During the 90s, the South African art scene underwent a massive shift. With democracy came a change in worldview, that for years had been shaped by unified resistance. Newfound freedom brought with it an optimism and the possibility to explore subject matter that extended beyond the confines of previous political discourses.
This is not to say that art became apolitical, but that preoccupations such as identity politics began to occupy the general milieu. The process of globalisation allowed us greater access to the world via technology, and the death of apartheid ended our cultural exclusion from it.
In 1993 after decades of isolation from the rest of world, over 20 South African artists were invited to exhibit at the Venice Biennale and in 1995, the Ministry of Culture founded the Johannesburg Biennale. South African fine art was placed on the world stage and entered the global market. Here’s our list of a few artworks and artists who shaped the decade:
In 1991 Willie Bester retired from his day job to become a full-time artist. His large assemblages and painting collages are made from discarded objects. For Willie, the objects society throws away are symbolic and reveal much about us. His work centres around racial injustices and he believes that given such harsh realities exist within the “rainbow nation”, South Africans cannot afford to be apolitical. See his work here.
Berni Searle graduated with a MFA from the Michaelis School of Fine Art in 1995. Her Colour Me series which she created 1998 is a performative work that explores history, time, land-memory and place. This early body of work set the tone for themes she continues to explore in the present day such as the tensions between tradition and modernity, identity and history. In Colour Me she posits herself as the subject and uses spice as a medium to comment on cultural heritage, the female body, race, colonial history and politics of belonging. Click here for more.
Moshekwa Langa was in his early 20s when he burst onto the art scene in the mid 90s. His installations, sculptures, drawings, photographs and videos are deeply embedded within his anthropological worldview. Bakenberg, the remote Limpopo town which he grew up in, never featured in school history or geography textbooks. It barely even pops up on Google Maps. Consequently, much of his work deals with mapping in an unconventional and abstracted form. His multi-disciplinary approach is an attempt to make sense of himself and the world through ever-shifting imagined, and real spaces. Moshekwa currently works between Amsterdam and Johannesburg. See his recent work here.
Marlene Dumas has a pre-occupation with portraiture and oil paintings. Her work explores the relationship between the viewer, subject and artist’s gaze. What does it mean to look at a subject, to paint, and to connect to an interpretation of them, when it is impossible to capture them in all their entirety? Her figurative paintings are stylistically emotive and appear explicit, yet leave much for the viewer to interpret. Marlene makes use of traditional mediums to interrogate notions of beauty, pornography and the female form. See more of her work here.
“A desperate kind of attraction. I have a sparkler up the dildo, and I am being frantically tugged on a rope. The sparkler is because people are always saying, ‘Gay boys are like that, they should have firecrackers up their arses.’ But I’m celebrating it at the same time,” is what Steven Cohen told Artthrob about this particular performance in 1998. Performance artist extraordinaire, his work has always acknowledged all those on the margins of society. During the late 90s he performed over 70 public interventions and had over 30 exhibitions. Click here for more.
Feeling nostalgic? Head over here for some of the best local music to come out of the 90s.