In 2019, the Standard Bank Gallery hosted a major exhibition of artworks produced by Black South African artists from the twentieth century (Fig. 1). Titled A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists (1970-1990), the show was curated by Same Mdluli, at the time the newly appointed director of the Standard Bank Gallery, and this was her first major curatorial intervention as director. A Black Aesthetic was anchored by the University of Fort Flare's storied collection of twentieth-century Black art, which was initially historicized by Edward J. de Jager (1992) in his well-known Images of Man publication (Fig. 2). Among others, scholars like James Macdonald (2020: 94) were congratulatory of the overall “success” Mdluli achieved through the various “curatorial imperatives” pioneered in this show. However, what interests me is how the exhibition inspired what Thuli Gamedze (2019) described as “a significant art historical exchange” between Mdluli and the prominent art critic Athi Mongezeleli Joja.
This public debate between Mdluli and Joja was itself a milestone on several fronts. Unlike the controversy that circled the exhibition Black Modernisms in South Africa (1940-1990) held at the Wits Art Museum in 2016, wherein the exhibition curator Anitra Nettleton, Professor Emeritus at the University of Witwatersrand, was accused of perpetuating problematic race dynamics that privilege White intellectuals as “saviors” of Black heritage (Fikeni 2016), A Black Aesthetic exposed the intellectual disharmony that persists among the contemporary vanguard of Black professionals within South Africa's visual arts space. Joja (2019a) penned a thorough and disapproving evaluation of the exhibition, and although he praised the show for its relevance and scale, he concluded that it lacked “the quality and rigour that would inspire critical curiosity and verve. ” Joja (2019a) further lamented the “insipid article” contributed by Zakes Mda (2019) and Mdluli's (2019a) own essay in the thick and beautifully printed catalogue (Fig. 3), which in his view, left “a lot to be desired” (Joja 2019a).
In her terse defense against Joja, Mdluli1 evoked David Nthubu Koloane's (1998) iconic essay “Art Criticism for Whom? ” published over two decades prior. Mdluli (2019b) appropriated Koloane's voice, quite cunningly, to discredit Joja's review by expressing that “Koloanes reflection on art criticism is thus important as a basis for framing why certain views on visual arts are often grossly misplaced” (my emphasis). According to Mdluli, Joja's sentiments revealed an “idleness in arts writing” that was potentially “detrimental to demystifying the perception that art is elitist. ” The reasons why Mdluli was not amused by Joja's justified critique of her show, fascinating as it was, are immaterial here. What interests me is how Mdluli adopted the position that Joja's criticism—although she did not point to him directly—fell within the ambit of critical writings about the visual arts that were “grossly misplaced” and further insinuated that such writings were reactionary and dismissive of “Black women in professional (visual art) spaces. ” Mdluli disparaged Joja's review by mentioning that “the exhibition received a good balance of well-considered coverage,”2 which “did not present a theorized, scholarly, and academic interrogation of the art pieces. ” It is apparent that Mdluli was falling back on the “serious” versus “popular” criticism continuum in making these remarks. That is, the “well-considered coverage” of the show Mdluli mentioned in her response was paradigmatically populist—in the sense that it was targeted to a wider audience— nonelitist, and nonacademic, whereas Joja's woefully “narrow short sightedness” and by implication “serious” criticism, was “void of fully grasping the broader picture of the narrative presented in an exhibition of this scale” (Mdluli 2019b).
In his own rebuttal to Mdluli, Joja (2019b) recognized the disavowal of “serious” critical thinking about art implicit in Mdluli's statements, postulating that:
Art criticality, it seems, is only possible if it does not step on toes or explain, in a critical fashion, the misadventures of our deeply problematic cultural field. If that is the case, we are clearly not mitigating the mediocrity parading around with celebrated virility, we are abetting it.
