Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 5, 2018
Daniel Magaziner The Art of Life in South Africa New African Histories. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2016. 376 pp.; 92 ills. Paperback $34.95 (9780821422526)

The Art of Life in South Africa is not an art-history book, but every page addresses both art and history. Magaziner, a historian, uses art education in apartheid-era South Africa as a window into the experience of living in a repressive state, and the complicated, nuanced ways in which trainees and teachers adapted to, and thrived in spite of, that state. Art making is an act of self-expression, an intervention to make the world more beautiful, which seems wholly incongruous with the horrors of apartheid-era South Africa. Yet, through Magaziner’s rich description of an art-teacher training program, a seemingly peripheral initiative in a history that has often been told through dramatic instances of cruelty and heroism, we gain insights into lives in the midst of apartheid. Black trainees and white teachers worked within the conditions of the moment to realize their artistic aspirations and find a community that permitted them a measure of freedom within a structure created by racial segregation. While the book succeeds on many levels, I note at the end of this review one misstep that readers from the field of art history may find regrettable.

The Art of Life in South Africa creates a profile of a small teaching program in a rural educational institution: the art teachers’ training department at the Ndaleni Mission and Training College in Richmond, Natal State (now KwaZulu-Natal), South Africa. Founded in 1952 and absorbed into another institution in 1981, the Ndaleni (originally Indaleni) art teachers’ training program was created just after the establishment of the apartheid system in 1948. The decades that followed saw the institutionalization of that system’s race-based policies, education regulations prominent among them, and the program ended amid violence during apartheid’s frenzied final throes in the late twentieth century. Through its three decades, the students and teachers pursued their goals even in the face of apartheid’s relentless oppression. Documenting their pursuit is Magaziner’s key objective.

The book aims to enrich our appreciation for the complexities of history at any specific time and place, and especially during the much-studied years of the apartheid regime. In so many studies of history, lived experiences are flattened into unidimensional narratives, as scholars have focused on the dramatic moments and the public figures but failed to account for the small triumphs of persevering—or even creating beauty. In the book’s opening section, Magaziner uses an anecdote about an unused electric kiln to demonstrate how the school internalized and adapted to the cruelty of the system. He describes how the would-be art teachers coped with inferior or nonexistent materials. For their ceramics classes, they spent hours digging clay from local riverbanks, which they cleaned and processed, and then returned to the woods to gather wood to fire the results of their artistry. After two decades without an electric kiln for the pottery program, the school finally received one in the early 1970s from the Department of Bantu Education (the department’s name itself tells the story of bureaucratized racism). But they never used this kiln, because these students and the teachers training them knew that after they graduated and found teaching posts, they would never find a kiln in any school for black children. So they left the new kiln unused and continued to gather wood. And though they knew the system would foster despair, in them and their students, many of these teacher trainees were buoyed by their love of art and by the community they created at Ndaleni.

The impact of this system was both quotidian, shaping every aspect of life, and explosive. The destructiveness of apartheid is evident in many elements of the students’ experience, challenging their ambitions at every turn, and Magaziner describes tragedies in which the system cut short some students’ lives. He recounts the death of Silverman Jara, a graduate of the program whose artistic talent and top grade in the art-history course was noted by a longtime teacher. Jara went on to a variety of teaching posts and then administrative positions. In 1980 he was killed in the midst of student protests at his school, while trying to calm and reason with the crowd.

Magaziner offers Ndaleni’s history as a corrective to the mainstream of scholarship on South Africa’s apartheid history, which features the engines of repression and the heroism of resistance, losing sight of everyday efforts to find fulfillment. He challenges us to account for the complex lives of artists who worked within an institution founded on racist oppression, yet sought to create beautiful works of art. The story of the electric kiln is followed by this eloquent celebration of historical attention to the smallest moments:

It is incongruous to think of beauty under apartheid, given the common tendency to see that period of the South African past carried by the momentous tension between oppression and liberation, with scant moments to pause and consider the sensory experience of a single moment spent digging or chopping or waiting for the clay to fire. Yet such moments peppered and demarcated art students’ time, and they turned time’s passage into the stuff of historical experience. (10)

Much of this history is rooted in the small community of Richmond on the campus of a former Methodist mission, where students and faculty came, worked, interacted, and left, their names unfamiliar to historians of art (with the exception of that of Daniel Rakgoathe, a graduate whose work was exhibited internationally and appeared in several important publications). Magaziner mines the teacher-training program’s limited archives, the student newsletter, popular press coverage of the school and its exhibitions, and conducts interviews with former students, teachers, and their families, to construct portraits of these aspiring artists and art teachers, only some of whom worked as artists or art teachers after graduation from the program. These portraits of students, like those of the series of white, often liberal teachers who trained them, are as full and nuanced as the limited documentation allows, in some cases providing insight into the powerful pull of art making for these students, many of whom experienced the training program as life changing.

