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

When White Was The Colour And Black The Number: Colour Tests From The 1970s by Sean O’Toole

In 1970, having completed his undergraduate studies at Michaelis School of Fine Art, Gavin Jantjes left South Africa on a scholarship to study at the Staatliche Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg, Germany. In 1972, similarly enabled by a bursary and fresh from winning the 1971 Art South Africa Today exhibition for his sculptural work Swing (1971), Malcolm Payne travelled to London to begin his postgraduate studies at Central St. Martins. In 1974, two years on from graduating and still based in Hamburg, Jantjes started work on A South African Colouring Book (1974-75), a series of eleven collage prints that juxtapose found images and text related to South Africa’s then apartheid context. At almost exactly the same time, Payne, working in a self-consciously Duchampian mode, oversaw the production of Colour Test (1974), a screenprint depicting a South African identity card with the face of its holder removed.

Both these works, authored in absentia so to speak, are seminal examples of South Africa’s agitprop graphic style, a declaratory practice often devoid of metaphor and bounded by the historical context out of which it emerged. Unlike many subsequent examples of work created in response to the apartheid context, A South African Colouring Book and Colour Test are marked by their conceptual clarity; while politically strident, both these graphic works retain an autonomy that is pivotal to the afterlife of any art object. Partly, I will argue, this is because they do not abdicate invention and thought to ideology, a feature of so much art making (including photography) authored by South African artists in the period 1970 to present. Colour, always a woolly concern for an engaged artist, is partly to account for the persistent afterlife of these two works, the former included in the collection of the Tate Modern, the latter shown on Okwui Enwezor’s survey exhibition, Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s.

Produced in the wake of the massive proliferation in artistic strategies of the preceding decade, Jantjes’ work deploys the formal strategies of Warhol’s paint-by-numbers work, Do it Yourself Flowers (1962), to markedly different effect, while Payne, a notable colourist, demonstrates both continuity with, and opposition to the exuberant graphic style of his mentor, Walter Battiss. Which highlights a possible critique of both their works. Remarking on the commonalities that bound many of the practices refined in the 1960s, Clement Greenberg, in a 1968 essay revisiting his celebrated 1939 essay ‘Avant Garde and Kitch’, states: “Design or layout is almost always clear and explicit, drawing sharp and clean, shape or area geometrically simplified or at least faired and trued, colour flat and bright or at least undifferentiated in value and texture within a given hue.” The great champion of abstract expressionism compressed his dismissal of this new art into a single word: linear. A fair synonym for linear, albeit not a singular word, is the phrase “free from irregularities”: in this close reading, I will argue that A South African Colouring Book and Colour Test achieve their ongoing impact precisely because of the irregularities they manifest as artworks authored during a period of heightened social and cultural activism.

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