Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above

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Robyn Sassen: Independent arts critic

In Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic 1943 story book, The Little Prince, there is a character who is a businessman. Living on a planet a little bigger than himself, this businessman in his jacket and tie is unlike anyone the little Prince has ever met. All day long, the businessman sits and counts the stars, making long sums of numbers and declaring himself the owner of them all, describing what he does as “matters of consequence”.

The Little Prince may be an essay of whimsy, but it is also one of metaphorical depth. What this businessman, who resents any form of interruption in his work, offers the world is an insight into the messy business of ownership of property which is not only immovable, but universal, too. It’s a story that infiltrates all of our lives as we live on this planet.

Traditionally, when the ideology underpinning the genre of landscape art is taught in western universities, the painting which Thomas Gainsborough painted in 1750, entitled Mr and Mrs Andrews is used as a device to cast the whole untidy issue of land ownership into clarity. It presents a formally dressed white man and his wife in the foreground. The trajectory of their wealth, in the form of their land and other properties on that land, is in the background. And in the teaching, it thus becomes a starting point into the complex issues of colonialism, capitalism, slavery and sexism and a loose understanding of who belongs where and why.

Of course, living on a continent that has been criss-crossed and scarred hither and yon over many centuries by a lust for land, power and an understanding of ownership, we in Africa may believe we have a unique grasp on the problems it engenders. And perhaps we do. In contemporary times in South Africa, the land issue remains a complex and bloody one which is offered as a red flag to political parties such as Black First Land First – an unregistered, black consciousness, pan-Africanist, revolutionary, socialist party founded by Andile Mngxitama in 2015, which has brought land into its very name – as it underlines articulated xenophobic practices which violently aim to push people from other African countries out of their South African lives.

Land grabs: a potted history

The first people to have inhabited this part of the African continent were the San. Unsophisticated in western land-ownership protocols, and unskilled in a warmongering sense, they were hunter-gatherers, peaceful and powerless against people armed with guns, tactics and bibles. Their blood, spilled by invaders from the north and others who arrived from the sea in big ships, seeped into the land. The conquerors were conquered by others, and they were conquered by others. A different community of people came to redraw boundaries and settle on this verdant, complex continent, articulating a will to fight for their right to be there. And when further boundaries were redrawn by Europeans in the notorious pre First World War Scramble for Africa and those people living on the contested terrain were shunted to different parts and named by different tribe names and taught different languages, it was dreadful and it was difficult, but it was part of the narrative. The argument is an old one, but one not too tired to still be refreshed with new sheens of antagonism, in every generation.

The collection of artworks on show in this exhibition touches on the core of what it is to have a relationship with the land. It’s not always about ownership, and sometimes it is a direct comment on the sense of ‘unownership’. It’s about the impoverishment of some and the wealth of others as it is about how apartheid forced some people to the margins of society with their proverbial noses pushed against the glass of a country from which they had been excluded.

Shape-shifters in the landscape classroom

Along these lines, South African art history has roots thwarted by politics. Under apartheid, it was a discipline pursued by white scholars with a clear and unabashedly parochial focus. During the anti-apartheid struggle, academics were at pains to try and see both sides of the issue. In contemporary times – in a post-apartheid democracy that is now in its 25th year, everyone has a voice, and the love of the land through paint, ink, light-sensitive photographic paper or drawing implements is no less complicated or beautiful.

The usual suspect when it comes to South African landscape painting is Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957), a notorious Afrikaans-speaking Broederbonder who loved the land actively with his brush and easel, but famously erased all trace of humanity from his paintings, because he was an unapologetic racist. His body of paintings and hand-pulled prints remains amongst the highest yielding South African works in the auction circuit, abroad, to this day. Thankfully, the curators of this exhibition have elected to place one of his works in this exhibition – thankfully, not because of Pierneef’s ideological contribution to the mix, but because his voice remains a key one to an understanding of landscape in South Africa.

Katlego Lefine and Annali Dempsey, who have curated this exhibition, have stretched their proverbial loupes far and wide through the MTN Art archives and the UJ Art Collection, collected over several decades, to bring together diverse works that clash and concatenate with the values of being in South Africa and reflecting on the glorious land.

Broadly, the exhibition is divided into four streams of discourse: Inhabiting the Land; Capitalism, Colonialism etc; the Land Worked; and the Land in Conflict. Philosophically it embraces the wide diversity of perspectives possible in this melting pot of land positions called South Africa. But it’s a strange thing and categories can be both useful and limiting. Many of the works in this exhibition straddle the imposed categories. Works that may be about inhabiting the land also bring a colonialist edge to the turf or reflect how the land can and has been put to work, for instance.

And when you think of ‘Inhabiting the Land’ you may cast your mind to the lucid drawings in sepia ink by German-born Adolph Jentsch (1888-1977) of the Namibian landscape, as you may be drawn to associate the phrase with the delicate watercolours by Jabulani Albert Ntuli (1898-1988), made in the late 19th century, that was as much about inhabiting the land as it was about working it. But the works in question and the exhibition under discussion here cleaves to the works owned and loaned by the MTN collection and thus it serves a dual purpose, but one that shouldn’t trammel your appreciation of these gems.

