Right: Esther Mahlangu taken by Themba Mbuyisa

The role of South Africa’s artists and designers is profoundly connected to preserving the deeper narratives of the country, writes FNB JoburgArtFair Director, Mandla Sibeko. 

Art and design are an integral part of our DNA, and we’ve been using these age-old creative forms to express ourselves for hundreds and thousands of years – from early signs of symbolic mark making to developing an ability to plan, record information and communicate with one another.

Ultimately, words and symbols have created the universal language of art and design – and language is what makes us truly human. This is what creates the rich tapestry of human life in all its joy and terror, sorrow and love, tragedy and inspiration, advancement and destruction. It’s the network that underwrites our global connectivity – to each other, to our past and to our future.

And there can be no future without knowing and valuing where we come from. So while we set aside the month of September to celebrate our heritage as South Africans, I cannot help but contemplate our heritage within the context of the universal language of art and design – how the authentic energy of our artistic expression has informed and inspired aesthetics globally, how the language of South African creativity has been steered by international voices, and how South African contemporary art demonstrates a touch of the past with a hint of the future.

It’s a dynamic ecosystem of looking inwards and outwards, backwards and forwards, embracing change, creating opportunities for collaboration and pushing the boundaries that technological advancements o er.

So what sets us apart in this fluid evolution from the parochial to the universal? It’s our heritage. Our heritage is our cultural asset. It’s an endless reference library – with an indelible stamp of South African-specific identity – from which we can draw inspiration and, in turn, inspire others. As such, the purpose of our heritage – which belongs to South Africans of all creeds and all races – is to be remembered and honoured.

We honour our heritage best by listening to people’s narratives – many of which are given life through artistic expression – and by creating fresh narratives that resonate and create an impact in a modern world of contemporary thinking.

Through art, we can help people to remember what’s gone before, to understand past lives and to sustain the legacies that shape our current realities.

As an artistic community, our role is to honour the people who have shaped the art and design landscape in which we currently operate by being brave enough to use these resources to keep our heritage alive with innovative thinking and social commentary.

South Africa is home to a wealth of critically acclaimed artists doing just that. My role as director of the FNB JoburgArtFair is to provide a platform to showcase a different narrative of Africa to a world that is clearly curious about our country and our continent, artists such as William Kentridge, Mary Sibande, Jane Alexander, Mohau Modisakeng and Robin Rhode – and many others – are celebrated in galleries, biennales and public spaces across the globe. They carry word of our history to the rest of the world and leave behind a body of work for future generations to interrogate and remember as part of South Africa’s heritage.

In drawing from South Africa’s cultural heritage, these artists are shaping the heritage of our future. In looking back, they keep us moving forward towards a viable global artistic economy.

Images courtesy: Tyburn Gallery and Stevenson Gallery