In 1967 the first issue of African Arts was published. In 1967 I first enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Wits), for a BA degree, majoring in English Literature, History of Art, and Fine Art, in a class entirely of white students. This was eight years after the English medium universities in South Africa had been closed to black students under the system of apartheid.1 Nationalist party rule had, in 1959, legislated this final educational discrimination in which black, white, “coloured,”2 and Indian people were separated into their own highly unequal educational systems. The mid-1960s nevertheless saw a generation of accomplished black artists (Sidney Kumalo, Ezrom Legae, Dumile Feni, among many others) emerge as powerful presences on the contemporary art scene.3 Despite the lack of access to tertiary education for these black artists, they had acquired formal art training at the men's recreation centre in Polly Street (Johannesburg) (Miles 2004), as others such as Azaria Mbatha and Cyprian Shilakoe had done at the Evangelical Lutheran Church art school at Rorke's Drift (Natal) (Hobbs and Rankin 2003). In this environment, the appearance of the first issues of African Arts probably did not have a wide impact in South Africa, although, by the early 1970s, the journal's art competition was a space through which Louis Maqhubela, Tito Zungu, Dumile Feni, and Cyprian Shilakoe were introduced to a wider international market (Anon. 1970, 1973). Inclusion in these issues of short pieces on the winners provided a beacon of recognition for those attempting to work against the overwhelming negation of African cultural achievement inherent in apartheid's separatism.
Under apartheid, objects made by African peoples were all placed in ethnographic museums, reflecting the Euro-American hierarchies of culture which apartheid strove to maintain. But while in Europe and the US the acknowledgement of the aesthetic value of African objects allowed them to be appropriated into the category of “art,” under apartheid ideology no such appropriation was possible in the public domain. When contemporary black artists made paintings or sculptures, they were classified in Afrikaans and at official institutions as “Bantoekuns” (Bantu-art) and thus placed on the same footing as the supposedly “primitive” forms of historical African art.
The art-history syllabi of all the Fine Arts Departments in South African “white” universities were, at that time, entirely Eurocentric, with some attention paid to white South African artists working within accepted European modernist modes (Nettleton 2006). In the three years of my undergraduate degree and the subsequent two of Honors courses, I, like most other students in these privileged and exclusively white spaces, had absolutely no formal exposure to any form of indigenous African art. Yet, in that predigital age, there lurked in the periodicals section of the art and architecture library at Wits two issues of African Arts, at which hardly anyone ever looked. These, the issues of 1967 and 1968, were to be my introduction to a world of images, aesthetics and knowledge unavailable elsewhere in Johannesburg, except, surprisingly, the Michaelis Art Library in Johannesburg's Public Library, which had a complete run of volumes from 1967 onwards. Starting an MA (by dissertation) on African art, I took out a personal subscription in 1973, but the Wits library only started subscribing from 1974. Prior to 1977, there were no academics in South Africa who had specialized in this area, so African Arts was to be a fundamental resource for me. That I was in a position of enormous advantage within the wider educational landscape of South Africa, having access to libraries in which these journals were housed and the means to buy my own subscription, was something of which I was constantly aware.
I introduced African art courses at Wits in 1977, first at postgraduate level, but then increasingly as part of the undergraduate curriculum. For many years, Wits was the only South African university with an Art History syllabus that included African art. While we were able to import books for the library, the availability of the many articles based in deep and sustained field-research in the pages of African Arts was to be key to our ability to teach. Some black artists and scholars excluded from our libraries had access to African Arts through the United States Information Service in Johannesburg or through private individuals' libraries.5 The journal's articles provided not only images and information, but also models for methodological approaches for use in our own research.6 But the focus of the journal also endorsed the view that African art was largely confined to sculpture of one kind or another, from west or central Africa, both of which views we quickly came to dispute.
The many African Arts articles that dealt with museum collections were also important in this history. Prior to 1978 there were no collections of artworks from Africa easily available for public viewing in South Africa.7 Through the 1960s and 1970s, one or two collectors acquired canonical pieces of historical African art and organized some exhibitions, many of which were staged at public museums8 not accessible to black viewers. Collections of South African historical African art were confined to ethnological museums across the country and were never displayed as “art,” because “art” in official apartheid thinking was something made by Europeans (Nettleton 1989). One of these museums was housed in the Anthropology Department of Wits and in its vitrines and stores was hidden William Burton's collection of Luba and Songye materials from the 1930s, alongside many other treasures (Leibhammer and Rankin-Smith 1992). As the “authentic” pieces advertised for sale in African Arts were from west and central Africa, the Burton collection was to provide us with an “authentic” base. But this categorical exclusivity also prompted us to value, collect, and display objects made by South African makers in the same space and to the same degree as contemporary works classed as “art” within the western episteme. The Wits Art Museum, funded by the Standard Bank of South Africa, not only established a collection of historical African art, but also expanded an understanding of what of “African art” comprised through the inclusion of beadwork, cloth, ceramics, and contemporary arts (Nettleton 2008, 2009).
