In his opening speech at the Widening The Circle: In the Spirit of Mancoba exhibition, legendary artist and Robben Islander Lionel Davis, lingered on the travails that affect black artists, especially after the disappearance of art institutions accessible to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. He spoke with insider’s views on the importance of art institutions like Craft Centre Rorke’s Drift in Dundee, KwaZulu Natal and Community Arts Project (CAP) in Cape Town, Western Cape, both of which have played a significant role in his formative art life. Davis could have easily touched on FUNDA Centre, in Soweto, Gauteng, another institution facing the threats of disappearance. Pained by this and by the abrupt passing of his life long artist friend, Peter Clarke, a week before, whom the exhibition was dedicated to, Davis staggering on late seventies motivated the elderly and discouraged to persistently take advantage of life. He said Clarke was a lover of life.
Art Travelogue in motion
Widening The Circle was organized by the Arts and Ubuntu Trust. As part of Ernest Mancoba Education Poster Project (EMEPP) the show was a travelogue hosted by William Humphrey’s Gallery in Kimberly, prior to which it was held in Cape Town, at Annex Gallery IZiko and thereafter moved to UNISA Art gallery, Pretoria. After Kimberly, the show set to travel to Durban and Polokwane. Widening is composed of different work – painting, prints, masks, drawings, storyboards – of art chosen after interactive workshops conducted between 2010-2011. With workshops led by art educationists and artists, three pieces were chosen from each of the 9 provinces, to be part of the exhibition. Photographs by the project’s photographers augment the exhibition of art and speak to the process. So, after being part of and also witnessing the entire project, Davis words resounded with both glee and sadness.
Disinvestments in arts education for the marginalized
Without putting it in so many words Davis’ speech indicated the disinvestments in arts education for marginalized communities in South Africa. It is no secret that these are outcomes of our untransformed civil society institutions and general sociopolitical system writ large. Twenty years after the victory in 1994, the so-called “joys of freedom” have largely been a fictional experience for the majority of the population of South Africa. Schools attended by black learners have been characterized by scandalous shortages, failure, interpersonal violence and epistemological estrangement. Consequently they have been the breeding ground for dropouts, gangsters, the unemployed, unemployable, car-guards and loafers. How much more for art, something already denigrated as irrelevant?
Mainstream Art Institutions exclusionary
The old institutions of arts education in the township and those most accessible to the working classes of our society have fallen by the wayside. Mainstream art institutions – galleries, museums and other platforms – have largely retained their snobbish and exclusionary practices. The hegemony of more Eurocentric ideas and practices have also been rendered into common sense – sizing everything else through and into its discursive dogmatism. Subsequently the claim to diverse cultural expressions has dwindled. Many black artists have disappeared into the obscure marginal spaces where the rigour of their creative intelligence cannot be interpreted into the national visual framework and discourse. Arts education and other relevant practices – writing, historiography, exhibiting, administration, curating etc. – remain predominantly in white people’s hands as custodians.
Post-Colonial reality – Afrophobic Displays
The guest speaker of the exhibit, Interim Head of Sol Plaatje University in Kimberly and science professor Yunus Ballim articulated the post-colonial reality and its generalized Afrophobic displays. Ballim tabulated the historical background of this phobia and its currently recuperated forms. He insisted that ironically, the world has always been dependent on Africa and its people, either by exploitation or by influence in areas including arts and science for example. He criticized the exploitative and repressive modes of this phobia, whether through direct extraction of resources and knowledge but also the world’s superficial intervention in African affairs. He praised initiatives such as the EMEPP for bringing marginalized knowledge and practices back into the public domain in credible ways. After all this was Mancoba’s earnest priority “to participate in the great universal debate where Africa, though present by its ancient sculptural masterpieces in the possessions of collectors and museums and in the opinions of so many European thinkers and artists…remained mute even in the elements of dialogue that concerned directly its own civilization and culture.”
