Matters of Spirit
Johannesburg Art Gallery
Artworks on this display came from the southern African region including South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana. They were chosen for their importance as objects of aesthetic and heritage value but also because they were relevant to the school curricula. Learners could find content for exploring themes including ‘Symbols and Spirituality’, ‘Art as an extension of personal reality’ and ‘Links between African Art and European and Eastern Art’.
In customary southern African societies there is a distinction between the materials handled by men and those by women - men work with wood, metal, bone and ivory, women with cloth, beads, and clay. While in the past basketry was mostly a male activity it has become one dominated by women. To show this gendered specalisation the exhibition occupied two gallery spaces - one holding works by men and the other by women.
In African customary society, while a supreme god is believed to exist, it is the ancestors who are understood to be ever present and to care for the well being of their living descendants. In South Africa certain types of objects and the use of particular substances such as beer and snuff, once part of the daily life of these deceased family members (now ancestors) remain a link to them. Artworks such as headrests, snuff containers and milk pails made within, and for, traditional southern African contexts often embody a sacred dimension. When closely examined, and the nature of the forms understood, significance beyond utility, becomes clear.
Beadwork adorns the body and communicates messages about the identity and status of the wearer. This positions the wearer within society and speaks about wider political affiliations. However, beadwork and apparel, especially white beads and red, white and black cloth, enhance the power and efficacy of traditional healers, who derive their strength from the spirit world.
Considering international links should not be limited to the affect of African art on modernism as can be seen in the work of Ernest Mancoba (see African Madonna and Double Unity on this exhibition). A deeper history should be considered as well: east coast trade in gold and ivory to places such as India and Indonesia, and centuries of imports of goods including textiles and beads, gave rise to local aesthetic forms including the art of the body.
But focus should not only be directed to matters of spirit, nor should tradition be thought of as a static phenomenon. The large basket by Vina Ndwandwe and some staffs were, for example, made to sell to extermal and tourist markets. While aspects of tradition endure, dynamic responses to changing circumstances are always present.