Yet there were some problematic issues that threaded through our endeavors to put African art on the academic map as a legitimate area of study, and many of these are still unresolved today. Our students were, until the mid-1980s, all white, and they were reading in the pages of African Arts and books acquired over the years a view of African art/material culture that was researched and told almost exclusively by white researchers.9 It was a view that also largely excluded South Africa, unwittingly playing into apartheid ideology.10 We all know the reasons for this; some of us will acknowledge the degree to which it reflected power relations in the supposedly postcolonial period, but it is something which, as I look back on the forty-five years I have spent researching African art in South Africa, has been increasingly troubling.
In the first seven years of my teaching of African art at Wits, from 1977 to 1985, there were no formal classes in which black students could engage in this area. Through the 1970s to the mid-1990s I conducted informal, invited classes on African sculptural traditions at centers like FUBA, FUNDA, the Open School, the Africa Centre, and the Johannesburg Art Foundation where black students were able to enroll. Until 1985, few of the students at these classes would ever have access to the libraries that housed African Arts, and their only encounters with the journal might have been at the workshops to which I took copies for them to look through. The extraordinary images in the journal were often inspirational for most black students, especially those who were admitted to Wits in the late 1980s, as was the experience of seeing African art being taken seriously and accorded respect. Yet there was always a sense of discomfort in these situations, prompted by ambivalence. Some students challenged the right of white scholars to present this material at all; their concern was not only that much of the art under discussion was originally part of rituals, but that people from outside the culture could not fully understand their significance. Others, however, found the material and the ways in which it was presented affirmative of African cultural concepts and inspirational for their own artistic production.
In recent months the stakes relating to who has the right to speak about African art have been raised exponentially by a vociferous group of young black scholars. Their view is that African heritage has been misappropriated by white academics under a system of colonial control. Alongside their demands that the visible monuments of colonial and apartheid domination be removed, they want their voices to be heard in producing the knowledge that defines African histories and art.11African Arts has, since its inception during the dark days of apartheid, through the dawn of our democracy, to the postcolonial and global present, shifted in its focus and its scope, and now hopefully it will provide a platform for many more African voices to be heard.
See Nettleton (2006) for a discussion of how this impacted on art education in universities in South Africa.
The term “coloured” was, and still is, used in official South African parlance to denote persons of mixed race.
Coincidentally 1977 was also the year in which Walter Battiss published an article in African Arts on the Rorke's Drift Centre (Battiss 1977).
For example, the collector and dealer Vittorino Meneghelli had a library of African art books and a subscription to the journal, and he allowed artists like Lucky Sibiya to use this library.
In the period in question Elizabeth Schneider, Sandra Klopper, and I all completed PhD degrees on historical/modern arts among siNdebele-, isiZulu-, and tshiVenda-speaking peoples respectively. Catherine Vogel, Hazel Friedman, and Dian Levy completed MA dissertations on sePedi-, seTswana- (Ntwane), and siNdebele- speaking peoples' arts. Jane Duncan obtained an MA on contemporary artists working in Limpopo. All graduated from Wits.
Some South African museums, like Iziko's South African National Gallery, the Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg, or the National Culture History Museum in Pretoria, had holdings of west and central African objects, but these were never displayed. In 1978 the Wits Art Galleries started a collection of African “art” as defined in places such as the pages of African Arts. As Wits was open to black visitors, anyone could access displays of this collection. See Klopper (2004) for a critical account of collecting African Art in South Africa.
Among these were The Pretoria Art Museum and the Art Museum at the University of Stellenbosch (Nettleton 2013).
That this was still the case in the mid 1990s is reflected in Oguibe's (1995) review of the book Africa; Art of a Continent that accompanied the Africa ‘95 Festival in London. It is also borne out by the overwhelming whiteness of presenters at ACASA triennial symposia over the years.
Thomas Matthews (1977, 1979) published two articles in African Arts on mural painting in South Africa. These were, significantly, the only articles on South African traditional arts in the journal prior to 1985, when a special issue with South African arts as a central focus was published (Nettleton and Vogel 1985). Here the emphasis was still largely on two-dimensional forms. The idea that South Africa lacked a sculptural tradition was embedded in almost every general book on African art published between 1960 and 1990, because much of the sculpture produced in the region was primarily functional (Nettleton 2007).
These are often students aligned with the #Rhodesmustfall and #feesmustfall movements, but also include young academics who have formed associations like the Black Mark Collective (https://blackmarkcollective.wordpress.com). I have been a direct target of the latter's critique.