The Art Scene in South Africa Since 1948

Created by Leslie B. Shocknesse, Spring 2009

Map of South Africa
David Goldblatt
Sue Williamson
Assignment Background Timeline WWW Sites Recommended Books Related Events


Since the beginning of Apartheid in 1948, how has the historical and political context of South Africa affected the art scene there?


           In order to understand contemporary art in South Africa, the political background of South Africa must first be understood. When Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president in 1994, apartheid officially ended. Yet because apartheid controlled the lives of black people so extensively, the end of apartheid did not result in the end of oppression or racial segregation. Although racial segregation and oppression were no longer legal, the ideas, beliefs, and practices of apartheid had been so deeply ingrained in South Africans, both white and black, that Apartheid did not simply disappear with the pronouncement of its legal demise. This is why, even after the apartheid regime ended, South African artists continued to produce work which dealt with elements of the old system of government. 

      Even though apartheid had existed for centuries, South African artists have not always focused on apartheid and themes of oppression and injustice in their work. One of the earliest and most influential traditions in South African art is the rock art paintings and engravings by the Sans people. Rock art often depicted landscape and people and incorporated geometric elements, and this tradition is still influential in some contemporary art in South Africa.

      Another tradition in South African art began during the colonial era with the arrival of the Dutch settlers in 1652. As the Dutch expanded their settlement in South Africa, they increasingly imposed Western culture on the native South Africans, which affected art traditions. Before long, art was seen as a method of recording daily happenings in South Africa for the colonial masters, claiming that their work depicted everyday life in South Africa.

     With colonialism drawing to a close at the end of the 19th century, South African artists began making works of art that illustrated the true realities of life in South Africa. The two most influential artists at the time were Jan Volschenk (1853-1936) and Hugo Naude (1869-1941). Volschenk was a self-taught painter of landscapes, and his work is often described as primitive. Naude on the other hand left South Africa to study art in London. When he returned to South Africa, Naude intially intended to be a portrait painter, but found himself very drawn to the outdoors and painting landscapes. Volschenk and Naude were considered the first native South African professional painters.

Sheep Watering, 1901
Oil on board (350 x 600mm)

Oil on canvas (695 x 1150 mm)
Riversdale Veldt and Mountains,1925
        Following in the footsteps of Volschenk and Naude, South African artists soon began to look to art as a way to communicate ideas and experiences. "The orientation of local paintings had begun to shift from perceptual description of the landscape to the mechanics of visual expression and the search for personally valid methods of communicating experiences." (accessed at South African artists were now dedicated to modern art and they promoted the idea that art can be more than the romantic picture-postcards the the community of South Africa was used to seeing. Because of this new perspective of art, South Africa was invited to the Venice Biennial in 1950 and the Sao Paul Biennial in 1957.

        During the 1960s and 1970s, South African art became more significant and influential. In the 1960s, some South African artists started realizing that the nature of their identity as South Africans had never been explored through the medium of art. In 1963, these artists formed the Amadlozi group, and the intention of this group was "to strip Africa of its mystique and to come to grips with the un-romanticized reality." (accessed at The Amadlozi group included artists such as Cecil Skotnes (1926-) and Sidney Kumalo (1935-). These artists emphasized the concept of "Africanism" in their artwork for the first time in the history of South African art. Beginning in the 1970s, the work of some black South African artists and white South African artists began to merge as both groups focused on similar content in their work. Although some black South Africans were still interested in pursuing the exploration of the African style, white South African artists and several black South African artists were now using art as a way to express their joint social concerns about Apartheid. And by the 1980s, South Africa was fully immersed in the most important tradition in South African art – contemporary art.

        Apartheid was a “social and political policy of racial segregation and discrimination enforced by white minority governments in South Africa from 1948 to 1994." Apartheid actually originated during the colonial period, but when it became the legal structure in 1948, it "systematically expanded and enforced the privileges of white South Africans…at the expense of the black majority… black people – a group that included Africans, coloureds, and Indians – lived in an essentially totalitarian and dehumanizing environment in which their every move was restricted…and they were reminded daily, in big ways and little, of their relative powerlessness."
        Because apartheid created racial divides in society in general, mainly the separation between whites and blacks, this separation affected all aspects of society and culture, including the visual arts. Although the two groups sometimes intermingled and even made work the addressed similar ideas, the culture of contemporary black South African art was separated from the culture of contemporary white South African art. Fortunately, this split within the contemporary art scene in South Africa did not discourage black artists from making art.

