The Black Aesthetics exhibition and creative discourse around it were undoubtedly one of the few significant cultural landmark and stimulating events this year.
In fact, it was supposed to mark a historical turning point in the elevation of the black arts but it shed more emotional heat than intellectual light on the meaning of the historical role of black artists.
Black artists have always been condemned by history to define themselves, fulfil their mission and reflect their world experience in their own terms.
This pioneering project was initiated by leading female African art historian Dr Same Mdluli who manages the Standard Bank Art Gallery and curator of the much vaunted exhibition that was at the gallery.
It ran at the gallery from October – 6 December 2019.
In a pivotal move, she followed up by opening up opportunities for her peer and contemporary curator and academic, Dr Bonginkosi Goniwe to mount a vivid and memorable exhibition on the highly talented David Koloane, A Resilient Visionary.
Many of those who have been to both have confessed to being gobsmacked and, curiously, described it as a ‘must see.’
Apparently, it was the first time in the history of black art, whatever that means, that all these black artists have been at the same place at the same time.
There was even talk to take it to the people, presumably in the townships. Nice as it is, the idea won’t fly as the people have other bread butter shelter and so called foreigners to worry about.
What made me uncomfortable about the underlying tone of the exhibition was the idea of ‘displacement’ of black artists and the desire to rehabilitate black artists’ work into the mainstream.
The aim of the exhibition was to “reposition their expression within the larger white South African art historical narrative.”
If my understanding of this premise is correct, black artists were dislocated and felt lost. This was simply because were neither acknowledged nor recognised by the mainly white mainstream.
Essentially, this was about integrating Black Aesthetics into the mainly and dominantly white mainstream galleries and creative industry.
Presumably, this white acceptance will, posthumously, make them feel at home and have a sense of belonging and ownership in elite spaces, now.
I think we must problematise the meaning or interpretation of Black Aesthetics, especially in this specific context.
What do we mean by that?
These black artists , including Dumile Feni, Winston Saoli and Gerard Sekoto, among others, have always been here, living, struggling, working and triumphing in an alternative world to one created for and by racists whites.
For example, an artist like Dumile Feni did what he did and was not necessarily affected or discouraged by material conditions.
At the risk of condoning racism and material poverty, Dumile drew wherever he was, be it township matchbox house or apartment in New York or UK.
The same with Soweto-based Winston Saoli who produced high quality work that turned him into a global star despite apartheid restrictions.
The creative master mind was the bold and daring creative’s like Gerard Sekoto turned their back on apartheid to pursue their dreams and ambitions in artistic world capitals like Paris.
They were creative and prophetic artistic voices that boldly defied apartheid and refused to be defined by its parochialism.
In fact, they did not wallow in self-pity because they were rejected by blind and myopic racial reasoning.
It is a serious indictment that leading art historians and curators now want to locate and redefine what they consider Black Aesthetics within the confines of a history and system that rejected, undermined and wished to destroy it.
The most significant and positive development from this exhibition was to “reopen the debate on the meaning of Black Aesthetics” and its essence.
But if we measure the existence, contribution and worth of Black artists by being integrated into and how well they are displayed or celebrated in a traditionally white racist and untransformed spaces that rejected and discriminated against them, then we have no business to talk about or reflect their work as Black Aesthetics.
Frankly, this understanding and interpretation is both disappointing and lacking in appreciation of the essence of Black Aesthetics, which, by their nature, are radical and grounded in black self-acceptance and self-worth.
Black Arts have a right to exist and defined on its own terms. It should have no preoccupation with white mainstream acceptance.
These are artists that – irrespective of their material poverty and spiritual richness – lived to fulfil their life purpose in an unequal world that rejected them because of skin colour.
Apartheid apparatchiks may have thought they had successfully condemned them to the margins to wither away, to be buried and die in lack of governmental support and resources.
But they were creative seeds that blossomed to create and produce works that reflected an exclusively black reality of defiant people making the best of the bad.
They were witnesses and prophetic voices that spoke about a past that had a bearing on the present and future.
What was outstanding about them was their resilience and defiance to reject limitations imposed by apartheid.
It did not really matter whether whites loved or hated them. They were too busy creating and producing to worry about small minded racists.
The essence of Black Aesthetics demanded that they not be preoccupied with what whites think.
Instead, they set out with the power in their hands to just do it to express their innermost thought and views, especially that which stirred in their souls.
Now this academic development to locate Black Aesthetics in the desire to be integrated or rehabilitated to an untransformed world of racism and inequality is misplaced.
What, exactly, are we saying about these voices whose works speak of resilience, determination and single-minded focus to express that which stirred in their souls?
Black Aesthetics has never been about being defined or interpreted through the white academic lens. Black Arts cannot be smoothened for it to be well adjusted in an untransformed environ.
There was something intuitively defiant in the spirit of these artists. They did not really care for living up to white standards or expectations, methinks. They had discovered their mission and fulfilled it.
They did their own creative things that transcended spaces.
Black Aesthetics is permanently grounded in Black Consciousness that espouses alternative values to the unjust and unequal status quo, including to reject collaboration with the racist system and its structures.
Essentially it was / is about being true to yourself and that which stirs in your soul.
Thus a proper understanding of these artists and their significance in history demands that they be judged on their own terms without exaggerated efforts to make them “feel at home” in a world that rejected them.
They should not be added as cast away appendages to white mainstream cultural spaces that now require to be raised from the dead only to be adapted and well-adjusted blacks looking for recognition in white spaces.
If we love and appreciate their self-sacrifice, selflessness and willing to serve history and posterity through their work, they must remain unbound and unbought with no sophisticated efforts or subtle co-option to integrate them into a racist and unequal world.
There is no reason to believe that this is what they desired except to assert their human rights to be unconditionally accepted as artists in their own right.
After 25 years of democracy, what we know is that the success of Black artists is being presented as heavily relies on living up to white academic standards and being well adjusted to not rocking the boat.
Enterprising and ambitious types can succumb to be subservient to rise in the ranks.
Bit this should not be at the expense of bastardising the true meaning of Black Aesthetics.
There will always be something uncomfortable about recognising and celebrating black artists by whether they are displayed or recognised in white creative spaces.
It is an open secret that these galleries and universities are largely untransformed.
No black person should be shy or afraid to assert their freedom of expression to glorify African arts without portraying them in the backdrop of white artistic expectation.
It is hoped that Black Aesthetics will, as hoped, stretch the spectrum of debate and encourage a spirit of self-determination.
The Black Aesthetics cannot be defined and restricted to the parameters of supremacy, racism, patriarchy and capitalism.
Black artists can stand up on their own to be judged on their own terms.
Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic and public servant. He writes in his personal capacity.