In keeping with Joja's initial discursive review of the exhibition, his retort to Mdluli was densely theoretical and emblematic of “serious” criticism. While methodically deconstructing every aspect of the exhibition, its curation, theoretical framing, catalogue, and Mdluli's emotive apologetic of the show, Joja (2019b) made an impassioned plea for the continued acknowledgement of “art criticism as [a] form of critical participation in the visual arts. ” This enthralling parley between Mdluli and Joja is exemplary of how the “serious” versus “popular” art criticism dialectic is constantly weaponized to advance particular agendas. I agree with Gamedze's (2019) astute reconciliation of the meaning of this intellectual bout between prominent voices in South African art, wherein she read this as a unique opening for the “disturbance” of how Black artistic history is theorized and studied. My take is that this disturbance can only fully materialize if we forego the “serious” versus “popular” art criticism binary which seemed to be at the core of the Mdluli-joja dispute. In order to actualize “a more substantive account and possibility for scholarship” on Black artists, as Mdluli (2019a: xix) had hoped the exhibition would inspire, the history, and indeed the present and future, of Black artistic practices in South Africa must be fully cured of harmful binary positions that pit different, but equally important intellectual reactions to Black art against each other. Lest we forget, these false and hierarchical demarcations are descendants of colonial and racist attitudes that sought to relegate Black creativity and Black intellectualism to “a different temporal order” (Joja 2019a).
In this paper, I am interested in how the “serious” versus “popular” art criticism dialectic was at the nexus of the Mdluli-Joja debate. While acknowledging the intersectionality between “serious” and “popular” art criticism, I argue for the absolute suspension of this binary, in favor of a broader excavation of the overlooked and deep heritage of Black intellectualism about twentieth-century South African art. A brief analysis of art criticism essays published in The Bantu World newspaper during the mid-1940s reveals the unsuitability of the “serious” versus “popular” art criticism schema, especially when reading discourses on Black artistic practices generated by Black thinkers. The imperative to revisit the colonial and living archive to unearth hidden and forgotten Black intellectual traditions dealing with Black art from the twentieth century must be the primary concern of those who profess to be champions of Black aesthetics.
UNMASKING THE “SERIOUS” VERSUS “POPULAR” CRITICISM SCHISM
The “serious” versus “popular” criticism schism is a legacy of Western hierarchal systems that sought to draw distinctions between the “fine” and the “popular” arts. Classical Western art criticism during the late nineteenth and early parts of the twentieth centuries was predicated on a genuine belief that the art critic was an intellectual voice that represented public sentiment in matters related to aesthetics. To this end, Western art criticism was, in form and outlook, a decidedly “populist” practice. Yet in their role as public spokesperson about art it was accepted that the critic's “judgement should be incorruptible” (Groys 2008: 111). Thus, even though art criticism during this time was oriented toward the public, the critic was revered and given immunity to be candid and unbiased in their evaluation of art. However, this immunity slowly evolved into absolute sovereignty, where the Western critic eventually adopted a voice that was antipublic and nonpopulist in its character and intent. By the mid-twentieth century much of Western art criticism had become densely theoretical, aloof, and disconnected from the general public. This modernist form of avant-garde art criticism, which was classified as “serious” or “professional, ” had essentially “excommunicated itself” from society (Groys 2008: 113).
This Euro-American approach to writing and philosophizing about art was imported to South Africa, where discourses on art writing—be it art produced by White or Black artists—have always been suspended between the “popular” versus “serious” art criticism dialectical. In what is perhaps the most comprehensive study on “White art criticism”3 in South Africa during the twentieth century, Leoni Schimdt (1976: 140) claimed that art criticism in the country was of a “low standard. ” For Schimdt, South African art criticism fell short of the ideal version of “serious” criticism produced through a “systematic procedure, i.e., a balance between description, interpretation, and evaluation” (1976: 117). Schimdt went on to suggest that the “South African critic who attempts a serious critical investigation and assessment of works of art, is hampered by the necessity of adapting to the ill-informed art public in South Africa” (1976: i; my emphasis).4 Similarly, during his professorial inaugural lecture in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Pretoria, Felix G. E. Nilant (1971: 1) warned against the “ill-informed” and “irresponsible publicity, ” i.e., populist art criticism that was being paddled by newspapers and magazines during the 1960s and 1970s. For Nilant, it was the duty of the educated intellectual—using various communication tools such as newspapers, books, public lectures, and television—to enlighten and guide the masses about art, pronouncing that “there rests an important duty on the universities and other educational institutions in South Africa to assist people to become more conversant with art.”5 It was generally accepted that the newspapers and magazines that informed the South African public about new developments and happenings in the world of art were not generating qualitatively “serious” content, akin to the art criticism emerging from America and Europe at the time.
