Hunt for apartheid-era black art

Vivid paintings of Zulu warriors and strife-torn black townships were shunned as too controversial, or simply too African, by mostly white South African art collectors under apartheid, and some were even banned.

But many paintings were quietly snapped up by foreign diplomats or visitors and spirited out of the country to adorn the walls of homes and boardrooms around the world.

The Ifa Lethu foundation, supported by the ministry of culture, is trying to bring those works back to South Africa to display them in a touring exhibition of schools and community centers.

“This is about inspiring South Africans and forcing both black and white to confront their past and to celebrate what we have been able to achieve despite all the pain,” Ifa Lethu (Our Culture) Chairwoman Mamphela Ramphele told Reuters at the project launch in Soweto.

The traveling exhibition is also meant to educate young South Africans about the country’s violent struggle against white rule and the sacrifices made by their parents’ generation.

“It is making people aware of who they are and where they come from,” said jazz maestro Hugh Masekela, who is backing the project. “If you don’t know where you come from then you don’t know where you are going.”

The project first started when Australian diplomat Diane Johnstone donated a collection of 17 art works amassed during a posting to South Africa in the violent 1970s to the Pretoria Art Museum. That inspired a wider hunt for similar works.

Ifa Lethu has retrieved more than 60 works, including sketches of ghoulish figures depicting the 1976 Soweto street riots, a picture of women protesting apartheid laws, and vibrant paintings of traditional Zulu life.

Artist Sipho Ndebele sold his paintings of township life to Italian, German, and U.S. diplomats and visitors after they were largely shunned by local buyers. Now one buyer from the United States has agreed to return some of it to join the exhibition.

“It is important for the young generation to know the history of our lives in art form,” he said. “Despite the pain and grime of our lives, it is beautiful when we put it on paper.” ‘ Reuters.

October 2006
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