Harlem Library Showcases Collection of Apartheid-Era South African Art
By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Barbara Lerner-Linder was visiting her partner Sam Bloomberg, a gallery owner, in South Africa when she noticed a treasure trove of paintings and drawings that he had placed in storage.
"I saw these beautiful pieces of artwork and thought that they have to be shown to the world," said Lerner-Linder.
The colorful artwork was produced by a group of artists from 1980 to 1995 when black South Africans were agitating for an end to Apartheid. Harlem, with its history of protest and struggle, would be the perfect place for the collection, Lerner-Linder thought.
"These artists lived through the Apartheid era when they were limited by the government in terms of what they could show," said Lerner-Linder, who with Bloomberg shipped the works to Harlem and is curating her first exhibit. "They used their art as a weapon of resistance to oppose the harsh conditions a majority of blacks were living in."
Now, the 110 paintings from 15 different South African artists are on display at Countee Cullen Library through May 27 in an exhibit titled: "An Emerging Nation: Paintings by the Soweto School of South African Artists." Produced on a shoestring budget, the exhibit was extended due to popular demand. Afterward, the plan is to divide the display among five galleries in Harlem who will stage a shared exhibit.
The pieces show urban life in the township of Soweto where there were uprisings to end Apartheid. The paintings depict people doing everyday tasks such as carrying water, caring for children or working in the mines. They also depict the oppression faced by black South Africans. There are also depictions of traditional tribal elders.
The paintings break new ground, too. When people think of African art they focus mainly on tribal artwork. But the exhibit contains abstract renderings that were symbols of resistance during a period when the artists were forced to be silent. Many pieces are also influenced by Jazz.
One of the featured artists is Winston Saoli who died in 1995 at the age 0f 45. Saoli was arrested at an African National Congress meeting and placed in solitary confinement for almost a year.
Saoli eventually won his freedom when he began painting on eggshells and rocks to show white authorities that he was an artist, and not a politician, Linder said. The unjust imprisonment profoundly affected his work.
Saoli's work "Bird of Nyoni" depicts a giant bird flying away into a mass of bright color and flowers. "It really speaks to the hopes and ideas of a people with aspirations to be free as a nation," Lerner-Linder said.
Other works, such as "Walking into Freedom" by B. Nkosi, depict an image of Nelson Mandela and another image of the continent of Africa. A man is show walking between the two with his arms lifted skyward.
In South Africa, Apartheid-era art is gaining in popularity as the nation continues to come to terms with its past. By placing the exhibit in the library, Lerner-Linder said she hopes to expose the art to people who may not make it to a museum.
"This exhibit is politically significant and astetically beautiful," Lerner-Linder said. "It's a statement of a time that's fast disappearing."
Countee Cullen Library is located at 104 West 136th St. just off of Lenox Avenue. The display is open from 1:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.