Creating alternative trajectory
Following Mancoba’s philosophy, the project, EMEPP, as the title of the exhibition, “Widening the circle,” suggests, tries to create an alternative trajectory of knowledge production, intervening most specifically in the arts and culture sector. It is also not an exhibition with pretensions of grandness more narrowly associable with mainstream art nor does it take the standard “Samaritan” spirit of “humanitarian intervention” that workshops of such kind tend to take. It is an exhibition of a process, whether pedagogical or strategic – out of the desperate conditions of estrangement, to drop or more specifically crack open the seed of potentiality. In fact right before the exhibition space, assorted information paraphernalia, photographs and texts written as assessments or responses etc. hang outside and detail more emphatically, the dominance of this participatory process. After all workshops are not soup kitchens! That is, workshops aren’t supposed to be charity meetings, but where people come to outsource ways of leading their lives, better. With workshops led by legendary artists and educators like the late Peter Clarke, Lionel Davis, Charles Nkosi, Grace Tshikuvhe, Abdulkadir Said and many others, these seeds were planted. However in each workshop, there was an obvious influence that bared stamp, presence and personality of each leading educator. Sometimes more obvious than others, this trait surfaces, like where for example Davis and Clarke have worked, resonances with their general mode of practice abounds. This means we are most likely to see dominant traits of their sensibility and mode of practice – “transgression,” “freedom,” “play” etc. as terms that occupy Davis for example. This is the case one can deduce in his workshops in Cape Town and similarly in Durban.
With the overwhelming presence of Durban’s two group painted abstract works, there are also other astounding two pieces from Mpumalanga, from a workshop conducted and led by three legendary artists Mrs Mahlangu, Mrs Msiza and Mbonani. Meticulously painted in the tradition of Ndebele mural paintings, the painting greets us with a familiarity that is both enchanting as it is also cliché’. These large frames are also accompanied by smaller adaptations made by the students. Also in Limpopo we see an interesting dynamic. As detailed by way of photographs, we are taken through Grace Tshikuvhe’s organic papermaking process and immediately thereafter, see the beautiful linocuts, which later get to be embossed on the paper – a workshop conducted by Peter Clarke (and Avashoni Manganyi, Charles Nkosi, Ezekiel Budeli AND Grace Tshikuvhe). Or in a workshop lead by Charles Nkosi and Ezekiel Budeli in Mafikeng’s Mmabana Centre, with both collaborative and interdisciplinary strength, between storytelling, mask making and dance. So there is a sense of diversity and dynamism that runs through the show in a way that ties and explains the larger context and ambitions of the project. Such copious and almost perfectionist attention to detail is another way we can make sense of its investment to an ongoing process.
Need for diversity, collaboration and expansion
In a sense Widening The Circle, a phrase littered with profound annotations, is almost suggestive of a critical move on the closed mindedness of “circles” of discourse. To ask for a widening of circles, almost like “vula sekele” in local dance culture, signals a need for diversity, collaboration and expansion. Done in the spirit of Mancoba, whose work and philosophy gestures towards a certain, if not radical universalism and Ubuntu, Widening The Circle, bears the traits of many alternative projects grappling, in an open ended fashion, with re-centering indigenous knowledge systems. With participants from various places and different age groups, Widening The Circle is suggestive of not just intergenerational dialogue but also cross transference of cultures, ideas and histories. Walking through the show, works assorted provincially as they are also arranged to interact aesthetically, bears the familiarity of trekking across the country. And with each artist’s face pictured next to his or her work, glimmers of nostalgia travel through the mind.
Liberating the mind of the oppressed
However such projects with all their aims, though they can ambitiously intervene in desperate moments, can in no way directly change the collective reality of the black masses in South Africa. Certainly this is not the illusion Arts and Ubuntu seems to have. If there is merit, in such projects it is positioning themselves as carrier and adherent of historical task of liberating the mind of the many oppressed subjects in South Africa. As we know from Paulo Freire and Ernest Mancoba, cultural and artistic education are of no less relevance to politics, instead they are interdependent.
Model to be replicated
Quite frankly in the context where arts education in township environments has been reduced into a past tense, interventions, such as the EMEPP are models to be studied and replicated. Such interventions, I argue are not merely requirements for the less formally trainedlearner, but must expand to the so-called learned too. Such interventions tend to help shift the direction and investment on many unsavory ideas drilled daily into young minds and allow a refreshment of perspectives amongst the learned. Widening The Circle, in the manner of a travelogue not only demonstrates to us EMEPP’s and Art and Ubuntu’s tireless effort in shifting terms of reference and centralizing Africa’s aesthetics and heritage. We in fact can draw significant lessons, in both its pedagogic principles and its commitment to dare to say “African culture” and African people’s creative voice from peri-urban and rural areas in the situation that such has become unpopular, redundant and exotic.
Full disclosure : Athi Mongezeleli Joja worked as assistant to guest artists and arts educators at every workshop of the EMEPP and as guest artist co-leading the workshop at one. This gave him a bird’s eye view of the process.
By Athi Mongezeleli Joja
 An exhibition arising out of a project called the ERNEST MANCOBA EDUCATION POSTER PROJECT (EMEPP)