Some years later, Marion Arnold (1984), who held the position of “senior art critic” for The Pretoria News during the 1980s, echoed the “serious” versus “popular” criticism dialectic by championing the professionalization of art criticism in the country. Arnold cited the likes of Clement Greenberg, Roger Fry, Meyer Schapiro, and John Ruskin—White men from the West—as being “the most eloquent and perceptive art critics” (1984: 7) who provided the blueprint of how art criticism ought to be. Arnold was unrelenting in making the case for art criticism as a specialized vocation in South Africa, going as far as suggesting that it is permissible that “the artist may be an amateur, but the art critic must be a professional. ” In another comprehensive study of the methods of art criticism, Ingrid Stevens also synthesized art criticism in South Africa as being “a relatively immature and unsophisticated field, existing mainly in the form of newspaper criticism and for a small audience” (1997: ii). Although Stevens did not adopt the patronizing tone towards the public and the mass media evident in Nilant (1971) and Schimdt (1976), she also reemphasized the relative underdevelopment of “serious” art criticism in the country. Paraphrasing the words of Flazel Friedman (1996), Collin Richards, one of the torchbearers of academic art criticism, also concluded, famously, that “rigorous critical discourse is about as common as the unicorn in South Africa” (1998: 75). Likewise, Olu Oguibe's entry in one of the most significant publications on art criticism in Africa during the twentieth century also distinguished between what he called “the serious vocation of modern art criticism in Africa” (1998: 99; my emphasis) and the “popular” variant. Oguibe lamented the fact that Africa—and here he excluded South Africa from his examination—had been unable “to go beyond a popular criticism. ” While Oguibe was more optimistic about the situation in South Africa—as opposed to the South African-based scholars cited before him—it is undeniable that he too subscribed to the “popular” versus “serious” criticism dichotomy in his assessment of the undercurrents of art intellectualism on the continent.
“Serious” or “professional” art criticism is vital for the cultivation of inspired conceptual and scholarly readings of art, and if the professionalization of art criticism in (South) Africa means securing the art critic income sustainability and career longevity, then “serious” art criticism must be promoted. However, the hard boundary between “serious” and “popular” art criticism inevitably disadvantages creative and intellectual histories that were codified as “outsider, ” “other, ” and “alien. ” To tie this back to my central thesis, if “serious” art criticism within the mainstream White media in South Africa was paltry and of a “low standard, ” and if the general White public was ill-informed to the point of being unable to “distinguish between art and kitsch” (Nilant 1971:1), then surely the art criticism and commentary generated by Black writers about the art produced by Black artists was worse. Since the White media was far more resourced and advanced in its operational output than the Black press—newspapers that published content produced by Black intellecturals specifically for a Black readership—and since there was no university providing specialized postsecondary art training for Black students outside of the University of Durban-Westville and University of Fort Hare, which opened their art departments in 1962 and 1974 respectively, then there was no way that Black art criticism could flourish to the “serious” and professional heights of Euro- American criticism. And even on the off chance that Black art criticism existed, then it was certainly not in a better state of affairs than White art criticism. However, these assertions cannot be taken as absolute facts. This kind of rationalization resulted in some of the champions of Black intellectualism during the last century, such as Koloane, to erroneously but forgivably perceive art criticism—and here I presume he was referring to “serious” criticism—as “something which was virtually nonexistent within the broader context of the South African community” (Koloane 1998: 69; my emphasis). The denial of the existence of art criticism as part of Black intellectual endeavor during the twentieth century is, to echo Joja once more (2019a), “the disavowal” of Africa's imprint on global modernization.
In order to advance what Mdluli (2019a: xxii) had described as a Black aesthetic—the artistic illustration of the “realities of the Black experience” through “Black expressive modes”—it is necessary to first debunk the inaccurate notion of the “virtual nonexistence” of art criticism among the Black public and its popular press during the twentieth century. The revival of the history of Black intellectualism on Black art will inspire counterdiscourses on Black art criticism and scholarship in South Africa. To this end, even at this advanced stage of the game, where it might seem that all the pressing revisionist work in South African art history has been done, delving into the archive is essential for scholars, curators, and cultural pundits to develop emancipated historical discourses of Black art and its scholarship not bound in the colonial binaries of self and other, art and craft, “serious” and “popular, ”’ etc. Raimi Gbadamosi (2019) reminds us that the archive, as an inanimate entity, cannot speak. It is the researcher or scholar who speaks through their interpretation and appropriation of the archive. Thus, it matters greatly, especially within the South African context, for different voices to speak at and through the largely untapped Black art criticism archive.
