Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Column: What will last?

First appeared
Thursday, 22 January 2015


How long before Zelda la Grange’s tweets become consigned to the virtual trash can that stores all online debates, spats and arguments? A week? Two weeks?

Nonetheless, from now on, whenever La Grange’s tale is told, it will not be the simplistic “Madiba saved me from racism” narrative presented in her memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela. Journalists and opinionistas who mention her will note her role as Nelson Mandela’s right-hand woman but will add, parenthetically, that she caused a stir with some ill-considered complaints about white people not being made to feel welcome in South Africa.

It is perhaps cold comfort to La Grange, but when she is dead and her obituaries have been forgotten, historians will mention her less and less as the decades pass. Eventually, in a few hundred years’ time, she may be entirely erased from the e-footnotes on the e-pages of history.

Still, here’s a scary thought: what if nobody in that distant future has heard about Nelson Mandela? Surely only a cataclysmic series of events would remove Madiba from the collective human memory? What about other famous names from South Africa’s past? Presumably much milder forces of time and decay might cause them to disappear from the record.

Certainly, it’s unlikely that the renaming of a stretch of tar in Cape Town after F.W. de Klerk will secure his position in posterity. Taking a long view of history (and thus of the future), the furore around which roads should be named after whom becomes rather comical.

That’s not to say these controversies are not significant. La Grange and De Klerk are, in different ways, metonyms for white culpability and denialism, for unexamined privilege and prejudice, for reductive approaches to our country’s past and present. It’s important that we continue to tackle false assumptions and trite assertions about race relations in South Africa: every day, every week, every month, indefinitely.

But the episodes that bring these questions to the fore again and again – the people involved, the polemics exchanged, the words produced in anger or jest or analysis – sooner or later these will blur, fade and dissolve into the near-oblivion of cached hypertext.

The claim has often been made that works of art are immune to this process of dissolution. They are not, of course; the products of the visual arts are, like any material objects, vulnerable to theft, defacement, poor storage or sheer annihilation. You never know what will last. Or through which twists and turns of fate and circumstance it will survive. Or where it will land up.

I’m fairly sure, for instance, that when a couple of fifteenth-century German sculptors – call them Hans and Frederik – were carving limewood icons of the Madonna and Child or of Saint John, they thought the best shot their work had at immortality was preservation in a grand cathedral. A modest rural church would do. The sculptures would be safe. They would be admired and revered; they would inspire piety among the faithful.

Hans and Frederik couldn’t have anticipated the Reformation, the Swedish invasion of Germany in 1630, the Franco-Prussian war, or the Allied bombings during World War Two. Any one of these may have obliterated their creations. Instead, under circumstances about which no-one has the faintest clue, they left Europe, were shipped to South Africa and, sometime in the 1950s or 1960s, ended up in the collection of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG).

Similar stories of near-destruction and unlikely longevity may be imagined for other items that have been on display in the JAG basement as part of Condition Report, an exhibition put together by postgraduate student curators from the Wits School of Arts. There are Chinese ceramic roof tiles and Indian temple carvings (one hesitates to use the word “ancient”, but they’re old) alongside pieces of more recent provenance.

Making a virtue of JAG’s leaking ceilings and work-in-progress atmosphere, Condition Report balances a sense of the provisional and ephemeral with the curious sanctity that attaches to venerable objects. Its informality extends to the duration of the exhibition, which I am told may be taken down at any time.

Go and have a look. Like Zelda la Grange’s tweets, it will probably be gone by next week.



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