Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Images That Offend New South Africa; High Commission Covers Up Murals Depicting an Era Best Forgotten

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Images That Offend New South Africa; High Commission Covers Up Murals Depicting an Era Best Forgotten

Article excerpt

Byline: MATTHEW LEWIN

WHEN a new wave of South African diplomats arriving in London to work at the country ' s High Commission found the building crammed with murals and paintings, it was soon realised they were an embarrassing reminder of the country's racist past.

The art on display at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square included idealised images of landscapes from which black and mixed-race towns and people had mysteriously disappeared, inaccurate portraits of indigenous people in supposedly traditional dress, and even natives bowing contentedly at the feet of white masters.

There were calls for the murals to be painted over - but art historians and conservationists pointed out their artistic and historical value, and a compromise has been reached. The most offensive works will be covered by removable panels that will be used to display contemporary and, it is hoped, more relevant images of life in South Africa.

Lorna de Smidt, the South African political scientist and art historian given the job of overseeing refurbishment, said the murals do show black people only in deferential roles, but added: "We had to acknowledge the past, and accept that it is there. You can't just airbrush things out of history and pretend they didn't exist."

The murals are a legacy of the old South Africa. One former ambassador, Carel de Wet, even banned any images of black people in contemporary settings from the building.

Chief among the works to disappear from everyday view are the paintings of Jan Juta, generally seen by art experts as a second-rate painter who only obtained his commission through nepotism. Juta's images show scenes such as indigenous people kneeling before early Dutch settler leader Simon van der Stel, symbolically offering him the soil of the country. …

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