The problem is that the manner in which Black art in South Africa was reviewed by White intellectuals, who scavenged on the library-based and living Black archive, was predicated on a colonial logic. As Achille Mbembe writes, the noun Black typifies “exclusion, brutalization, and degradation, ” further asserting that Blackness is “the ultimate sign of the dissimilar, of difference and the pure power of the negative” (2017:6,11). Thus, throughout the twentieth century, artistic production by so-called Bantu (Black) artists and its criticism was itself excluded, brutalized, and degraded by a White—and by design racist—art ecosystem (Koloane 1998: 70). Throughout the twentieth century, it was common to find critical reviews in European and American scholarship of non-Western art forms as primitive and nonmodernist, especially images that mimicked Western styles. Thus, Black art during the twentieth century, no matter how avant-garde or inspired, was relegated to the primitive stasis of artistic evolution within Euro-American criticism. Similarly, the local South African art market, itself a kind of semiprovincial outpost of the Euro-American art canon, was dismissive of the creative achievements of Black artists. Black artists were therefore in a “double isolation” within South Africa and in the west (Nicodemus and Romare 1997: 63).
Lize van Robbroeck confirms that the treatment of Black creativity in the White press versus the Black press in South Africa was reflective of the broader race narratives linked to colonial conquest and empire:
[T]he earliest White writings about the “pioneer” modern Black painters tended to dismiss their works as childlike and only partially successful attempts at mimicry, whereas [H. I. E.] Dhlomo and other Black authors interpreted their art as acts of indisputable mastery (2007: 55).
Among others, van Robbroeck's (1990, 1992, 1998, 2003, 2006) career-long assessment of the contempt of White intellectuals writing about Black art during the twentieth century is by far the most resourceful academic inquiry of the myopic White gaze and speculative armchair research practices that resulted in essential- ized readings of the art produced by Black artists. One of the key observations van Robbroeck makes regarding White intellectual- ism about Black art is that the “writing on Township Art is largely a-contextual” (1998: 4). In other words, the commentary on and analysis of Black art by White writers was prone to abstracting the artwork from its place of making, i. e., the material, social, cultural, and ideological conditions that necessitated its creation. For example, in one sweeping sentence, Elizabeth Rankin completely misjudged Winston Saoli's art by stating that it tended to “exaggerate picturesque poverty” by displaying a “superficial sense of self-pity in a decorative and sentimental style” (1990: 27) (Fig. 4).
While Rankin was correct in recognizing the subliminal representation of poverty in Saoli's art, the acontextual tone she adopts that sees this as displaying “superficial self-pity” was not sincere to the harsh existential struggles Saoli had experienced. His tragic life story, which included imprisonment, homelessness, and a cancer diagnosis before his death, was prototypical of the sufferings of the vast majority of Black people during colonial and apartheid South Africa. Alas, Rankins review of his art was completely dismissive and unconcerned with the material and social circumstances that underpinned Saoli's creativity.
THE SOLUTION: TRANSCEND THE “SERIOUS” VERSUS “POPULAR” CRITICISM BINARY
Not enough work has been done to appreciate and decode the conceptual nuances or even the very existence of Black art criticism from the twentieth century. In part, this gap has been exacerbated by the nonacknowledgement of “systems of art criticism which come from other communities of people” outside of Euro- American intellectualism (Congdon 1989: 177). In refuting the laughable notion that critical thinking about art in Black communities did not occur during the twentieth century, we must rediscover the purpose, function, and characteristics of criticism dealing with Black aesthetics as recorded by Black intellectuals. The hope of this exercise is not to provide a corrected or “right” version of how Black creativity was (and should be) critiqued by Black intellectuals. As Boris Groys (2008: 5) reminds us, “whoever decides anything about art can make mistakes. ” As such, I am by no means suggesting that the criticism presented by Black voices was somehow purer or more benevolent than what was projected by the White literati, but rather, it was a form of intellectualism that was completely ignored and now demands systematic scrutiny, especially as we advocate for a redeemed criticism and art histories dealing with Black aesthetics.
