Tradition is a loaded word that tends to evoke strong responses.
Those who oppose tradition tend to associate it with the conservative, the old-fashioned, the out-of-date. Those who endorse it prefer to think of tradition as representing the authentic, the timeless, the tried-and-trusted.
In most countries, cultural traditions, or traditional cultures, are of greater interest to tourists than to locals; they are part of national identity and history, but rarely register in citizens’ collective daily consciousness until they are used as political tools.
In South Africa, tradition is typically allied with indigeneity and thus set against modern or Western practices and institutions. We often refer to traditional leaders, traditional healers, traditional beliefs, traditional music, traditional beer, traditional dress; but, in practice, these and other traditional elements combine with other influences and adopt hybrid forms.
Two recent art exhibitions in Johannesburg challenge viewers to re-think their assumptions about what tradition implies.
Artistic breeding ground
A common misapprehension is that traditions are hundreds of years old.
The Caversham Press, for example, celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2010 – and during those two and a half decades, this creative hub in rural KwaZulu-Natal has developed a tradition in its own right.
In 1985, art teacher and master printer Malcolm Christian established Caversham in a run-down former Methodist chapel near Lidgetton, a small village in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands.
Christian invited artists such as William Kentridge and the late Robert Hodgins to use the Caversham facilities and to participate in a collaborative print-making process. Kentridge and Hodgins would, of course, subsequently become two of South Africa’s best-known artists.
Other highly respected artists have produced work at Caversham, including Deborah Bell, David Koloane, Penny Siopis, Magkabo Helen Sebidi, Marion Arnold, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Bonnie Ntshalintshali, Malcolm Payne and Karel Nel. Their work forms part of People, Prints and Process: 25 Years at Caversham, an exhibition which ended on 4 December at Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Gallery.
What is equally significant, however, is that the walls were also adorned with prints by relative newcomers to the arts scene. Christian and his colleagues constantly encourage young artists, many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds, to visit Caversham and develop their skills. Residential fellowships, an educational trust and programmes such as the CreACTive Initiatives have broadened the scope of Caversham’s influence.
Its tremendous value is evident in the current exhibition – not only because of the world-renowned names, but also because of success stories such as that of Sthembiso Sibisi, a self-taught painter whose Caversham prints have become widely sought-after.
This, then, is an eclectic tradition. The prints exhibited range from woodcuts and linocuts to engravings and etchings, from screenprints to lithographs. There are portraits, still lives and landscapes; there are symbolist, surrealist, narrative and abstract pieces; there are black-and-white works as well as prints in bold colours.
What provides the thread of continuity is that each of the artists involved has a direct connection to the organic tradition of Caversham Press.
A trip through Venda culture
Avhashoni Mainganye’s work engages with a very different tradition – one that is made clear to visitors the moment they enter the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery through dzikhareni totems, which mark the entrance to a site where Venda boys undergo their initiation into manhood.
Mainganye’s exhibition, Walking the Ancient Path, is a kind of initiation for those unfamiliar with aspects of Venda culture. Structured around the elements of water, earth, fire and air, the exhibition incorporates wood and stone sculpture, painting, photography and multimedia works.
Many of these relate directly to traditional Venda practices, beliefs and sacred sites in South Africa’s northern province of Limpopo: Lake Fundudzi, Thathe Forest and the Phiphidi waterfalls are depicted in abstract paintings, a typical family shrine is recreated and there are photographs of an initiate and a tshiawelo or stone cairn.
Yet the form, content and even names of these works resist any artificial notion of African authenticity or purity. The shrine includes candle-holders made out of Coke bottles. Titles in French such as “Le Monde” and “La Femme” gesture towards a global context of production and reception. Sculptures and paintings alike demonstrate a fusion of, on the one hand, traditional African patterns and styles and, on the other hand, a modernism with its roots in Europe. This collapsing of the Africa-Europe binary is nowhere more evident than in the Baptism of Fire series, in which both acrylic and cow dung have been used on burnt and torn canvasses.
Moreover, rather than emphasising cultural distinction, Mainganye chooses to affirm similarity. Alongside the Venda tshiawelo, for instance, is a photograph of a Celtic cairn in Scotland. Likewise, a number of the sculpted figures are archetypal and thus universal: a pregnant woman, a mother, a supplicant.
There are also strong trans-national connections in works that allude to parallel but diverging histories of freedom and oppression in South Africa and Zimbabwe – Venda people, after all, live on both sides of the Limpopo river that marks the boundary between the two countries.
In this case, the continuity offered by tradition presents a powerful critique of the disruptions of modernity that take the form of colonialism and postcolonial legacies.
Tradition and art
In a famous essay on “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, Anglo-American poet TS Eliot argued that – despite the common assumption that the role of the artist is to create something new and, in doing so, depart from tradition – great works of art emerge only when an artist is steeped in the work of his or her predecessors.
Artistic creation, according to Eliot’s formulation, is a dynamic process in which past and present are mutually formative. Individual artists respond to a tradition but, in the process, change that tradition through their contribution: “What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it”.
In the 1970s, half a century after Eliot’s essay was first published, literary critic Harold Bloom propounded a different theory. He suggested that, instead of extending a tradition, the work of great artists is produced through “the anxiety of influence”. In other words, feeling all too aware of the effect that famous forerunners potentially have on them, ambitious artists deliberately avoid their precursors, or parody them, or imitate their style in order to improve upon it.
Both Eliot and Bloom are unfortunately Eurocentric in their definitions of tradition, but the tension that is evident between their respective positions can be identified in various debates about visual art in South Africa. These debates inevitably take on racial overtones. What does it mean for a white artist to eschew the history of Western art and embrace instead the aesthetic of bushman paintings? What does it mean for a black artist to deliberately separate himself from the modes of township art?
When we attempt to answer these questions, the reductive connotations of words like “traditional” prove inadequate. Likewise, if we are to appreciate the living history of the Caversham Press or take up Mainganye’s invitation to “walk the ancient path”, a more complex understanding of tradition is required.