The whitewash of art history
There’s a problematic exhibition of paintings now on at the Joburg Art Gallery (JAG).
Titled The French Connection, the display seeks to celebrate key historical periods and movements in more recent art history.
It looks specifically at French Impressionism and its precursors, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and other related and alternate methods of visual expression from 1830 to the 20th century.
Hence, its catalogue is aptly tagged “From Corot to Monet”, after two seminal painters in that creative tradition, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Claude Monet.
A portion of the works on show are part of the foundation collection of the JAG.
It features the work of stellar 19th century French painters, such as Alfred Sisley, and even the great sculptor Auguste Rodin.
It is reported that this core collection aroused enormous interest in London where it once hung before making its way to our shores in 1910.
It was regarded as the finest small collection of its day and preceded London’s fTate Museum and the National Gallery in displaying French Impressionist art.
The show can be married with an exhibition from last year, at another Joburg gallery, called 20th Century Masters: The Human Figure.
It was curated to mark representations of the human body in 20th century French art. It included works by great modern painters Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas and August Renoir.
Given that the two shows mark a contemporary cultural conversation between South Africa and France (for the France/South Africa Season 2012/2013), it is interesting to see how the troubled historical treatment of African subjects in the French imagination is reflected in both collections.
Black bodies of the French world are represented by their glaring omission from the narrative.
In the 20th Century Masters show the black body was only articulated as an echo.
It was shown through the work of Orlan. One piece was titled African Self-Hybridisation: Ndebele Giraffe Woman of Nguni Stock. Here the artist used her own body as a site for art.
She shaped it and dressed it through various strategies to make it into something of a hybrid Caucasian Ndebele-French female figure.
There was also Self Hybridisation-African, in which the artist turned herself into a fertility ritual mask.
The show seems much more troubled in addressing the historically French representation of the non-white other.
This is partly because of the burdens of French imperial history’s brutal racism, which affected the priorities of the old art collections from which these works are culled.
However, curators putting together a show like this must confront the tricky question surrounding all the politics of memory management.
As jazz writer, Julian Jonker, observes: “By deciding merely to start a (curatorial) story one makes a choice, consciously or not, about what to include and what to exclude. By starting, one silences other potential narratives.
“There seems to be no questioning of what history is for, except the recording of the past. But it’s really about the uncovering of secrets – secret places and secret meanings . . . ”
There is an obvious problem of how to approach the racially exclusive tinge of these kinds of exhibitions. Some writers have argued that it is possible to separate past work from its initial racist intentions.
So then, in art it would be possible to approach the culpably race-sanitised exhibitions, with their ahistorical prescriptions, without guilt.
We know the French creative imagination was aware of non-white others.
After all, the 1791 slave rebellion, which evolved into the anti-racist Haitian Revolution, should have provided enough spectacle to warrant honest artistic curiosity – something better than the awful Paul Gauguin’s racist, sexist adventures on the “primitive” islands of French-colonised Polynesia at the dawn of the 20th century.
His depictions of black bodies are excluded from this historical dialogue too.
Curators at the JAG have looked to Gerard Sekoto to remedy the blind spots in their catalogue. Sekoto left South Africa in 1947 to live in Paris under self-imposed exile.
He becomes a discursive burden in an otherwise simplistic curatorial narrative.
Even more problematic is that the Sekoto works on show were painted in the years before he left for France.
They offer no insight into his experience there.
The paintings include Mine Boy (1946), Yellow Houses – Sophiatown (1940), along with Girl With An Orange (1943).
His work thus speaks with the clear voice of an outsider, still second fiddling alongside Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent Van Gogh.
» The French Connection is on at The Joburg Art Gallery until March 10 2013