Inhabiting the land

When you see the work of Simon Mnguni, there is a resonance with the simple sense of complex beauty he evokes. Gladys Mgudlandlu, who imbibed the wildness of a brushmark made doable by the German Expressionist movement in the early 20th century, takes on the lushness and grit of the land. Her birds are bold, her use of greenery flagrant. But her voice, as a black woman artist is not allowed to be isolated. While there’s a tonal and linear give and take between her approach and Maggie Laubser’s, there’s another conversation at play. There is a ceramic vessel by Mma Thabethe, made in the Zulu beer pot tradition, also being shown in this section. It’s obviously not a painting in the traditional Western sense, but rather, it demonstrates the rhythm and ethos of the land in the way in which the pot is decorated.

But there is another voice in this section. Tossed and shifted indiscriminately between ‘owners’ the land is also a deeply Afrikaans thing. Amid controversy and bigoted values, Afrikaans-speakers and farmers whose ancestors arrived on South African soil in the mid 1600s planted roots here, and works such as Tammy MacKay’s gentle etching of farming tools speaks volumes, as it sets up a dialogue with a very silent piece by Pierneef, the simple but politicised line of Erich Mayer and the rustic energy of John Meyer’s work.

Ideologies and discontent

And as you stand back and look at each piece selected in the name of habitation, the capitalist or colonialist echoes are not crudely invisible. The curators’ second section in this exhibition is focused on these ideologies, in work which is more current, perhaps more discursive and even to an extent, both more playful and more sinister in its approaches. Capitalism/Colonialism and other ideologies are represented by the work of Christine Dixie, Louise Linder and Pippa Skotnes. In this small selection of pieces the pristine and complicated colonial-style building is overwhelmingly present. They’re works which represent white people as, with Skotnes’s etching entitled Sounds from the Thinking Strings offer a sense of mysticism which skirts nostalgia for the San aesthetic.

As the focus evolves, the idea of working the land comes into focus, and this is where the more pragmatic focus on farming – or mining – is patent. Again, there is a schism: is it not the farmers who wear the colonialist badge? Not the miners who are the capitalists? In presenting these kinds of question, with work by A Canhill, Nico van Rensburg, Obed Mbele, Godfrey Majadibou, Hale, Jeanette Unite, Jacquiline Crewe-Brown and Carl Jeppe, the curators pose questions, tease discourse out and develop tension. Horses and carts vie with the iconic Johannesburg image of a mine’s headgear, as the landscape looks raw and bleeding from van Rensburg’s palette.

Which brings us to the final section of this exhibition, mooted ‘The Land in Conflict’, this section comprises six subsections exploring the kinds of conflict that have the capacity to up-end land in philosophical, pragmatic and metaphorical ways. This is the exhibition’s central and largest section, and the pieces chosen here more directly irritate the fabric of complacency that the idea of a landscape promotes.

Here there is the work of renowned photographer John Brett Cohen, as there is are pieces by printmakers Erica Hibbert, Nhlanhla Xaba and Stephen Inggs. As you can see the in the work of Christine Dixie also selected in this section, the land represented is no longer about trees and sky, but it flows through the conceptual fabric of text and photographs. This section of the exhibition is about displacement and urbanisation, the birth of mega cities and the pondering approach toward contradiction, and time restraints or chronology are not a consideration: juxtaposing Skotnes’s shaped etching and aquatint plates dealing with ‘white wagons’, with an etching by 19th century artist WH Coetzer reveals similar issues being teased open by artists from different perspectives.

Alan Crump’s bold watercolour painting entitled Earthworks sums up the potency involved in plummeting the land for personal gain, and Sandile Goje’s linocut of a tree signifying the traditional iconic understanding of how democracy as a concern is embraced, stand out as works that are well known, yet remain fresh in the message they convey.

Don’t fence me in

Similarly, Jo Ractliffe’s triptych Nadir offers an understanding of a work in the process of irrevocably slipping into a vortex of dystopia, which opens an intellectual door to works which contemplate a corrosion of traditional practices, believes and values.

Effectively, even in the face of the most extreme of political discourse, the land is immutable. Living in the 21st century with a heightened understanding of imminent environmental seizure, not by one group of people or another, but by the planet itself, in distress, we should not allow ourselves the luxury to imagine that if this happens, the world will end. Indeed, it may end for sustainable life for the human species, but as for the planet itself? It will recover once we’re gone. It may take some time, but it will outlast us all. This is an important exhibition, not only because it presents a significant insight into the art collecting energies of the MTN establishment and the art collecting ethos of the University of Johannesburg over the years, but also because it enables questions around what land means. It’s never just a plot of ground or a handful of soil.