The Best South African Art Books

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With our rich culture and diversity, South Africa has produced some of the world’s most popular artists. Explore the multi-dimensional world of South African art with these inspired art books.

David Goldblatt: No Ulterior Motive by Judy Ditner

David Goldblatt: No Ulterior Motive
by Judy Ditner
ISBN: 9780300273410

Renowned South African photographer David Goldblatt (1930–2018) devoted his life to documenting his country and its people. Known for his nuanced portrayals of life under apartheid, Goldblatt covered a wide range of subjects, all of them intimately connected to South African history and politics.

The catalogue, which follows MAPFRE’s well-known design format, includes in-depth essays by Judy Ditner and Leslie Wilson and an extensive plate section that illustrates all of the objects in the exhibition. From vintage handprints of the artist’s black-and-white work, taken between the 1950s and the 1990s, to his post-apartheid, large-format, colour work, these photographs are grouped under headers such as “Assembly”, “Disbelief”, “Dialogues”, and “Extraction” to draw out the artist’s core interests in working class people, the landscape, and the built environment (ranging from humble homes to state monuments). An additional section featuring objects from Goldblatt’s personal archive—prints, negatives, transparencies, correspondence, and more, now held at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library—is also included.

Tell Me What You Remember by Sue Williamson and Lebohang Kganye

Tell Me What You Remember
by Sue Williamson & Lebohang Kganye
ISBN: 9780300269857

Three decades after the dismantling of apartheid began, South Africa’s so-called “born free” generation has reached adulthood and its artists have used their work to navigate their difficult inheritance. At the same time, the historical distance between their experience and that of an older generation grows.

This book brings together two of South Africa’s most acclaimed contemporary artists to reflect upon this moment. In their respective practices, Sue Williamson (b. 1941) and Lebohang Kganye (b. 1990) incorporate oral histories into film, photographs, installations, and textiles to consider how, just as formal statements determine collective histories, so the stories our elders tell us shape family narratives and personal identities. This richly illustrated catalogue features essays that consider themes of voice, testimony, ancestry, and care, and a dialogue between Kganye and Williamson.

William Kentridge: Carlton Centre Games Arcade by Warren Siebrits

William Kentridge: Carlton Centre Games Arcade
by Warren Siebrits
ISBN: 9783969992449

The completion of William Kentridge’s Domestic Scenes (2021) and Catalogue Raisonné Volume 1. Prints and Posters 1974–1990 (2022), both published by Steidl, was an opportunity to pause and take another more intimate look at a series of prints, singular and influential in Kentridge’s oeuvre, titled “Carlton Centre Games Arcade” (1977).

The Carlton Centre in Johannesburg, owned by the mining company Anglo American, was the most expensive and prestigious hotel and shopping complex on the African continent at the time, and was just a short walk from Kentridge’s father’s legal practice. It is then no surprise that this complex was where he decided to begin the process of observational drawing which would lead to Kentridge’s first prolonged engagement with intaglio printing.

Dreaming The Street by David Lurie

Dreaming The Street by David Lurie
ISBN: 9788857247670

In this new collection, the internationally exhibited and award-winning documentary and fine art photographer, David Lurie returns to the terrain of the city, but this time with a specific visual agenda in mind which he shapes with the eye for a carefully composed frame of both a documentarist and a fine artist.

Lurie’s new collection strikes at the very heart of the dilemma of unequal access to the technological means of production – the digital sphere, usually reached via the ubiquitous smartphone. With his aesthetic eye, skilful sense of composition, lighting and colour and, most importantly, a keen sense of the topicality and socio-political importance of what is contained within his frames, in his new project Lurie visually dramatizes the explosion of cheap and available camera technology built into smartphones, which has coincided with a corresponding explosion of the platforms on which their images can be seen – social media.

This seemingly extreme democratisation of image making in fact also disempowers, by turning the data inherent in all images – locations, faces, frequency of images, likes and dislikes – into monetisable information to be harvested and deployed by social media corporations.

Street photography started out as a means to document and thereby understand new ways of living that rapid urbanisation and industrial work and leisure practices had brought about. As a medium, street photography focused on popular culture and the working classes as a result. The novelty of having one’s lifestyle and values disseminated photographically is a mainstay of the street photography idiom – one that is now overshadowed by the ubiquity of its post-capitalist, self-initiated forms. This very ubiquity conceals the ideology behind a variable and radically unequal access to digital culture, still very much organised along class and racial lines.

Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness by Zanele Muholi

Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness
by Zanele Muholi
ISBN: 9781597114240

Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness includes one hundred self-portraits created by one of the most powerful visual activists of our time. In each of the images, Muholi drafts material props from her immediate environment in an effort to reflect her journey, explore her own image and possibilities as a black woman in today’s global society, and – most important – to speak emphatically in response to contemporary and historical rascisms.

As she states, “I am producing this photographic document to encourage people to be brave enough to occupy spaces, brave enough to create without fear of being vilified. . . . To teach people about our history, to re-think what history is all about, to re-claim it for ourselves, to encourage people to use artistic tools such as cameras as weapons to fight back.” More than twenty curators, poets, and authors offer written contributions that draw out the layers of meaning and possible readings to accompany select images. Powerfully arresting, this collection is as much a manifesto of resistance as it is an autobiographical, artistic statement.