Over four decades ago a brilliant essay titled “The African Critic, ” by Es'kia Mphahlele, explicated the role of cultural criticism in Africa, be it “serious” or “popular. ” Originally written in 1975, when Mphahlele was living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the article cautions that the cultural critic in Africa cannot afford to mimic the Western logic of becoming “so hardened and void of compassion… Because whatever we find fault with in an artist, particularly at this formative stage for literature as a modern institution, is still an African reality, not necessarily a monstrosity” (2002: 382). Although Mphahlele references the practice of literature, his tidings were certainly applicable to and relevant for visual arts criticism. As a latter-day New African intellectual, Mphahlele was advocating for an instrumentalist criticism. But it was equally important that the functional purpose of Black art and its criticism did not contaminate the aesthetic progression of African creativity, as he so eloquently argued:
Our aesthetics should describe both the constant and the variable. If we need an ideology, within national and pan-African boundaries, to help us arrive at an aesthetic, we shall have to be careful not to trap ourselves in a corner. Just as ideology is a historical moment, so are art products historical items—i. e., fashioned by historical moments. Today we need this kind; tomorrow we need another; the next day we may return to today's source of moral guidance. To try to sound transcendental about our aesthetics, about literature itself; to try to pretend that today's answers will be tomorrow's is to be romantic. But, while we live, let's work toward an aesthetic that will answer today's vital questions (Mphahlele 2002: 388).
Here Mphahlele pushes for the realization that the texture and character of any criticism are bound to the vectors of time and space. Thus Black intellectualism on art is not and should never be timeless or transgenerational. Art criticism of Black aesthetics must speak of its era and should be reflective of the sociocultural and political dynamics from whence it came. The trouble with Black art criticism in South Africa is the void in chronological, thematic, and canonical (for lack of a better term) historiciza- tions that will arm contemporary art scholars with the necessary grammar to formulate a criticism of Black aesthetics for our times, which does not recycle bygone theoretical dispositions and unwanted binaries. For Mphahlele and other Black thinkers, the conditions from whence the cultural product was produced were vital for articulating and appreciating its aesthetics—hence the maliciousness of the a-contextual White literature on Black art. I defer to Mphahlele's words once more:
An aesthetics begins with the very dust you kick around, the shit you smell, the houses you look at that make your environment and that you live in, the quality of life around you. In other words, with place and all the benevolence and tyranny you get from it (Mphahlele 2002: 380).
Again Mphahlele suggests that meaningful criticism needs to be grounded in some kind of phenomenological experience of the environment, out of which the creative object being appraised emanates. To this end, even though many well-meaning White scholars made significant contributions to our understanding of twentieth century creativity by Black artists, they were not appropriately armed to intellectualize the aesthetics of artists who lived and worked in Black urbanisms because they did not possess a lived encounter of those spaces. In his landmark Being Black in the World, Chabani Manganyi (1973) expressed concern that too much of what had been written about Black life in South Africa was, for the most part, interpreted and translated by White intellectuals. Manganyi stressed that White scholars were incapable of offering an honest account of Black life, especially within the context of the twentieth century, because “the White experience is so existentially distant from the Black experience” (1973: 9). For him, it was the responsibility of the “the Black scholars of this country who will first of all ask the right sort of questions with a greater probability of arriving at the best answers” (1973: 8). This “for Blacks by Blacks” stance adopted by both Mphahlele and Manganyi further justifies the need for the excavation of Black intellectualism about Black art from the twentieth century.
However, within a South African context especially, White intellectuals cannot simply be terminated as being incapable of thinking critically about Black creativity in constructive ways. In reality, White curators, journalists, art historians, and art critics have played an ambivalent role in the appraisal of Black art. On the one hand, they have provided invaluable and at times diligently researched literature on Black creativity, especially from the twentieth century, literature that emerging Black scholars like myself depend on. But on the other hand, and as already noted, much of their writing has been generated through colonial ideologies and racist impulses that filtered through their analyses of the meaning of Black art and its place within the South African art canon. White writers have been and continue to be complicit in producing acontextual readings and inaccurate scholarship of Black art that captions Dr. Phuthuma Seoka (Figs. 5a-b) and Johannes Maswanganyi (Fig. 6) as Venda artists for example (de Villiers-Human 2012), while both artists are not of Tshiveṋda descent.
That said, White voices, alongside Indian and Colored intellectuals, have a part to play in cataloguing and appraising Black aesthetics. Ultimately, art criticism in South Africa, even that dealing with Black aesthetics, must be multicultural, multiethnic, multimodal, and multilinguistic. Also, the “serious” versus “popular” divide must fall, so that the various layers, gradients, and forms of intellectualism on Black aesthetics are accorded primacy, without favoring specific genres or caliber of criticism. As Katy Deepwell (2019) noted in her summary of the discussions and meetings that we held post the Art Criticism and Africa conference hosted by the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) in London in 1996 and a follow up meeting in Dakar, Senegal, in 2003, art criticism cannot be a practice confined to the art academy, galleries, and museums. While highlighting the valuable role an association of art critics can play in advancing the practice, Deepwell further warned that any national professional bodies formed within Africa must seriously guard against the temptation of those organizations being a gentlemens club, or in the case of South Africa, a gentlewomen's club. As she put it:
We also discussed quite frankly the need to create an association which could move beyond one's immediate circle of friends or colleagues, avoid nepotism or the promotion of particular lines of enquiry for contemporary art, and instead foster a collegial approach to interpreting contemporary art in many forums (Deepwell 2019).
