Curated by ‘no need to (break in)’
Much has been written about the events surrounding last year’s Brett Murray’s “Hail to the Thief” show at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, which polarized public opinion and left us with unsettling questions regarding the timid position of the art community on censorship.
South Africa, with its guttural cultural diversity has not been an exception to the establishment antipathy towards any form of rebellious interpretation of a given reality. The offence caused by artists manifesting their human right to freely express their views has led to censorship, demonstrations, destruction, and even “degraded” dignitaries.
“Barely Legal” at Res Gallery considers the recent furore in a wider historical context and also includes works by contemporary artists, featuring Brett Murray, Kendell Geers, Jean Christophe Ballot, Norman Catherine, André S Clements, Lippy Lipshitz, John Hodgkiss, Andrew Robertson, Cecil Skotnes, Brett Eloff, Patrick de Mervelec, Frederick Clarke, Carol Nathan Levine.
The starting point of the exhibition is 1938 and features a drawing by Lippy Lipshitz entitled “Lot and his family in flight”; this modern biblical representation was anathema to the Cape Town establishment, headed by Edward Roworth, then the Director of Michaelis and the South African National Gallery.
Roworth openly supported the Nazi censorship on modern art stating:
“In our day art in Germany adopted some of the most degrading forms which the modernist movement has yet known, but quite recently this flood of degenerative “art” has been stemmed by Herr Hitler, who has given the exponents of modernism their choice between the lunatic asylum and the concentration camp.”
The establishment attempted to destroy their liberal modernist ‘New Group’ opponents and during a group show removed a nude by Cecil Higgs from the Stellenbosch University library in August 1939.
During the apartheid era this draconian attitude continued; Norman Catherine’s first Fook Happening upset the notorious Special Branch. Catherine later recalled:
“The time in which these works were produced was one of heavy censorship. I didn’t set out to make them overtly “pornographic” or political, but the authorities read them as that and tried to have works removed.”
Political conservativism and religious puritanism, has often led to “nudity” in art becoming an act of subversion.
An inescapable reality is that a country without an art community is a country without a voice.