      In the late 1960s, the first group of professional black South African artists, known as the Polly Street Group, began making their way to the forefront of the local art scene. The Polly Street Group acquired their name because the artists were using a hall in Polly Street Recreational Centre as an art workshop. Many of the artists in the Polly Street Group focused on the use of vibrant color and energetic movement within their compositions, and the most common media included watercolors, pastels, and oils. Due to the apartheid regime, the Art Centre was closed in 1960 because many people did not want black people to have access to cultural facilities in the cities.

      As groups and schools of black South African artists were emerging across the country, there were also several individuals that were very successful in their own right. Dumile Feni (1939-1991) first began making art in the 1960s, working as a painter and sculptor with no formal art training. Like many black South African artists at the time, Feni work addressed issues related to apartheid, oppression, poverty, and township life. Feni used symbolism and imagery that illustrated destructive life experiences because of apartheid until his death in 1991.

       Besides Feni, there were several other influential and revolutionary black South African artists working at the time. Lucas Seage (1957-) was one of the first South African artists to use recycled materials in his work; Jackson Hlungwani (1923-) was one of the first South African artist to create art that was site-specific. Willie Bester (1956-) has been described as the “doyen of assemblage," combining photo collage, machinery, debris, and painting into his artwork. Feni, Seage, Hlungwani, and Bester were all focusing on social concerns in their art, which was typical of many black South African artists both during and after apartheid. 
        Just as there are several black South Africans making artwork related to and protesting against apartheid, there are also many white South African focusing on the same issues in their work. Beginning in the 1970s, white artists joined their black colleagues in the fight against the apartheid regime and used their artwork as a medium by which to illustrate their objections. While there are a handful of contemporary white South African artists that do not specifically focus on apartheid, most white artists in South Africa include political and social aspects of life in South Africa in their art. Some internationally acclaimed contemporary artists who emphasize social, political, and historical concerns of South Africa include Jane Alexander (1959-), Guy Tillim (1962-), Minnette Vari (1968-), Penny Siopis (1953-), and William Kentridge (1955-).

Riverrun, 2004
Video still
Reconnaissance (1990-1997)
Farm fire, near Kroonstad, South Africa 2003
Digital pigment print (58 x 83.5cm)
        Contemporary artists David Goldblatt (1930-) and Sue Williamson (1941-) both use their art as an instrument to protest the apartheid system. Goldblatt and Williamson focus on aspects of apartheid, and the general culture of South Africa that are often forgotten, overlooked, ignored, or suppressed. David Goldblatt has been one of the key artists in South Africa for over five decades, depicting the social and political situation of the country through photography. Until 1999, when he made the shift to color photography, Goldblatt worked solely in black-and-white, using the medium of photography to portray the landscape and the people of South Africa, emphasizing the grave effects of apartheid. Goldblatt’s photographs tackle the political and social issues of South Africa in a manner that is simplistic yet extensive. Another contemporary white South African artist who has worked in the medium of photography is Sue Williamson. After emigrating from London to South Africa at the age of seven, Williamson began her career as an artist in the 1980s working in a variety of media including photography, installation, and printmaking. Similarly to Goldblatt, Williamson addresses political, social, and historical concerns of the South African society, focusing on memories of South Africa under the apartheid regime. 
        With the end of apartheid fifteen years ago, South Africa still faces many challenges and systematic injustice. The feelings and experiences regarding the political and social situation of South Africa are expressed in the work of contemporary black and white artists. Working in a variety of media, including printmaking, painting, photography, and installation, contemporary South African artists continue to fight for equality in their country through their artwork. 

Grandmother and Child, 1975
Silver Gelatin Hand Print (36 x 36cm)
Capt Benzien demonstrates the 'wet bag' torture method, 1998
Mixed media (86 x 120 x 6cm)

William Kentridge
"I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending - an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay."
David Goldblatt
"Certainly politics has always been on my mind, politics in the broadest sense. The Transported of KwaNdebele, was certainly the most explicitly political, while In Boksburg was a more oblique and muted engagement with politics. In all of the work I have done though I have been engaged with the consequences of our actions and of our values."
Guy Tillim
"My brand of idealism, that had its roots in the time I started photographing in South Africa during the apartheid years of the 1980s, has dimmed. There was right and wrong, it seemed clear to me on which side I stood. One would forego, what I might now call subtlety, for the sake of making a statement about injustice. The world's press set the tone and timbre of the reportage it would receive, and I for one was bought by it. Perhaps that is why I now look for ways to glimpse other worlds, which I attempt to enter for a while. But one cannot live them all, and usually I am left with a keen sense of my own dislocation."
Penny Siopis
"In my recent work I use 'found' objects including found film. I am particularly interested in the things people leave behind by force of circumstance; things which embody very specific memories and experiences, yet have wider social and cultural resonance. These objects are complex subjective traces of emotional investment not always easily expressed. Being 'found' and often made and treasured for intimate and private reasons, these objects are emblematic of a merging of private and public worlds."


