statements and influences.

Modern work from the postapartheid era both looks back to the history of Rorke’s Drift and looks forward to an expanded definition of printmaking. Cameron Platter’s innovative The Battle of Rorke’s Drift at Club Dirty Den (2009) echoes the decorative style of the Rorke’s Drift lithographers in pencil on paper, its square shape and graphic, black and white, highly patterned composition referring to that school. Sandile Goje was only 21 when he made the linocut Meeting of Two Cultures (1993). It depicts a mud house with black bare legs shaking hands with a trousered and shod Western-style house, and was printed the year apartheid ended.

The youngest artist in the exhibition, Kudzanai Chiurai (b. 1981), is represented by Untitled (2008/2010), a piece spray painted on the wall with a stencil. His life-size figures, armed with baseball bats, call attention to South Africa’s present urban violence against immigrants from Zimbabwe.

The exhibition sets up the metaphor that the positive/negative lithographic process evokes the dichotomies of truth and politics, justice and sophistry, morality and oppression. It seems apt. But at the end of the show what is most impressive is that a simple object—effectively a piece of cut carpet back, pressed against paper to create an impression—has conjured such a rich history of both political printmaking and D.I.Y. protest.

editorial@observer.com