The term ‘Modernism’ usually brings to mind images of artworks and architecture produced in Europe and the United States from the 1850s to the 1970s where artistic traditions of previous centuries were rejected in favour of experimentation, innovation and use of new materials. Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Abstraction, Expressionism and Formalism are just a few of the artistic movements associated with new forms of artistic expression that sought to reflect modern society.

Black African Modernisms (1940-1990) is part of an extensive African art research project, currently being undertaken by leading African art scholars from around the world, which examines the concepts of Modernism and Modernity in relation to African art. The artworks by over 20 artists, drawn mostly from Wits Art Museum’s permanent collections, will offer insights into the various ‘Modernist’ approaches that interested black South African artists from the 1950s to the 1990s.

The first generation of black modernists, represented by Gerard Sekoto and George Pemba, used expressive naturalism to depict their realities of urban township dwelling. Gerard Bhengu and others painted similar landscapes to document African life and the waves of suffering and destruction caused by Apartheid.

Another stream of modernism – abstraction – is evident in the figurative styled sculpture and graphic work of luminaries such as Sidney Kumalo, Louis Maqhubela and others. In contrast, artists from Rorke’s Drift such as Azaria Mbatha, and Cyprian Shilakoe developed abstract modernist forms (less clearly African) in prints and sculptural forms that are poetic, metaphorical and indirect. These forms often masked a strongly political message. The formalist aesthetic that underlay these works, with emphasis on composition, balance, contrast and harmony is also evident in Alina Ndebele’s tapestries or the figure sculptures and drawings by artists trained at Polly Street.

Many rurally based artists, working in traditional media and for local clientele, also produced modernist forms. An almost completely abstract modernism is evident in the highly refined but traditionally made ceramic forms of artists Nesta Nala and Rebecca Matibe. Jackson Hlungwani’s minimally carved wooden sculptures are also not part of an historical tradition, but represent an individual and hence ‘modernist’ response to particular circumstances. The topical subject matter and basic naturalism of the images made by artists such as Johannes Maswanganyi and Noria Mabasa, also situate their works within a framework of the modern.

In the 1980s many black artists who had initially embraced an abstract mode of representation turned to more realistic forms as the imperative for strong political commentary grew. The results of this turn can be seen in Ezrom Legae’s drawings from that decade and in the work of younger artists like Fikile Magadlela.

This insightful exhibition is curated by Professor Emeritus Anitra Nettleton, in collaboration with/assisted by Dr Same Mdluli and Bongani Mahlangu, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Associates at WAM.

Exhibition dates: 6 April to 19 June, 2016