Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa: History after Apartheid

By Chandler, Robin M. | African Studies Review, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa: History after Apartheid


Chandler, Robin M., African Studies Review


LITERATURE AND ARTS Annie E. Coombes. Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa: History after Apartheid. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. 384 pp. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $27.95. Paper.

Dominion has been a timeless theme of art, and monumental public art the most dramatic articulation of politicized nationalism. Monuments to war heroes, victors in conquest, totalitarian despots, or distinguished statesmen all typically pay visual homage to the idea of power, specifically male sovereignty. In South Africa there have always been two orders, the seen and the unseen, the ravaged and the reconstructed, mortality and immortality, death and rebirth, violence and beauty. These are "warring ideals," such that in public culture the victor and the vanquished seem irreconcilable, always contradictory. The museum world and the domain of visual and performance culture were, for decades, among the few sites where visions of resistance and social transformation could be presented in a society hemmed in by censorship.

In Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa: History after Apartheid, Annie Coombes attempts to fence off a space in which recessed lighting figuratively illuminates the museological, the chronological, the diabolical. In writing about the complex political affiliations of the South African art world, however, she resurrects a somewhat dated ethnographic enterprise that reflects the intellectual cadence of a neocolonial art world. The sheer weight of the white authoritarian colonial mind over-powers text and subtext, and it is difficult to accept the author's analyses of models of historical knowledge when her vision has been shaped by European systems of thought. How does contemporary South Africa relinquish the "post-apartheid" nomenclature as a driving theme of public debate, art production, and art critique? Part of the dilemma in writing about South Africa's art world is that it is, compared to that of many other societies, a relatively small world. Apartheid put South Africa on the map. Thus Coombes's relentless focus on memory culture and the politicization of art demonstrates the challenges of trying to fashion any narrative of national identity outside of the realm of the political. The tensions concerning the museumification of Robben Island and District Six (chapters 2 and 3), for example, directly engage the question of exclusion-the exclusion of constituencies victimized by apartheid. Part of the problem in the South African art world has been the absence of alternative nonwhite institutions.

In other societies with histories of genocide and enslavement (read: the U.S.) in which those alternative art worlds thrive, however precariously, the articulation of power, politics, and art gradually develops its human capital; professional communities of color compete, if not always equally, to define their own realities. A community-based arts movement, built and sustained by committed cross-racial alliances in the 1960s-1990s, has provided an anti-museum site of counterhegemony which this book would have done well to document.

Globally, museums have served as public temples, a counterpoint to religious sites. Coombes explores the new codes of behavior stipulated by the "new" South Africa in chapter 6 by recounting the effects of contemporary events such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and how memorial and historical contemplation affects the new art emerging from a nation in the throes of reinvention.

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