In South Africa art is typically understood as music, poetry, dance, theatre, crafts, and filmmaking. The other elements of this vast industry include: painting, sculpture, photography, ballet, architecture, ceramics, drawing, printmaking, design, and the applied arts industrial design, graphic design, interior design and decorative art. George Pemba, Dumile Feni, Gerard Sekoto are unfamiliar names to the general South African public. Yet, with their works these painters have left a lasting impression on visual art lovers across the globe. The visual arts are not as prominent a sector in the creative industries as other art forms. For that reason, they are either misunderstood or under-valued by the general population, as they are relegated to a secondary form of art. Kristafor and Budhram in their thesis Driving the creative industries in the Western Cape define the visual arts as:
“In visual arts, the individual (the artist) uses various elements or material to express his or her feelings, emotions and differing perceptions of the world that surrounds him or her. The result of this work is judged mainly by the sense of sight. Painting, drawing, sculpture in various materials, printmaking, photography, plans, maps, performance art, installation art, mail art, assemblage art, body art, textile arts, fashion design, multimedia, video art, web design, web art, digital art, graphic and product design are some expressions of visual arts.“
The visual arts are often also associated with the European masters: Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Vermeer, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Picasso, to name but a few. Or with specific periods in time such as the Italian Renaissance, the Dutch Golden Age, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, symbolism, expressionism, and cubism. Yet, South Africa, and the southern African region in general, has one of the oldest visual arts traditions in the world, attested by the rock paintings of the Khoisan. Historians of art and ancient indigenous cultures have put forward that visual arts have played a significant role in the social and cultural fabric in indigenous culture for centuries. However, the 1800s and 1900s in South Africa saw the emergence of the European tradition of the visual arts influence this form of arts in the nation.
The historical background of the visual arts in South Africa is not widely appreciated as yet. Just as with ballet, there is a tendency to regard the visual arts as a frivolous western concept that has no relevance to Africans. This notion is in part due to the sector having evolved around the interests and aspirations of the minority white population in the country. This is according to the report An overview of the Visual Arts industry in South Africa, which explains further:
“As is the case in most other parts of the society and economy, the institutions, discourse, commercial activity and attendant networks of the visual arts sector have historically been dominated and shaped by the white population, with black artists and organisations being consigned to a largely marginal role in the development of the sector. During the apartheid period, black artists were accorded a secondary status in relation to mainstream practice, and – in the case of those artists that pursued an overtly politicised practice – actively suppressed and persecuted. The mainstream of creative practice was shaped by an aspirational culture, which sought to follow trends in Europe and North America, usually with a significant time lag. The visual arts nevertheless also served as an important domain for critical and dissident voices among both black and white artists, and while much of this work received some exposure internationally, the economic dimensions of the visual arts remained largely undeveloped domestically.”
While the nation’s political past has created the visual arts sector we have today, this art form nonetheless should, like other sectors, take its rightful place in the heritage, arts & culture sectors. In order for this to happen, the report’s findings propose that government take a larger role in promoting the sector. While government funds public art museums and collections, there currently is no comprehensive strategic plan dealing with the growth of the sector. Unlike other sectors in the arts, e.g. craft, music, film and publishing, there is a perception that the visual arts do not yield a return on investment with regard to job creation, poverty alleviation and contribution to economy. As a result, the visual arts are generally not prioritised in the drafting of policies and/or planning of the potential economic impact of this sector. Yet the Department of Arts and Culture’s Mzansi’s Golden Economy report estimates that the visual arts sector has a turnover of approximately R2-billion and gross value added of R1-billion per annum. The sector also employs around 17,700 people. With strategic planning there is no doubt that this sector has potential for growth and it is well placed to contribute to the social and economic goals of the New Growth Path.
The Mzansi Golden Economy initiative plans to implement the New Growth Path through the development of the creative and cultural industries. Its strategic approach to the development of the creative and cultural industries will focus on:
Through the Mzansi Golden Economy initiative the visual arts sector can play a significant role in contributing to social and economic development. It will require a new take on this sector, one not limited by the perceptions of the past, but new ideas of what the sector can do for the future so that the Pemba’s, Feni’s and Sekoto’s of our time may emerge.