1652        Dutch settlers arrived in South Africa

1853        Jan Ernst Abraham Volschenk was born

1869        Hugo Naude was born

1879        Volschenk first exhibits artwork in Cape Town

1902        Naude exhibits work in Cape Town

1930        David Goldblatt was born in Randfontein (currently living and working in Johannesburg)    

1936        Jan Ernst Abraham Volschenk dies

1939        Dumile Feni was born in Worcester  


1941        Hugo Naude dies

1941        Sue Williamson was born in England (currently living and working in Cape Town )


1950        South Africa was invited to the Venice Biennial

1952        Polly Street Art Centre opened in Johannesburg

1955        William Kentridge was born in Johannesburg     

1967        South Africa was invitied to the Sao Paul Biennial

1960        Polly Street Art Centre closed

1962        The Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre (aka Rorke’s Drift) was established in Natal

1968        Rorke's Drift was officially established as the School of Fine Arts

1982        Rorke's Drift closed

1985        Establishment of the Thupelo Workshops in Johannesburg (currently located in Cape Town)

1991        Dumile Feni died

1994        End of Apartheid; Nelson Mandela becomes president


1997        Artthrob, a visual arts publication, was founded by Sue Williamson


WWW Sites

Some websites about contemporary art in South Africa include:

The International Artist Database  
This website has information on contemporary South African artists such as Dumile Feni, William Kentridge, Jane Alexander, Sue Williamson, and more.

ARTTHROB: Contemporary Art in South Africa    
Artthrob was founded by Sue Williamson in 1997 and it is now "South Africa's leading contemporary visual arts publication."

Visual Arts Library: The Legacy Project 
This webpage is part of The Legacy Project website. (The Legacy Project "will build a global exchange on the enduring consequences of the many historical tragedies of the 20th century.") The Visual Arts Library features work from artists all over the world, including Jane Alexander, William Kentridge, and Sue Williamson. The library includes high quality images of the artwork and also background information on the artists and the artwork. 

Reclaiming Art: Reclaiming Space - Post Apartheid Art from South Africa
This webpage is part of the National Museum of African Art website. Reclaiming Art: Reclaiming Space was first exhibited in the Museum in 1999, but still remains    intact as a virtual exhibition.

Michael Stevenson Gallery
This website is for the Michael Stevenson Gallery located in Cape Town, South Africa. The website provides information on upcoming and previous contemporary art exhibitions, publications by and about contemporary South African artists, and background information on contemporary South African artists such as David Goldblatt, Penny Siopis, and Guy Tillim.

David Goldblatt: Photographs from South Africa   
This website is a virtual exhibition of David Goldblatt's work. It includes a biography, his photographs, and an audio narration about his work. 

What is Thupelo?       
This website (loads very slowly) provides information about the Thupelo Workshops, including previous workshops and upcoming workshops.

List of South African artists on Wikipedia

Some websites about the history of South Africa include:

South African History Online
This website provides general information on the history of South Africa and also details the history of different aspects of life in South Africa, such as places, people, politics, culture, and art.

South Africa Government Online
This is the offical website of the South African Government, and it provides information about current events, key issues, the government, and the history of South Africa.

African National Congress
This is the offical website of the African National Congress (ANC), which is currently the majority party in the South African government.

South Africa's Offical Gateway
This website includes information about current events, Nelson Mandela, the government, the economy, the culture, and the history of the country.

Apartheid in South Africa
This website provides information related to Apartheid, such as the Bantu Education Act, the Freedom Charter, and the Sharpeville massacre.

Apartheid Museum

Recommended Books

  Some books about contemporary artists in Africa include:

Some books about contemporary art in South Africa include:

Some books by and about contemporary South African artists include:

Some books about the history of South Africa include:

Related Events

Nelson Mandela
Keith Haring

Page created by L. Shocknesse, January 2009.
This page is copyright C. T. Evans and L. Shocknesse.
For information contact:
Last Modified 1/9/09