While a national association of art critics is yet to be instituted in South Africa, there is an exciting array of publications, writing groups, collectives, projects, and existing associations such as, but not limited to, Artthrob, the Black Mark Collective, the Bubblegum Club, and the South African Visual Arts Historians (SAVAH) association, whose various activities contribute to art criticism practice in South Africa. For example, in 2019, SAVAH, with generous support from the Javett Foundation, provided participation grants for emerging scholars from around the country to attend the association's annual conference held at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town (Fig. 7). The participation grant gave these upcoming, mostly Black, scholars the opportunity to engage with celebrated artist Bongi Dhlomo (Fig. 8) and art historian Thembinkosi Goniwe (Fig. 9).
TOWARDS NEW HISTORIES OF DLACK ART CRITICISM
Advocating for new histories of Black intellectualism first requires a dismantling of existing taxonomies that do not recognize its existence. For example, Schimdt's and Nilant's chastising of “popular” art criticism in South Africa during the 1970s, or Koloane's defensive against the racial subjugation implicit in art writing, or, in this most recent case, Mdluli's (2019b) attack on what she sees as “pseudo-politically ambitious thinkers, ” have deflected attention away from the real work of revisiting the archive to recover the nuances of twentieth-century Black intellectualism about art. At this point, it is necessary to present a working definition of Black art criticism, which is not limited to the biographical or biological art writing that concerns itself almost exclusively with the social and artistic histories of Black artists. Black art criticism is a context-specific way of thinking, writing, and philosophizing about art through the lens of the Black experience. As suggested by Joja (2014), Black art criticism is about generating “criticism in the dark,” which acknowledges that the dynamics and contexts wherein Black art writing developed were qualitatively distinct from the mainstream art criticism practice in South Africa throughout the twentieth century. Expanding Carolyn Hamilton's (2021) thesis regarding the influence of oral- ity on modern Black intellectualism, Black art criticism is not limited to the written word. It considers how Black intellectuals thought deeply and seriously about the artwork, whether that thinking was catalogued in written text or otherwise. Thus, Black art criticism is the discourse of how Black people think, write, and talk about their creative practices in critical terms. Black art criticism is a story of South African art criticism in situ—that is, in Black urban spaces and their village-based equivalents.
Elsewhere I explore the archive of the Black press to dispel the erroneous stance of the nonexistence of Black art criticism. In a book chapter titled “Black Art Criticism in The Bantu World during the 1930s, ” I show that art criticism not only flourished within the Black press but did so as a public practice (Sidogi 2021). As an extension to this initial reading of art criticism published during the 1930s in The Bantu World, I will reference two further examples that appeared in the newspaper during the mid-1940s. These two articles surfaced toward the end of World War II, a period wherein Black art and its intellectualization had taken a back seat to more pressing historical events. The author(s) of both these articles were not identified. This erasure of authorship was caused by the fact that, at times but rarely, articles published in the Black press were written by White journalists who were intentionally veiled. However, it is highly unlikely that the articles I have included here were written by White journalists. Secondly, Black journalists preferred to use pseudonyms or to go unacknowledged because of the censorship and danger that came with being an opinionated Black intellectual during colonial and apartheid times. At this point, the identity of the author(s) of these articles is immaterial. What matters is that they were published in a Black newspaper, for Black readers, and they represented what could be described as Black aesthetics. But more pointedly, they can be classified as early iterations of Black intellectualism on Black art.
The first article, published in 1944, focused on the painter John Koenakeefe Mohl and the studio he had opened in his Sophiatown home. About half of that article is quoted here to provide a more complete picture of how formative Black writing on Black aesthetics materialized.
