Arts and Culture 2007-2015

08Nov

The Art of Banking

First appeared
Thursday, 08 November 2012

 

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve written the words “Standard Bank” and “art” in the same sentence ... Well, at current exchange rates, I could probably cover my minimum monthly credit card payment and not much else. But the point is that the Standard Bank Group has received a lot of positive publicity from its substantial arts sponsorship portfolio: the National Arts Festival, the Young Artist Awards, jazz festivals and of course its gallery and visual art collections. The arts community or, to phrase it in economic terms, the arts sector – producers, consumers, organisations, promoters – tends to look appreciatively on this patronage.

It’s fair to say, however, that Joe Public is skeptical (if not downright cynical) about banking institutions nowadays. This is an international phenomenon, one that has intensified since 2008, but it has specific local dimensions too. So how can a company like Standard Bank commemorate its 150th year without alienating existing or potential clients? And how can it leverage its involvement in the arts to achieve this? That was the challenge faced by Standard Bank Gallery curator Barbara Freemantle and her colleagues in assembling The Art of Banking: Celebrating through Collections, an exhibition intending to show off selected works (without “showing off”), to tell the Standard Bank story and simultaneously to articulate something about South African history.

“We wanted to avoid ‘bragging’ about the 150-year mark,” says Freemantle, explaining that care has been taken to counteract bank-phobia; rather than simply receiving “champagne and bonuses”, employees are being encouraged to invest 150 minutes of their time in charitable projects or to plant indigenous trees. The Art of Banking exhibition is part of this moderate campaign, “Reminding people that the bank is a stable, longstanding entity – safe to invest in – but that it is not staid.”

The two-part exhibition thus acknowledges tradition but also aims to emphasise innovation and contemporary resonance. In the gallery’s downstairs rooms, Letitia Myburgh of the bank’s Heritage Centre has created a chronological narrative starting in 1862 (the year in which the “Standard Bank of British South Africa” was incorporated in London – one is reminded that Standard Bank only became fully South African-owned in 1987). Artefacts, advertisements and miscellaneous documents have been gathered from the bank’s extensive archives to complement the timeline; the machines and materials give a clear sense of period, decade by decade. Yet socio-political “history” is largely absent from this account.

As Myburgh notes, her task was to tell the story of the bank in a limited space (Richard Steyn and Francis Antonie, by contrast, fill 270 pages in their anniversary volume Hoisting the Standard). In the heritage display, “historical events are only noted where these directly affected the operations of the bank – the impact of the Transvaal coming under British jurisdiction, or the shortage of male clerks during World War One, or the lifting of sanctions that facilitated the bank’s expansion into Africa and Asia.” But the question must be asked: to what extent have banking and politics remained separate over the course of one and a half centuries?

The bank’s British origins hint at an inevitable complicity in the imperial-colonial project. Myburgh acknowledges that the pioneering spirit of the bank was driven by “a good eye for business”, but argues that this commercial imperative would subsequently run counter to the country’s race politics: “We banked both black and white”. It may be a business prerogative to choose when to remain independent from politics and when to exploit opportunities that arise from political developments – could Standard Bank have gone into South West Africa in 1978 were it not for the machinations of the apartheid state? – but then, arguably, companies should not ally themselves with a nation or its history.

The apparent disjunction between politics and commerce is most acutely demonstrated in a video projection pointing out some of the major technological developments in the banking industry. In 1948, we are told, manual calculators were introduced; this also happens to be the year in which apartheid became formal state policy. Likewise, no major innovations are listed between the introduction of AutoBanks and telephone banking in the 1980s and the advent of internet banking in 1997; there was, however, the small matter of the country’s transition to democracy from 1990-1994.

In the same room there is a grand, solid-wood, venerable old bank counter. Seeing this, it’s hard not to yearn for an era of actual personal banking, when branch managers knew their clients’ names and there was no bulletproof glass between customers and clerks. But nostalgia for “the old days” is a contentious impulse in South Africa – who would want to go back to that?

If, in this section, the representation of Standard Bank’s history skirts some difficult questions about South African history, then it is telling that the upstairs exhibition of artworks from the bank’s collection foregrounds aspects of the national narrative spanning fifteen decades. I suggest to Freemantle that this indicates a valuable role for the arts: forcing sponsors or patrons (particularly corporates) to consider broader socio-political issues, challenging them to act ethically. Freemantle resists this prescription; the collection is there, she believes, to “inspire creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, rather than moralising”.

Such creativity is certainly on display in the connections made between historical moments and works of art. The arrival of Indian indentured labourers in the 1860s is linked to one of Andrew Verster’s “Sacred Works” (1998), which were influenced by a South Asian cultural aesthetic. Somewhat less effective is the use of Frans David Oerder’s generically titled painting “Village Scene, East Africa” (c.1930) to represent “the scramble for Africa” in the 1880s.

On the whole, however, such anachronistic pairings are apposite and strangely invigorating. Wim Botha’s astounding miniatures, “Premonitions of War” (2005) are appropriated to evoke the first decade of what would become an horrendously violent twentieth century; Alexis Preller’s “Sandals” (1949) are related metonymically to Ghandi; Willem Boshoff’s remarkable word-art installation “Kyk Afrikaans” is cheekily tied to the declaration of Afrikaans as an official language in the 1920s; David Goldblatt’s “Boorgat is die Antwoord” and Georgia Papageorge’s photographic collage “Inferno” echo the depression and drought of the 1930s, leading up to World War Two. Other resonances across time are more obvious, particularly the vivid depiction of urban landscapes in Gerard Sekoto’s “Sophiatown Evening” and Sam Nhlengethwa’s “Baragwanath Bridge” – produced over half a century after Sophiatown was established (in the 1890s) and the hospital was founded (in the 1940s) respectively.

There are works in which the artists clearly intended to address contemporary events and phenomena: Thami Mnyele’s “Things Fall Apart” (the 1976 Soweto uprising), Churchill Madikida’s “Virus III” (the HIV/AIDS pandemic) or Penny Siopis’ “Always something new out of Africa” (the 1989/1990 watershed). Other works are given fresh significance, possibly far removed from artistic intention, because Freemantle has recruited them into new contexts: the Arab Spring, consumerism and recession, xenophobic riots, the Square Kilometre Array.

This is by no means a potted history presented through works of art. Quite the opposite – while Freemantle has chosen to highlight certain prominent facets of South African history, she has also found marginal, tangential approaches. She has avoided cliché (there is no 2010 FIFA World Cup art) and has found place for the quirky and eccentric: her account of the 1920s includes Samuel Daniel’s “Hippopotamus” to represent the seriocomic travails of Huberta the Hippo. Perhaps, this inclusion seems to hint, we shouldn’t take historiography too seriously.

 

* The Art of Banking: Celebrating Through Collections (Standard Bank Gallery until 1st December)

 

 

   

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