Most residents of South Africa's larger cities will, when prompted, immediately recall having noticed one or more wall paintings, or murals, somewhere in town. Fifteen years ago, it can be ascertained, the response to such a question would have been very different--mostly due to circumstances associated with South Africa's political situation under an oppressive apartheid regime. While there were a few murals in South African cities and townships during the 1970s and 80s (1), urban mural art has only recently emerged as a highly visible phenomenon and tremendously flourished ever since.
This paper will focus mostly on so-called `community murals' (a term to be elaborated upon below) as opposed to muralised advertisement, graffiti, and commissioned wall decorations, often executed by a single artist, as well as all forms of traditional African rural homestead paintings (2). Community mural art is mostly a post-apartheid phenomenon, its emergence closely connected with political change and liberalisation in South Africa. Despite this close correlation with political processes, mural art appears to be strikingly unpolitical and uncritical in content. Murals are often perceived to be unchallenging, boringly re-iterating what we already know. They have a long tradition of being associated With advertisement or graffiti, justifying the fact that they are not taken seriously as art. (3)
This paper will suggest that there is more to murals than meets the eye. It aims to challenge some of the common stereotypes and assumptions associated with urban community murals and question the customary (and often dismissive) ways of reading their contents. This attempt to reposition mural art is based on the premise that the reception and perceived meaning of murals may be a very different one to different communities (4) and that the current perception of mural art within academia rests solely on one societal group's reading and frames of reference.
Postcolonial theory will provide the theoretical framework to first expose the subversive character of community murals as a form of visual arts practice located in opposition to `fine art', and then illustrate with reference to a few examples how a critical dimension manifests itself in the imagery of mural art in South Africa.
`Community art' versus `fine art'
Despite the current rapproachement of `high art' and `low art' realms in artistic practices and strategies of display, South Africa is still largely polarised between `fine art' on one end of the scale, and various forms of `low art', including craft, commercial art and what has been labelled `community art' on the other. `Fine art' usually implies academic training according to European (or more generally Western) models, although this may be substituted by more informal training if the artist is invested with great natural talent in accordance with the concept of `genius'. `Fine art' entails, knowledge and mastery of a specific norm of artistic ability, which is closely associated with Western aesthetic standards and artistic practices. `Fine art' in South Africa clearly follows international trends as evidenced, for example, by the recent 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, Trade Routes--both in terms of art production and modes of display. After the end of South Africa's pariah status under apartheid and in particular the cultural boycott, South African artists clearly enjoy taking part in and meeting the challenges of a wide international competition in a global art world.
`Community art' on the other hand, of which mural art plays an important part, is a collaborative art form that may involve the participation of non-trained artists, who do not necessarily adhere to `fine art' aesthetic standards and artistic techniques. Most importantly, community mural art often places more emphasis on the artistic process than on the final product, the painting itself. As opposed to such public art works as conventional monuments or sculptures, which could be called `fine art in public places', `community art' is highly site specific and presumes an active engagement of the local community in one form or another. …