Face Time: South African Portraiture

WORDS Graham Wood

In South Africa, portraiture has a long and complex history. VISI gets up close and personal with a proliferation of artists who are tackling, refreshing and advancing the genre.

It’s funny to think that, 100 years ago, art historians thought traditional portraiture and figurative painting had run their course. But portraiture never went away; it continued to evolve and develop. In fact, there has been a recent explosion in the genre around the world as well as at home.

“There’s a lot going on with portraiture in South Africa,” confirms Everard Read’s Grace O’Malley. An exhibition of three portrait-style works by Ayanda Mabulu, titled “The Healers”, ran at Everard Read’s Circa Gallery in June and July. At the same time, an exhibition by Joni Brenner, “Between You and Me: Four Models in the Studio”, ran at SMAC Gallery in Johannesburg. “Who We Should Not Be”, an exhibition of mixed-media portraits by Navel Seakamela, was on display at Southern Guild in June and July too. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The Future of South African Portraiture
The Future of South African Portraiture
The Future of South African Portraiture

Works from Joni Brenner’s “Between You and Me: Four Models in the Studio” exhibition at SMAC Gallery in Johannesburg.

There has been much interest in the upcoming Zeitz MOCAA exhibition “When We See Us”, which concentrates on black portraiture and figuration, via the webinar series that has been running throughout the year leading up to its opening in November. Arisha Maharaj, an art specialist at auctioneers Strauss & Co, curated a themed sale that focused on portraits earlier this year, so the interest has clearly gained traction in the secondary market too. The headline work on that sale – a self-portrait by Heather Gourlay-Conyngham entitled Self in Jan’s Turban – which went on sale with an estimate of between R20 000 and R30 000, sold for almost R130 000.

Grace ventures that the recent international interest in work by Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo resulted in high-profile auction sales at Sotheby’s, and sparked an international focus on collecting contemporary African portraiture. But, she adds, “In South Africa, with our history of racist ethnographic photography and problematic artworks by white/European artists of black subjects, there is a significant power shift in portraiture being created by black artists of black subjects in a new political context.”

A prime example might be Zanele Muholi. “Zanele’s contributions to the genre of portraiture have been important declarations of personhood, both for themselves and for others,” says Sinazo Chiya, associate director at Stevenson, who represents Muholi. “In a country still battling the hangover of erasure and misrepresentation, their images say that to be deemed a deviant or inferior is not a statement to internalise. Rather, power, grace and beauty belong to all who claim them.”

The Future of South African Portraiture
Labo ll, Torino, Italy (2019) by Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Stevenson.

Another curator, who preferred not to be named, agrees. “I feel that the first step towards taking back agency for the depiction of black experience is the portrait or self-portrait – the face and the body become the template, the entry point, the synthesis of everything; these also allow the viewer/audience a very tangible and undeniable point of human relatability.”

The power of the work of someone like Muholi has set the bar. As Sinazo says, “The portraits in ‘Faces and Phases’ and ‘Brave Beauties’ specifically are radical monuments to and for people who have been written out of history, called un-African, even killed. In Somnyama Ngonyama, their heroic and deeply sensitive images rewrite a myopic and victimhood-oriented narrative of blackness.”

History Matters

There has, however, been a growing tide of thought that finds that the proliferation of portraiture among contemporary artists is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success. The same tired tropes are growing banal through thoughtless repetition as fashion tempts more and more artists to forgo originality for what they think resonates right now.

While that is certainly true, at the same time, the treatment of the genre seems to be shifting gears again. As Grace says, “I think it’s important that contemporary African portraiture be seen in a wider context, and not as a fashion trend led by European and American art markets.”

Tandazani Dhlakama, assistant curator at Zeitz MOCAA, who is working on “When We See Us”, says the exhibition will bring a new level of reflection and complexity to the topic of portraiture and figuration, not least by “reminding everyone that black artists have been painting themselves for a very long time… So whatever you see today is part of a really important historical continuum.”

It’s important, she says, for audiences to be reminded that black portraiture is not simply about “reacting to a hegemony”. The webinars and exhibition will explore “important artistic lineages, artistic schools and different events that have shaped culture on the African continent or within black worlds”.

Like Sinazo, she emphasises the importance not of narratives of victimhood and suffering, but “black joy”. Portraiture and figuration, she notes, are an excellent vehicle for depicting the “idea of repose, the resting [or] seated figure, the reclining figure, and the thinking, pondering figure”. It’s a clear theme in Seakamela’s work at Southern Guild. As Tandazani points out, by joining contemporary depictions of joyousness as well as the quotidian, and filling out a non-reactionary history, both the genre and black subjectivity are given complexity. What she calls “black worlds” – both in Africa and the diaspora – has had its future made more complex by delving more deeply into its past.

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