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The ideas behind this project stem from the particular legacy of Black British arts practice of the 1980s. Initially a ghettoized response to the overwhelming historical moment of being different in Britain at this time, the movement quickly expanded its horizons to adopt the globe where the marginalized presence to non-whites immediately overturns to an overwhelming majority. Of particular obvious interest were migrant cultures of the West. Connections were made with indigenous and resistance cultures worldwide and considering the interest in migration it was a short step to reconsider the impact of settler cultures. As nationalism and ethnic cleansing emerged as contested sites internationally, we wanted to consider the possible grouping of geographically diverse nations, each involved in trying to forge new identities making a break from their colonial past.

In “The New Republics” we are focused on a set of particular connections between the great land mass British settler countries, which are held together by language, cultural diversities and a frontier (i.e. land/landscape as expressed in art). Although the looking glass is being held up in London, really we thought of it as a mirror, what do current nationalist aspirations mean to younger artists and what can they show us both here in England as well as in other nations involved?

This touring visual arts exhibition strove to deconstruct the nation of the centre (London/UK/Europe) both as a site of former colonial power and as a site of current economic and cultural power. The process by which this project had chosen to tackle this issue was to consider the cultural histories and contemporary art practices of the three great land mass states that are the sites if European “discovery,” with their bitter struggles of racial domination and a particular reference to Britain. The theme focuses on the political aspirations of the citizens of these nations to be/become republics, to challenge a colonial legacy, and the particular ways in which the destinies of each location are tied to the “frontier” element of the colonization of the colonizers to the native population and the introduction of non-native people as slaves in the colonial period and as economic migrants in the post-war period.

Australia, Canada and South Africa are all countries that are struggling with a particular colonial legacy with respect to nationhood and their relations with the Commonwealth: Canada, where the Anglo-French colonial legacy continues today with Quebec's bids for cultural/political freedom; Australia, where Aboriginal cultures were almost destroyed; and, South Africa, where black people survived the apartheid state, and where a similar, but differently played out history has already led to the creation of a “new republic” now struggles to reconcile the legacies of the past with the impulse to create a unified state with new national symbols.

In 1996, a research and development grant from the Arts Council of England enabled us to travel to all three countries and make a series of studio visits with artists, to visit potential venues for the exhibition and to see a lot of local art making installed in public and private dealer-run galleries. The project was developed with the curatorial collaboration of Clare Williamson, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne and Bruce Grenville, Vancouver Art Gallery. Starting in South Africa we were immediately driven to the Kwa Ndebele homeland to meet Moshekwa Aaron Langa and look at his work. At the age of twenty, his work is outstanding in terms of its sensitivity; he draws on found materials, hangs cement bags and animal skins from washing lines and cuts out and makes bundles of printed matter. As a member of Generation X Langa takes his references from a post-apartheid South Africa, drawing from mass media and popular culture, rather than the previous generations' reliance on overt political symbolism.

Starting in South Africa we were immediately driven to the Kwa Ndebele homeland to meet Moshekwa Aaron Langa and look at his work. At the age of twenty, his work is outstanding in terms of its sensitivity; he draws on found materials, hangs cement bags and animal skins from washing lines and cuts out and makes bundles of printed matter. As a member of Generation X Langa takes his references from a post-apartheid South Africa, drawing from mass media and popular culture, rather than the previous generations' reliance on over political symbolism.

The other South African artists include Willie Bester, Brett Murray, Clive van den Berg, and Sue Williamson. Willie Bester's work is best described as richly invigorated relief constructions that disrupt township narratives, yet still maintains a popular ethos. He makes direct references to political/historical events and uses the actual symbols of apartheid. Now a mature artists, Bester had spent time in his youth for anti-apartheid activities and the brutality of that experience is reflected in the choice of his materials. Brett Murray works with iron; much of his work consists of figurative representations from which are abstracted powerful references to memory, identities and the land. Clive van den Berg's landscape paintings reveal uninhabited natural vistas; although there is an absence of people, his images invariably reflect human intervention. Based in Johannesburg, van den Berg has made a series of paintings on the main feature of the city's landscape and consequence of its history—the mine dumps. He has painted moquettes for fire drawings that were installed on the actual dumps of European artefacts during the first Johannesburg Biennale, which were to erode over time. For “The New Republics,” however, van den Berg chose to work in the medium of video. Sue Willaimson's recent work includes an installation consisting of an Island covered by hundreds of bottles, as if washed ashore from Cape Town. Another installation is an arrangement of fragments of District 6, a “coloured” urban area that was levelled by apartheid development politics, which are encapsulated in resin. In her work Williamson exposes marginalized social and political issues that are swept under the rug.

The Australian artists that we thought worked best in our grouping for the formal variety of their work are: Gordon Bennett, Richard Bell, Elizabeth Gertzakis, and Fiona Hall. Bennett is concerned with narratives that have been left out of history, such as the slaughter of Aboriginal people. Richard Bell critiques white Australia, as well as the acceptable face of some native art and echoes strategies adopted by native artists in Canada. Elizabeth Gertzakis' work produces histories, biographies and autobiographies, visually and in a narrative form, of European migrants, which works well with our theme. Her thoughts on generations and rites of passage are mirrored in England by people of a non-European origin. Fiona Hall's work transforms the domestic environment, as with her use of sardine and soft drink cans, which are insightful gestures towards the transportation of trade and commerce. We were particularly interested in her work involving plants and sexuality. 

The Canadian artists more like the Australians rather than the South Africans have had an opportunity to develop through a public sector supporting a critical practice. Rebecca Baird is a native artist of some stature; she uses paint and 3D installations to make allegorical works referencing history, memory and geography. For “The New Republics” Rebecca Baird is collaborating with her brother Kenny Baird on a series of works that allude to the strata of conflicting claims on natural territory and colonial land division. Dominique Blain has worked in a variety mediums including photography, printing and 3D installation; thematically her work deals with issues of colonial power, racism, gender and nationalism. Of Korean decent, Jin-me Yoon is best known for a set of images she made in Banff locating herself in a series of photos in from of classical Canadian landscapes. For Yoon, identity is relational and contingent upon re-working representations of the social body and the physical land. In his work South African born Trevor Gould explores how the presentation of visual images and cultural objects both produce and change history. Leila Sujir constructs sculptural pieces as well as video works. She often interlaces narratives into the time and space of video, and works through the concepts biography, autobiography, and history, revealing a story as one of the threads that shapes our lives.

The exhibition drew connections between diverse experiences held together by a particularly English heritage, whose legacy was being challenged in the late 20th century as represented by works of the artists. Drawing on post-modern ideas and multiple heritages, both indigenous and brought in by the migrants who settled there, the artists also raised questions about what can be considered acceptable ethically and aesthetically in the making of art.

 

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