In the White Studio, as its students call it, Mr Mohl intends, not only to open up another field of expression for African talent, but to spread a knowledge of art among all sections of his countrymen. Discussing his project with a representative of the Bantu World Mr. Mohl said: “A very high percentage of our talent lies buried. It is for Africans themselves to unearth it, train it and enable it to make its full contribution to the culture of our country. What is more, African artists will be among the foremost interpreters of our people to the other races. Our efforts in this studio aim at encouraging African talent through bringing within the reach of promising pupils a good training in painting.” Though Mr. Mohl's ambition is to see more and more African artists, he realises that it is not in the best interest of his people to let them go away with the impression that training alone will make a good painter of anyone. Talent, is the thing this studio aims at developing…. Young Shadrack Sesinyi, for instance, is only twelve years of age. He goes to school during the day and in his spare moments attends to his art lessons. He shows considerable skill in the drawing of buildings. His sketch of the new hospital near Coronation Township Johannesburg, is striking proof of the boy's understanding of the laws of perspective. Another outstanding drawing by this youngster is the sketch he made of the Anglican Church at Sophiatown.
… Mr. John Koenakeefe Mohl is an African from Bechuanaland. Born thirty-nine years ago, he was sent at an early age to South- West Africa where he studied painting at the Windhoek School of Art. On his return to the Union he settled in Johannesburg. Some of his works, shown at the Empire Exhibition in 1936 were bought by collectors from America and Europe…. His one-man show, held in the premises of the Transvaal Art Society in Johannesburg last year, evoked wide comment of a favourable nature in the South African Press (Africans Taught the Art of Painting 1944: 10).
The first attribute of this article is the care and attention placed on the social history of the artist. Linked to this aspect of introducing the artist to the public, a portrait photograph of Mohl was inserted in the article, wherein he is depicted as a respectable individual, dressed in a plush suit, white shirt, and dotted tie. This representation of an artist as a professional, educated urbanite was paramount to the entire project of The Bantu World of celebrating Black progress in all sectors. Second, beside the brief account of Mohl's training, considerable focus is placed on his studio and the art tutoring it offers to aspiring artists. Thirdly, there is emphasis on individual student artists and their work. The reading of Shadrack Sesinyi's sketches is compelling. Although these drawings were produced by a minor (12 years old), the journalist engages with them as if talking about the art of a master artist. Although not included in this quote, the article also spotlights the work of a female pupil who was part of “The Studio, ” which dispels the notion that Black women artists did not exist at that time. Fourthly, the artists are given an opportunity to voice their views and philosophy of art. Mohl reiterates that visual artists were the “foremost interpreters” of an African Renaissance that was brewing at the time, evident in his paintings (Fig. 10). And finally, the language in this article is nuanced in its exposition of the fine arts, namely, painting and drawing.
The second article I cite was actually focussed on a non-South African Black artist. The idea of the Black African as a global citizen was part of the founding principles of The Bantu World and, as such, it was not uncommon to find stories in the paper that had an international flavor on matters related to the war, the economy (e. g., the Great Depression of the 1930s), and of course the arts. To this end, one of the most rounded critical engagements with art produced in The Bantu World was in fact about an African American sculptor named Richmond Barthé. In 1945, a longer than usual essay was published about Barthé's creativity and personal history, which included an image of the artist (Fig. 11). What follows is about one-third of what was an exhaustive account:
Richmond Barthé, American Negro sculptor whose exhibitions have earned the plaudits of critics for more than a decade and whose works are in the museums and public buildings of half a dozen countries besides the United States, is finally convinced that he is beginning to create sculpture. A conscientious, modest, and burningly sincere artist, Barthé almost dismisses most of his past work and speaks hesitantly of works now in progress…. “I am really starting now, ” he said. “The pieces I have done up to now, the things on which I have made my reputation, are like melodies. Pleasant, yes. In doing them I was learning, growing up as an artist. I was acquiring techniques—though to me emotion is the prime element of sculpture, technique secondary. The heads and the dancing figures I have done, then, are my melodies. Now I am at work on my first symphonies. ”… Among his works are such widely varying subjects as a bust of the British actor John Gielgud as “Hamlet, ” which is an exhibition in the New Theatre in London, and figures of the great American leaders, Booker T. Washington and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, both at Armstrong High School in Richmond, Virginia…. Barthé lives simply in his studio, keeps no regular working hours, seeks no large commissions. He generally finds himself working on eight or ten pieces more or less at once. When he has crystallized a new idea, formulating the essence in a rough clay sketch, he can put it aside and return to finishing a portrait head (Famed U. S. Negro Sculptor Plans New Projects 1945: 4).
