In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The South African Question and the Aesthetics of Disappearance by James Sey

Rather than tackle the nuances and complexities of the question of the uses of colour in recent South African art, which would have numerous counter-examples for every example adduced, this paper takes a different tack.

The paper argues that the major historical currents in SA art of the last thirty years or so fall into two general streams. Firstly, they were conditioned by protest and reflectionist critique in the apartheid era, which did indeed lend itself to the stark and monochromatic styles and palette of the constructionist agitprop poster, mural and realist scene. Secondly, a range of conceptual and ‘neoconceptual’ styles arose in the latter part of the apartheid era, and the post-apartheid years. Much of this was focused on so-called ‘new media’, characterised in turn by either impressionistic and widely varying video and installation work, or by shades of documentary photography, which carried on the anti-apartheid agitprop lineage.

In the first post apartheid decade, the simultaneous rise of the internet as a graphic and aesthetic medium and the globalisation of capitalism meant that the concept of a national character, and national identity itself, came under pressure.

If the ‘South African Question’ for art, then, is how to understand the colour palette in such a way that the country’s political and racial diversity is productively represented, how is such an ambition to be understood in the context of a globalised ‘aesthetics of disappearance’?

I use Virilio’s term here with some focus – his theorisation of a culture of ‘dromology’, of the realisation of the futurist dream of a culture of ‘speed and dynamism’, has been dramatised by the spread of ‘technologies of light’ – primarily the internet. These technical possibilities have homogenised national cultures and ‘flattened out’ the palette – both in the sense of colour and that of cultural experience – it is possible to have in our era. How is the South African Question – that of a national idea of colour – to be addressed in this context?

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