Politics in art: Richard Mudariki’s The Model (2015) is part of the Sanlam exhibition.
Politics in art: Richard Mudariki’s The Model (2015) is part of the Sanlam exhibition.

A new exhibition, Centennial: A Century of South African Art from the Sanlam Art Collection, which has been meticulously and expertly curated by Stefan Hundt, is bound to get art lovers and collectors in a complete tizz.

It showcases a rich history of SA’s art, the role the corporate sector plays in sustaining artists and their practice, and its preservation of cultural production.

It marks a century of Sanlam’s existence and in a way is a celebration of one of the most successful corporate stories in SA. There could not have been a better way of marking this milestone than this exhibition.

Long before other corporates followed suit, Sanlam started its collection in 1965 with 12 pieces, growing the collection to more than 1,000 pieces of art.

The company’s celebration coincides with the Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu centennial years. In most societies, art and politics constantly collide, and SA is no exception. Sometimes this healthy tension leads to a vibrant art scene.

Irma Stern’s Portrait of a Young Malay Girl, oil on canvas, was completed in 1939. Picture: SUPPLIED
Irma Stern’s Portrait of a Young Malay Girl, oil on canvas, was completed in 1939. Picture: SUPPLIED

However, the content of Sanlam’s exhibition also serves to freeze time through the selection of 70 art objects that cover a century of art production and practice in SA. The visual voices are diverse, and so are the media, styles, genres, the subject matter and perspectives of the artists that Hundt has meticulously chosen.

The works on display highlight three main issues: art production and practices of the time; how the artists dealt with the political issues of their time; and how artists engaged with social and economic issues. The exhibition is also an opportunity to learn the history of this country — from colonialism to apartheid and eventually freedom — and the future society envisioned for generations to come.

SA’s early art production seemed to avoid engaging with politics. However, in later years, the country’s art became more overtly political in response to prevailing events.

This is especially evidenced by the works of Pieter Wenning (1873–1921) and Hugo Naude (1869-1941). While their work was firmly rooted in the European tradition, even though it took on a character of its own, their representations of the landscape were inspired by Southern African topography. Wenning’s Transvaal Evening (Nelspruit), for example, depicts a rugged landscape even though it has obvious European tones.

Naude’s Malay Quarter, (Cape Town) depicts an urban and calm street, while in reality Malay people were descended from slaves imported to SA by the colonisers and were socially marginalised during apartheid.

SA’s art up to the early 1950s was firmly committed to the genres of portraiture, landscape and still life. The most prominent practitioners were Maggie Laubser and Irma Stern.

Both artists were influenced greatly by European art traditions and schools.


Laubser lived in the UK, Belgium, Italy and Germany between 1913 and 1926 and learned art making there. Her bold and expressive use of colour is on show in her painting Poplars-Italy (circa 1920).

Laubser painted rural landscapes from her personal experiences and represented a life of toil, loss and salvation. This approach later influenced the aesthetics of artists such as Alexis Preller and Johannes Meintjes, whose works are also in the Sanlam collection.

Laubser and Stern’s contemporaries — such as Gerard Sekoto, JH Pierneef, Dorothy Kay and Gerard Bhengu — created works that represented their daily experiences. Sekoto’s Indaba, on view in this exhibition, depicts an intense family discussion in a crammed environment. Gladys Mgudlandlu’s Birds represents the avian animals as companions. She was the only recognised black female artist in her time and painted a wide range of subjects from cityscapes of the Atlantic seaboard to her rural home.

After the National Party government won the elections in 1948 and introduced racial segregation, artists’ works became more overtly political, especially from the 1960s to the 1990s.

In the 1980s, the term Resistance Art became part of the lexicon for the first time, as artists including William Kentridge, Dumile Feni and Elizabeth (Elza) Botha created stunning work.

In this exhibition, Kentridge’s drawing Stadium; Paul Emsley’s triptych The Visit, Arrival, Life and Time, Departure; and Botha’s Butterfly Box and Manifes are examples of Resistance Art from the 1980s.

In a democratic SA, with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, artists continue to create art that engages with, and is critical of, the human condition. Such works on show at the exhibition include Kim Berman’s large scale mono-print titled Fires of the Truth Commission and CJ Morkel’s the Hotnotsgot and I.

A recent acquisition, a 2015 painting by Richard Mudariki titled The Model, engages with the issue of identity politics.

His triptych has a view into a painting and sculpting studio in which the model is Cecil John Rhodes. The image of Rhodes was derived from Marion Walgate’s colonial-era bronze, which, after much agitation and repeated protests by students and supporters of #RhodesMustFall, was removed from UCT’s upper campus.

Mudariki’s take on the campaign shows how current discourse in SA continues to touch on the contested legacies of colonialism and apartheid.

Centennial exhibition from the Sanlam Collection 1918-2018 is at The Sanlam Lounge, Alice Lane in Sandton. The exhibition closes on December 14.