House of Bondage by Ernest Cole

House of Bondage by Ernest Cole
ISBN: 9781597115339

First published in the United States in 1967 and in Britain in 1968, House of Bondage presented images from South Africa that shocked the world. The young African photographer had left his country at 26 to find an audience for his stunning exposure of the system of racial dominance known as apartheid. In 185 photographs, Cole’s book showed from the vantage point of the oppressed how the system closely regulated and controlled the lives of the black majority.

He saw every aspect of this oppression with a searching eye and a passionate heart. House of Bondage is a milestone in the history of documentary photography, even though it was immediately banned in South Africa. In a Chicago Tribune review of 1967 Robert Cromie described it as “one of the frankest books ever done on South Africa—with photographs by a native of that country who would be most unwise to attempt to return for some years.”

Cole died in exile in 1990 as the regime was collapsing, never knowing when his portrait of his homeland would finally find its way home. Not until the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg mounted enlarged pages of the book on its walls in 2001 were his people able to view these pictures, which are as powerful and provocative today as they were 50 years ago.

Ernest Cole’s photographs are important because they relieve the tedium and go beyond precepts. They are the raw facts of the matter, not just images of injustice.” Joseph Lelyveld

Thread for a Web Begun by Billie Zangewa

Thread for a Web Begun by Billie Zangewa
ISBN: 9781951836863

Thread for a Web Begun, Malawi-born, Johannesburg-based artist, Billie Zangewa’s first solo U.S. museum exhibition will include examples of the artist’s work from the past 15 years, as well as new pieces made specifically for the show. The exhibition comes at an important time for Zangewa, whose career has developed primarily in Europe and South Africa. This exhibition will bring her work to entirely new audiences across the United States.

Although many of the scenes depicted in Zangewa’s layered silk tapestries are autobiographical, there is a relatability that goes beyond her personal journey as an artist. Zangewa’s labor-intensive processes recall the historic implications of “women’s work” but remain a steadfastly contemporary interpretation of lived experiences. Zangewa is dealing firstly with identity, as well as socio-politics around gender and skin tone, in a gentle everyday manner. She is also exploring the different roles that women play in society, including motherhood and the impact that it has individually and collectively. The images in her work are deliberately decontextualized. However, when shown in a group, their fragmentary nature is further emphasized, suggesting they are excerpted from a larger narrative.

Zangewa does not make grand gestures or even overt political statements, but rather, like a kind of ‘daily feminism’, focuses on mundane domestic preoccupations; themes connecting us all. Zangewa states “I use fabric and sewing, which traditionally is a female pastime, to empower myself. I tell my personal story, how it’s happening on the home front, and show the intimate life of a woman, which usually we’re not encouraged to do.” Zangewa views telling her own story in her own voice as a kind of personal empowerment. Historically, this has been very difficult for women in general, but for women of color in particular, with many social obstacles to overcome.

Igshaan Adams by Hendrik Folkerts

Igshaan Adams: Desire Lines by Hendrik Folkerts
ISBN: 9780300263855

The book presents an early career survey of the work of Cape Town–based artist Igshaan Adams (b. 1982), showcasing the development of his multimedia practice since 2009. In addition to exploring recurring motifs in his work—among them Arabic calligraphy, the rose, the (self-)portrait, Sufi symbols, and pathways literal and metaphorical—the publication highlights some of Adams’s material concerns, including his sculptural applications of weaving, his embrace of recycled materials related to black South African domesticity and interiority, and his use of both the gallery wall and floor in installations.

Hendrik Folkerts provides an overview of the artist’s recent work, with its themes of hybrid identity, race, religion, queerness, and generational trauma. Adams himself offers a visual essay enabling readers to see details they would be unable to perceive in a gallery setting. In shorter essays and poetic texts, the other authors focus variously on the South African historical and political context, specific artworks, and particular creative strategies, materialities, and narratives.

Ballenesque by Roger Ballen

Ballenesque by Roger Ballen
ISBN: 9780500519691

A substantial retrospective on one of the world’s most remarkable and critically acclaimed art photographers.

Separated into four parts, Ballenesque takes readers on a visual, chronological journey through Roger Ballen’s entire oeuvre, including both iconic images and previously unpublished photographs. Part I explores his formative artistic influences and his later rediscovery of boyhood through photography, culminating in his first published monograph, Boyhood, in 1979.

Part II then charts the period between 1980 and 2000, during which time his deeper search for the elemental self found its way into the ‘Dorps’, or small towns, of South Africa and concluding with the release of his seminal monograph Outland.

Part III covers the years 2000–2013, when Ballen achieved global recogition with Shadow Chamber and Boarding House and his work began to veer away from portraiture altogether. Finally, in Part IV, Ballen reflects upon his career in its entirety.

With over 300 photographs and an introduction by eminent academic Robert J. C. Young, this book provides both an entirely new way of seeing Ballen’s work for those who already follow his career and a comprehensive introduction for those encountering his photographs for the first time.

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