Moving far beyond Richmond, Magaziner also demonstrates the much wider context of Ndaleni’s story. For example, the policies of the Bantu education system’s art department were informed by the teachings of renowned theorists such as John Dewey, whose progressive humanism would seem to be wholly antithetical to the apartheid system. Yet Dewey actually makes an appearance in South Africa, as a prominent attendee of a 1934 conference on education; anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski was also a participant. Dewey’s attention to the value of preindustrial crafts and of art in everyday lives, not solely as “art for art’s sake,” contributed to the focus on “handwork” for black students. In the context of apartheid, this could be justified by the limitations placed on these students’ future opportunities—why teach painting to students whose race both predisposed them to certain media and ensured they would never have opportunities in the fine arts? This policy shifted over time, and a range of justifications supported it, but Magaziner’s thorough analysis of the discourse around art and craft in early- and mid-twentieth-century South Africa is fascinating and valuable for any study of the construction of African art as an art-historical category. Along with Dewey and Malinowski, several other names well known to students of African art appear in this history, Dumile Feni, Bill Ainslie, Cecil Skotnes, and Léopold Senghor among them. Yet, the art-teacher trainees at Ndaleni are at the center of this book, with history revolving around them.

The book’s structure is generally but not exclusively chronological, beginning with two chapters that provide the deep history of official racial and artistic policies that led to the creation of a school for art teachers. These chapters also address the early-twentieth-century white reception of art by black artists, who struggled and in some cases left the country in order to pursue their careers, Ernest Mancoba among them. The second of these chapters is focused on Jack Grossert, an artist and administrator who led the government’s art-education program for decades beginning in the 1940s; he founded the Ndaleni program and shaped its early curriculum. Grossert was liberal-minded, yet he worked within the racist system, celebrating Africans’ “inherent” artistry. The four chapters that follow address the formation of the teacher-training program, the curriculum, the students’ learning experiences, and the ways in which the program and the students responded to the repression and the protests that accompanied rising resistance to apartheid.

For art historians this book is valuable in many of its elements, though it does not offer much in the way of stylistic analysis or art-historical contextualization of the many images of student and graduate artwork. Instead, the value here is in the rich description of how the South African and later the Bantustan bureaucracy viewed and valued art and in Magaziner’s insights into what art meant to artists and students living in a system that made simply living a challenge.

I do want to take issue with the author’s characterization of the main currents of art-historical study, which he compares to the racialized perspective of the apartheid system: “Although most art historians would regret the comparison, their discipline has tended to share with the apartheid state the conviction that as black artists, individual creators approached their canvas, wood, or stone with a set of predictable concerns born of their supposed racial identity”(12–13). This assertion, which appears early in the text, makes a disturbing analogy and risks ignoring the rich array of work by scholars who treat South African art as a deep, rich, highly contextualized field, in which artwork reflects experiences, not unidimensional identities. I note just a few of the scholars who have produced such work: Frank Jolles, Sandra Klopper, Anitra Nettleton, and Brenda Schmahmann. Happily, the rest of the book makes good use of its occasional art-historical sources.

One more, much smaller point of criticism: the book’s central theme—the Ndaleni story as a corrective to the mainstream scholarly attention to apartheid as a monolithic tale of cruelty, heroism, and resistance—would have benefited from a reference to distinguished South African jurist and activist Albie Sachs, whose 1990 essay “Preparing Ourselves for Freedom: Culture and the ANC Constitutional Guidelines” (Tulane Drama Review 35, no. 1, 1991, 187–193) takes on the African National Congress’s cultural orthodoxy of the day. He cheekily proposes that “we should ban ourselves from saying that culture is a weapon of struggle. I suggest a period of, say, five years” (Sachs, 187). Just as Magaziner calls for a new historiography of South Africa’s apartheid era, accounting for the moments of sensory experience and beauty, Sachs called on artists to address life’s contradictions as well as its pleasures, posing a weighty question: “What about love?” (Sachs,188).

Victoria Rovine
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill