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Propaganda and Politics tunnel vision history of art activism in South Africa

The important contribution of the Black Consciousness Movement to art activism in 1970s South Africa is without question, yet mainstream art history ignores it. The poet and painter, Lefifi Tladi, reflects in conversation with Percy Mabandu.

With his blue beret slanting sideways to hint at his balding head, the painter-poet who became one of the creative dynamos of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) during the 1970s, Lefifi Tladi still keeps his eye on a better future.

One nippy winter evening, we sat stalked by a snaking whiff of smoke and the yellow glare of light from a gleaming bulb. An olive-green square box of cigarettes shared the space on the pine table with a half-full glass of gin and tonic. One of Tladi’s abstract paintings was teamed up with Mothlabane oa Mashiangoako’s drawing to watch over us in the studio area of the four-roomed house he now calls home in Ga-Rankuwa, north of Tshwane.

Our conversation oscillates between his creative concerns as a painter and the contemporary history of South African art.

Tladi has over the years produced a body of work that runs through multiple disciplines, including calligraphy and drawings – some of which he recently showed at Museum Africa in Johannesburg – oil paintings also recently exhibited at the Pretoria Art Museum, and performance poetry since the 1970s when he founded Dashiki, a jazz band that fused music and verse.

About his “pan-African abstract expressionist paintings” the man with a jutting silver beard says, “these paintings tell a unique story of hope”– an ingredient required of anyone interested in revolutions or struggles for a better human experience.

Yet, as apartheid’s legal death approaches its 14th anniversary, Tladi is not convinced of South Africa’s chosen path toward a better life for all, especially in the arts.

“And you know, it appears the arts enjoyed more [racial] diversity and integration during the dark apartheid years than is the case now,” he says. Then, audiences were much more racially mixed, at least at the gigs Dashiki, or even Philip Tabane’s Malombo Jazz Messengers, would play at.

Tladi also perceives gaps in contemporary South African art history. He believes the absence of certain artists from official narratives of our public memory cannot be ignored.

For instance, though it’s almost impossible to speak of the 1970s art activism in the greater Pretoria and Johannesburg areas (and black South Africa in general) without mentioning the contribution of the BCM, mainstream art history ignores it or, at best, cites such contributions in footnotes.

Think, for instance, of the art exhibitions and jazz sessions organised through the activism of the late Geoff Mphakati in the various embassies and homes of foreign diplomats in Pretoria.

In 1970 Tladi opened a small museum for contemporary black art in Ga-Rankuwa. The museum operated until 1974. Tladi was also one of the South African artists who managed to attend the Second World African Festival of Arts and Culture, which was held in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977.

He has spent much of the past three decades in Sweden where he trained as a painter and art historian. He also apprenticed under Harvey Cropper, the master painter who taught jazz giant Charlie Parker how to paint. Tladi entered Cropper’s studio after pursuing a Master’s Programme in art at the Gerlesborgsskolan. He received a scholarship to do so in 1980. These days the sage divides his time between Ga-Rankuwa and Stockholm, where he has children.

It is his days in exile in Botswana that Tladi turns to, lighting his preferred cigarette – Consulate – to the pace of the rhythm he remembers in those times.Thami Mnyele - Things Fall Apart, 1976

After the 1976 school uprisings in Soweto and the murder of Steven Biko in the following year, even the BCM was sent scattering. Tladi and many others went to Botswana and so became part of a burgeoning community of exiled South African activists and artists.

Along with a great creative rapport and brotherhood in the struggle, Gaborone became the site of what he calls the “quarrels that might well be the beginning of the problématique of this thing” – the omission of certain artists from our contemporary history. The issues are decidedly partisan.

“I’ve always refused to join the party… I’ve always thought artists must not belong to political parties,” Tladi says, adding that this refusal became part of a real battle which involved artists who joined the ANC and some of those who had their beginnings in the BCM.

But Tladi insists, “I made it clear that I would be more than available to participate, if the party had any programmes that were beneficial to our people and [to] move our struggle; but not to join.”

He argues that “party politics tend to reduce artists to propagandists… Look at the work of Thami Mnyele and others, for instance. Thami’s strong work went out as soon as he joined the party. He started making posters. Even Wally’s [Serote] writing went down.”

So, just as Kenyan writer, N’gugi wa Thiong’o, identified an imperialist tradition and the resistance tradition as forces involved in a contest for control or influence of Africa historically, South African reality too can be read as a result of two traditions that came out of the struggle: the decolonisation stream and the reconciliation narrative.

The reconciliation narrative includes individuals or artists historically aligned to the ruling party, while the decolonisation stream comprises artists who have historically been outside of the ANC. Some of these are people who came out of the radical politics of BCM and Pan-African persuasions.

The reconciliation stream has since become the foundation of mainstream national art history – its pre-eminence obviously connected to the political hegemony of the ruling party. To illustrate the dichotomy, books such as Resistance Art in South Africa (1989) by Sue Williamson and its follow-up, Art in South Africa: The Future Present (1996), coauthored with Ashraf Jamal, are instructive.

Though it would be unfair to suggest Williamson intentionally privileged a particular politics over another in her research, reference to the contribution of the BCM is found nowhere in her books.

Asked how he would explain his absence from Williamson’s account of artistic contribution to the culture of resistance, Tladi suggests the omission was deliberate, with an exclamatory remark: “Absolutely! You can’t make such a point blank mistake… I don’t think I appear once in Sue Williamson’s book [Resistance Art in South Africa].”

He then digresses and says: “But I don’t know what happened in the 80s, I wasn’t home. After ’76 there was generally an artistic inactivity like in the pre-70s period. Then around mid to late 80s there was Artimo (sic) – Art in motion – a group that included the likes of Kay Hassan.”

To her credit, it must be said that Williamson declares her “regrets that time did not allow me to see every artist making committed work, and the shortage of space was a further limitation” in the original issue’s acknowledgements. The book was re-issued in 2004.

One hopes that Clive Kellner, the curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery and Abio Gonzalez, the former activist, will be more representative in their scope when editing the upcoming Thami Mnyele + Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective exhibition’s monograph.

For instance, Fikile Magadle’s stylistic influence of Thami Mnyele’s pre-Medu work, especially drawings, and the former’s known close affinity with BCM are well known.

“But you don’t see it in the historicised memory” Tladi says. “It’s the politicisation of our history,” he concludes. “The goal is to make it seem as though the ANC was the alpha and omega of the liberation movement”.

Revolutionary artist, Lefifi Tladi. Photographs by Aryan Kaganof

Revolutionary artist, Lefifi Tladi. Photographs by Aryan Kaganof




This conversation is a feature in Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (available here).

Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic, imagines the newspaper as a producer of time – a time-machine – which travels backwards and forwards, to place these events within a broader context and thereby to challenge the logic of emergencies and immediate needs that characterise contemporary African media.

Buy the Chronic


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