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After apartheid
South African art crosses boundaries

In a groundbreaking collaboration with the South African National Gallery (SANG) in Cape Town, the Rose Art Museum is about to open "Coexistence: Contemporary Cultural Production in South Africa," a survey of contemporary South African art featuring work created in the years since apartheid was abolished there in 1990. Curated by Pamela Allara, associate professor of art history at Brandeis, Marilyn Martin, director of art collections at Iziko Museums of Cape Town, and Zola Mtshiza, assistant curator at the SANG, "Coexistence" will include work made by black and white artists that reflects the countryís rich history of spirited creativity.

Allara has made several trips to South Africa, and her Boston-area home is filled with the evidence ó from local street art like a chicken crafted from colorful discarded plastic bags to fine art prints by South African artist Kim Berman that allude to the controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1998 to further the post-apartheid healing process. "The exhibition at the Rose came out of my long-time friendship with Kim Berman," she explains. Berman, an internationally recognized printmaker, got her MFA in 1988 at the Museum School, and thatís where she and Allara met. "Kim went back to Johannesburg and started the Artist Proof Studio, a community-based printmaking studio that allows blacks who have no education to train as artists." This led Berman to create a nationwide project teaching people in rural areas to make salable items out of handmade paper ó stationery or gift boxes, for example ó to improve their economic situation, and also to found an ongoing, community-based AIDS-awareness project.

"Iím interested in the way in which art in South Africa seems to serve so many different functions there from what it does here," Allara continues. "Itís really geared to social action and the ideal of the artist as an artistic citizen, someone who not only does their own work but works with the community, using peopleís own creativity to help them come out of poverty." Allara herself has long been interested in Social Realist art; she is the author of a biography of 20th-century American realist painter and activist Alice Neel, and her goal in mounting this exhibition is not only to show "that there are tons of good artists in South Africa, which there are," but also to show how artists there are linking all segments of society and causing formerly disparate traditions to come together. For example, both folk art and the German Expressionism of artists like George Grosz are invoked by self-taught South African artist Willie Bester, who makes large assemblages from material he finds in junkshops or on the street. Besterís Head North (1997), on loan to the Rose from SANG, is a big metal Afrikaner ox with an AK-47 on its back. The ox is a central image for both native and Afrikaner societies, perhaps bringing particularly to mind the Afrikaners who traveled inland from the Cape Town area in the early 19th century.

Then thereís the problem of AIDS in South Africa. Sue Williamson has interviewed patients, photographed them, and then graffitiíd their statements in public, in an attempt to counteract the shame and silence that surround this disease. Allara says, "I really want people to think about artists not just alone in the studio but being out in the world, making significant contributions both with their own art and by helping others discover and use their creativity."

"Coexistence: Contemporary Cultural Production in South Africa" will be at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, 415 South Street in Waltham, from January 22 through June 29. Call (781) 736-3434.

Issue Date: January 9 - 16, 2003

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