Several questions arise from and around this article. While it is obvious why an African American artist was spotlighted, as opposed to a White European or American artist, the specific focus on Barthé is unexplained. Was it because he was a sculptor who created lifelike sculptures of important historical Black persons, and Black subjectivity specifically? As confirmed by James Porter (1969: 136), throughout his career, Barthé always “maintained a special interest in race themes and race portraiture. ” Was The Bantu World hoping that Black sculptors in South Africa would also emulate the kind of sculptures Barthé was producing, both in terms of content and form? Did Barthé symbolize the apex of Black creativity which the newspaper wanted its Black readership to venerate? While these questions make for fascinating speculative history, the actual article was synchronous with the one on Mohl, both in terms of its tone and structure. While the author(s) for both articles are not named, there is a high likelihood that it was the same reporter, especially on account of the consistency in writing style. As with Mohl, a biography of the artist is presented, only this time much more comprehensively; the artist is given an opportunity to speak about their art; and lastly, there is the emphasis given to the actual art. However, as opposed to Mohl's article, there is a detailed exploration of the artist's process and the “varying subjects” of his work.
Of further interest is that in both articles the author highlights the critical acclaim the two artists have garnered. The fact that the writer/newspaper did not see themselves as a legitimizing entity for these artists, rather electing to deflect that function to other “prominent critics, ” is telling. That said, these two reviews of Mohl and Barthé, a painter and a sculptor, a Black South African (though born in Botswana) and an African American, are without exception among the most conclusive recordings from The Bantu World during the 1940s displaying the existence of a vibrant and formative art criticism tradition within the Black press. While I have spotlighted only two articles from one of the leading Black newspapers of the twentieth century, there is a whole archive of underexplored histories of Black intellectualism on Black art within the popular press. For example, from the 1970s journalists like Kaizer Ngwenya (although he mostly identified himself as a theater critic) also contributed countless art criticism articles and excerpts in, inter aha, Post, Sowetan, and Drum. A nonbinary and consolidated review of his writings will reveal a depth and expansiveness of intellectualism on Black art that remains hidden and ignored.
Groys (2008: 18) questions why art is not held to the same scrutiny as other populist cultural products found on the “open market. ” Responding to his own question, Groys wagers that art's alienation from the general public can be traced to the highbrow structures of knowledge production and appraisal that legitimize its existence and relevance, such as, but not limited to, “serious” art criticism. Regrettably, the existence of Black art criticism in South Africa was dismissed because it was concluded that the type of criticism published in the Black and White South African press did not fit into the rubric of “serious” intellectualism, but was better suited for the “open market. ” By forgoing this “serious” versus “popular” art criticism binary, we must unsettle the idea that art criticism produced by Black intellectuals about Black art did not exist during the twentieth century, simply because it did not conform to the non-open-market variant of art criticism championed by the art vanguard in the west.
Black intellectuals like Es'kia Mphahlele argued for an egalitarian association among the artist, the critic, the teacher, and the audience, going as far as to state that artists and by association critics should not be worshipped “as if they were a bunch of bearded barefoot messiahs who have drunk the milk of paradise” (2002: 382). There needs to be a more porous nonbinary consensus between “serious” and “popular” criticism. The Mdluli-Joja public rebuttal has exposed the deep chasm between “serious” and “popular” criticism within contemporary South African art practice. Regrettably, the main casualties in this tug-of-war are Black aesthetics and their intellectualization.
Beside holding one of the most revered positions in South African curatorial practice, Mdluli is also one of the few Black women curators with a PhD in art history, which she obtained from the University of Witwatersrand in 2015.
Among the positive reviews written about the exhibition was a glowing commendation by Robyn Sassen (2019), who assessed the show as a “cornerstone” whose “only pity” was “its limited run.”
Here I utilize the term “White art criticism” because Schmidt's sample of South African publications completely ignores those that came from the Black press. Her study looked at a total of nineteen White periodicals such as The Argus, Die Burger, The Pretoria News, The Star, The Sunday Times, etc. In fact, most texts from the twentieth century dealing with art criticism in South Africa were actually talking about art criticism in White newspapers, written by White journalists or scholars. This was fuelled by the myth that art criticism did not exist in Black newspapers and magazines.
It is worth highlighting here that Schmidt (1976) was referring to a White public as being “ill-informed, ” and if the White public was ill-informed, it was inconceivable that the situation would have been any better for the so-called backward, primitive, uncivilized Black populace.
Nilant's views were actualized some years later by Frieda Harmsen, who published a book aptly titled Looking at South African Art: A Guide to the Study and Appreciation of Art (1985), which sought to give White South African art lovers a blueprint of how to intellectually appreciate local art.