Many South Africans yawned through this year’s budget speech and commentary. But maybe we should have been looking to our artists instead of the usual suspects for clear-eyed analysis
Aside from the ENCA mask incident, 2021’s budget passed without much of a flicker. Tito Mboweni delivered roughly what everyone expected within the constraints of Covid-19, and the commentary from opposition parties and pundits was the same as it’s ever been.
Many South Africans were left wondering if – despite all the meaningful verbiage – the country was simply repeating a ritual devoid of substance, or significance. But widen the lens a little and you’ll see there was at least some commentary with some bite to it, even if it came from unexpected quarters.
Joburg fine artist Robyn Field’s recent work – Taxes, Tithes and Charity – has offered a more stark and singular assessment of South Africa’s socio-economic reality than many budget experts have been able to come up with. Her diptych delivers a colourfully chaotic depiction of the country’s government buildings, churches and shopping malls. Beneath them are lines of stick figure South Africans contributing their taxes, tithes and charities, while above the country’s ubiquitous plastic recyclers continue their grinding path to the depot, unaffected.
The message for anyone in any doubt is simple. Despite all its peoples’ many fiscal contributions, delivered every day through shopping malls, churches and government buildings, South Africa’s social development is stuck in first gear.
‘In one way the piece is a response to the weird emptiness of things like the budget speech news cycle,’ says Field. ‘But it’s also a simpler reflection of the commentary you hear ordinary people giving every day. As citizens we all provide the money that is supposed to fund the basic structures of our social life, but when we’re out in the world those structures are often missing, or completely broken. We all know and understand this, yet nothing changes. Which gives events like the budget speech a strong sense of futility.’
The drifting presence of the plastic recyclers in Field’s work reinforces this point. They are at once central to the scene, but also far removed from it.
‘We’re surrounded by a huge amount of recycling and sustainability verbiage and legislation, but if aliens landed in South Africa today you would really struggle to convince them that our approach didn’t in fact rely fundamentally on informal sector recyclers, who operate in the middle of our streets but on the far margins of society. Again, this is an irony most South African talk about every day but is seldom recognised in formal processes like the budget speech.’
Field has been part of the Jozi fine arts scene for the last twenty years, as an artist in her own right and as the owner and curator of Unity Gallery, a city-based creative hub that operated between 2003 and 2013.
Taxes, Tithes and Charity will feature at her upcoming solo show – Allow me to Introduce You To… which opens in Melville on the 19th of March 2021. The show will be opened feature by Blessing Ngobeni, one of the country’s foremost fine artists, widely recognised for his biting assessments of the country’s socio-economic trajectory.
Ngobeni’s career has shown the analytical role fine art can play in social commentary. Visually his work is a feast for the eyes, while his symbolism and use of metaphor dig straight into issues that affect every South African.
‘Blessing has been an inspiring figure for our community, and he’s shown that art can be both beautiful and socially probing at the same time,’ says Field. ‘In fact, if you know where and how to look you will often find more relevant social analysis in the local fine arts world, led by people like Blessing, than you will in many media outlets and civil society organisations. This might be an indictment to some sectors, but it also says a lot about how powerful our fine arts scene is now. There’s a lot of richness and depth out there, in every sense.’
So, maybe it’s time we got our artists out in front of the parliament buildings in February, along with the pundits? It would surely liven up proceedings, and who knows, it might even inspire some of our struggling analysts.