Catching a ride

Launched in 2000 in South Africa, the Taxi Art Series is working towards the twin goals of extending the profile of contemporary South African artists and, at the same time, establishing a teaching resource archive and educational materials. The series covers artists who have produced a substantial body of art but who have had no monograph published on their work.

The series title couldn’t be more apt for the Taxi Art book on Kagiso Pat Mautloa. It takes us on a journey of street-level encounters in Johannesburg, and there’s no better way to learn about a city than to experience it with a local inhabitant. From the age of two, Mautloa has walked these streets. He knows the details and essences that capture this South African urban environment with its multi-layered meanings and transitory beauties: the fraying of dusty hessian, the sudden harshness of sunlight or momentary tenderness of a dawn mist over corrugated iron, the density of blue-black shadows in narrow streets, rusted red metal on housing, the ragged punctures of street braziers, the way orange yellows to bronze, paper twists in the wind and reflections flash on broken glass, the dark eyes, acres of wire, cracked skin.

Mautloa’s roving eye has seized on a wide range of styles and media to render his city’s life, combining ethics and aesthetics to interpret the environment. The book’s numerous high-quality full-colour reproductions cover the artist’s output from his beginnings in 1978 up to 2003. A beautifully sensitive self-portrait (1979) in ink and conté pencil on paper provides evidence of early talent, and shows the conventional starting point from which the artist launched himself into a personal exploration of mixed-media assemblage and installation that so aptly evoke this urban reality. Mautloa’s work is particularly significant for the way it uses texture to awaken the viewer to myriad sensations and the harsh facts they imply. Collecting discarded fragments of the city’s surfaces and working on them and with them until they signify his concept, Mautloa shows us the underlying realities of the lives of his neighbours, co-workers, passers-by, the community of black urban dwellers. Among the outstanding works is Sleeping Quarters (c. 1995), a strong humanitarian statement that employs minimal materials to maximum effect. It viscerally and conceptually captures the imagination, leaving its impression and lasting resonance deep in the subconscious. Progress Wall (1995), a triptych in wood, metal and paint, and Cityscape (2003), mixed media on canvas, stir both the senses and the mind. They place the viewer in touch, almost literally, with poverty and simultaneously open our eyes to intense elemental African beauty. Through its focused abstraction and concentrated depiction of the environment, Mautloa’s work speaks of the human body and marks out the human presence in the landscape with its long history of struggle. The experience is specific and local, rooted in the South African reality.

“The artist’s roving eye has seized on a wide range of styles and media to render his city’s life, combining ethics and aesthetics to interpret the environment”

The author of the accompanying text, Andries Walter Oliphant, is an expert guide, explaining the route taken, slowing to introduce relevant context, negotiating turnings, pointing out fragments and references, and alerting the reader to subtle signs otherwise difficult to decipher. The individual works are lucidly discussed, giving in-depth explanations of significant details that broaden and enrich the viewing experience. There is the inevitable tendency to relate developments to the West, with little mention of influential African contemporaries such as Antonio Olé, but Oliphant adeptly combines biographical information, socio-political and historical context, and aesthetic analysis. The text offers a substantial, comprehensively considered account of Mautloa’s vision and work, opening avenues for further reflection.

In contrast, the Taxi ride in search of Deborah Bell is intentionally erratic. Pippa Stein, the main author, explains that the book is an introduction to the artist’s work and is structured around a variety of texts to indicate diverse approaches. Alongside the introductory essay, there are writings by the artist, a poem, a discussion between three critics, contributions by artists who have collaborated with Bell, and comments from viewers and patrons.

In both her art and her writing, Deborah Bell’s interpretations are expressed through the realms of myth, the emotions and the spiritual. Referring to European myth and drawing strongly from sources such as Max Beckman and Goya, the artist’s early (1980s) drawings and paintings explore female roles and perspectives, particularly with regard to relationships and sexuality. This thematic field is expanded to encompass white society in South Africa in several series of complex multi-layered etchings, such as Hogarth in Johannesburg (1987) and Little Morals (1991), and edgy animated films made in collaboration with William Kentridge and Robert Hodgins. During the same period, the late 80s and 90s, Bell began to move in a quite different direction. Although produced at the same time, this work is utterly distinct in its use of African iconography, drawn from, and closely based on, the historical art forms of a variety of African cultures. This work led towards her Unearthed series (2001), a group of beautiful life-sized, richly embellished terracotta figures that resemble pieces from the African galleries of a museum. Equally powerful are her Mangbetu-inspired Crying Pots (1998), which she explains are intended to link the grief exposed in the South African Truth and Reconciliation hearings to ancient African sorrows. These works raise numerous questions, and although some issues are briefly touched on in the critics’ conversation, they are not developed. The separation of the two strands of Bell’s work – which appears to divide the European and modern from the ancient and African – and the absence of white African history in the latter work, need analysis not offered in the text. Pippa Stein declares the book’s intention to be open-ended but I find myself agreeing with two viewers who comment that: ‘the artist seems to have something hidden inside her, something she cannot let out’. The book is certainly an invitation to further debate.

To date the Taxi Art Series comprises ten monographs, and with a publishing programme of two or three books a year we have much to look forward to. The other eight artists represented are Jo Ratcliffe, Samson Mudzunga, Jeremy Wafer, Santu Mofokeng, Lien Botha, David Koloane, Noria Mabasa and Steven Cohen. Each book provides material that is not otherwise available, a generous amount of high-quality reproductions in full colour, the artist’s CV and references to relevant publications, and the flexible approach to structure and content allows the author and artist to fashion a vehicle that suits the individual involved. The inclusion of black commentators in the monograph on Deborah Bell is particularly welcome and hopefully more extensive in the other and future books in the series.

A most important feature of the series is that each book is accompanied by an Educational Supplement (unfortunately not included for review) designed to make the artist’s work accessible to teachers and students of art and art history both in South Africa and beyond. The translation of the text (or an abbreviated version) into French and Dutch is advantageous for the European audience, however, keeping in mind the local students and the fundamental need to develop useable teaching materials, translation into local African languages – in particular the mother tongue of the artist – would greatly facilitate wider use and readership. Co-sponsored by the French Institute of South Africa, the Royal Netherlands Embassy, Pro-Helvetia, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the National Arts Council of South Africa and the David Krut Arts Resource, the Taxi Art Series is an important initiative for art making and art teaching in Africa. The next vital step is for other countries on the continent – each of which has a wealth of art and artists – to establish similar art publishing projects to record and disseminate local cultural creation and strengthen local debate.