Art in South Africa has come a long way since the first cave paintings nearly 4000 years ago. Before photographs and video, art was the only way humans could visually record the world they lived in, which is why art is such a valuable piece of history.
Sadly, women artists over the centuries were overlooked and so most of the ancient art we see in galleries and museums today is mostly gender biased. Thanks to feminist movements that began in the West in the mid-19th Century, a global shift in gender equality erupted and saw millions of women taking to the streets in protest. South Africa soon followed suit and on the 9th August 1956, women of all races, religions and cultures took to the streets to march against female oppression and apartheid laws.
The effects of feminism and apartheid on the South African art scene
Once women in the US and Europe received equal rights in the 1920s they began teaching and studying art. Feminist activity on campuses encouraged museums and galleries to start exhibiting women artists work. However back In South Africa, women were also fighting against apartheid laws, which had its effects on the local art scene. Women (and men) artists used their artworks to address issues either facing women or in protest against apartheid, as well as other atrocities experienced by races, sexes and cultures. Much of the art made its way abroad opening a new perspective on the plight of women and men living in South Africa at the time.
South African female artists who paved the way for others
Gender and race don’t factor into how galleries and museums go about selecting artists today and its thanks to a number of talented female artists who battled against the odds to achieve success as artists. These are just some of the most prominent female artists of the last century.
Maggie Laubser (1886 – 1973)
She was influential at the time for introducing the techniques and sensibilities of post-impressionism and expressionism to South African art. The bold colour and composition, and highly personal point of view, rather scandalised those with old-fashioned concepts of acceptable art.
Irma Stern (1894 – 1966)
She is still considered to be South Africa’s foremost artist in terms of public recognition and the record prices that her works fetch at an auction. Her strong interest in portraying black people was also a point of public controversy, especially in the 1930s.
Judith Mason (1938 – )
Judith Mason was selected to represent South Africa at the Venice Biennale, and at international art fairs, like Art Basel despite South Africa’s political isolation from the rest of the world. After living and teaching in Florence, Italy, she returned to South Africa and her work became part of the South African school and university curricula.
Sue Williamson (1941 – )
In the 1980s, Williamson was well known for her series of portraits of women involved in the country’s political struggle. Her famous painting entitled, “A Few South Africans”, went some way towards filling the representational void of people and events during apartheid.
Mmapula Sebidi (1943 – )
Born in 1943 in Hammeskraal near the (then) Northern Transvaal, Mmapula Helen Sebidi went from high school dropout, to domestic worker and then renowned international artist. Despite all odds, and at the height of apartheid government in South Africa, Sebidi, stopped at nothing to become the internationally recognised artist she is today.
Penny Siopis (1953 – )
Penny Siopis tackled femininity and history in dense, allusive paintings, and in installations, photographs and other conceptual works throughout her career. She also contributed to art history books by introducing the techniques of collage and assemblage as a means to disrupt direct depiction and to bring in references to the representations of colonial history that South Africans were brought up on through history books.
Jane Alexander (1959 – )
Born in 1959, Jane is best known for her sculpture, “The Butcher Boys”, which can be considered her response to the state of emergency in South Africa in the late 1980s. Most of her pieces are based and influenced on the political and social overview of South Africa.
What do our art galleries look like today?
Art Curator, Jean Irvine at Red! the gallery in Cape Town, revels in the cosmopolitism of today’s artists. “Looking back at history makes me appreciate just how far we’ve come in terms of women in art. What we’d love to see more of though are black female artists. At Red! the Gallery, we look for contemporary artists who have tons of talent and possess an edge that we know will interest our clients. Lauren Redman is one example of a young artist whose life-like charcoal rendering is creating much of a hype and is already doing very well locally. Other female artists that we represent that are making an impact on the art scene are Jenny Merritt, Vanessa Carosini, Karen Kruger and Sam Brown. A common trait which we notice amongst successful female artists is their marital status. Not all, but most are single and their art is their sole income.”
On 9th August 2016, Women’s Day celebrates 60 years since the beginning of women’s emancipation. We still have a long way to go but judging from art, men’s perspectives of life has changed and that is a good sign.