In July 1913, around the time Marcel Duchamp fastened a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool, a 35-year-old black South African newspaperman and social activist set off on an extraordinary 2,000 km journey, much of it on his bicycle (he also took the train). Unlike Duchamp, who viewed his new-fangled readymade as a ‘pleasant gadget’ and diverting contrivance, Sol Plaatje gave no mind to his self-propelled mechanical contraption. It was simply an independent means of transport, something that would enable him to travel easily across the newly established Union of South Africa. Plaatje, who was born Solomon Tshekisho Mogodi in 1876 and educated at a German Lutheran mission school, was not motivated by leisure when he set off. He had not succumbed to the incipient rapture for empty landscapes that was gripping the country, as leading white painters attempted to define a national identity by depicting mountains, rivers, clouds, trees and rural farmsteads. If anything, Plaatje’s mood was distinctly unpatriotic — for good reason.
‘Awaking on Friday morning, 20 June 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth,’ writes Plaatje in Native Life in South Africa (1916), a canonical piece of non-fiction that weds discursive argument with investigative journalism. The central focus of his book is the Natives’ Land Act of 1913, a ‘plague law’ that aimed to prevent black South Africans ‘from ever rising above the position of servants to the whites’, to quote Plaatje. Written in haste in 1914, while he was aboard a ship bound for London — where he and four other black political leaders intended to petition the British colonial secretary, Lord Harcourt, about the effects of the new law — Native Life in South Africa reads like an affidavit. In the manner of Walter Benjamin’s unfinished magnum opus, The Arcades Project (first published in 1982), Plaatje’s book is a montage of personal observations, journalistic testimony and quotes culled from parliamentary and civic debates, and political speeches.
Plaatje only begins recounting his astonishing journey at the start of chapter four, without focussing much on the logistics or effort the trip required. In Bloemhof, a town 300 km southwest of Johannesburg in the maize belt, he briefly engages in rhapsody as he observes the ‘picturesque Vaal River, upon whose banks a hundred miles farther west we spent the best and happiest days of our boyhood’. But Native Life in South Africa is generally mute about the landscapes Plaatje passed through as he cycled a crooked route through the Orange Free State, one of the Union of South Africa’s four provinces, into the Cape Province. This is remarkable, partly because of the extraordinary beauty of the countryside. Land and landscape are, however, divisible concepts. Whereas the former refers to a physical space, a territory if you will, landscape is an aesthetic idea, something visually apprehended rather than physically occupied. Plaatje’s journey, which was really just a means to enable his wide-ranging investigation, had everything to do with land as occupied territory.
The occupied lands Plaatje passed through, particularly as he travelled south from Ladybrand to Wepener, are central to the birth of South African art as a national form. Shortly after warring Boer republics and British colonial outposts were united under a common flag in 1910, white South African artists began agitating to define a national school. Naturalistic landscape painting was quickly identified as the supreme marker of a national idiom. In 1919, for example, impressionist painter Robert Gwelo Goodman appealed to South African artists to seize upon the country’s ‘untouched and unrecorded’ landscapes, ‘the fierce glory of our sunshine, great open spaces, mountain structure beyond compare, and vegetation of the greatest variety’, as he further advised readers of The Common Room (the journal of the Durban School of Art from 1919–42). And that they did — the country’s early canon of landscape painting is dominated by scenes of wilderness, quietude and ecstasy. These pictures of wild areas subdued by the painter’s brush are not dissimilar to those produced by the Hudson River school artists, who similarly arrived on their rural landscapes after white conquest and settlement definitively resolved their ownership.
In purely formal terms, South Africa’s ancient geology was described in styles borrowed from 19th-century Europe, notably British and French impressionism and the plein-air philosophies of the Barbizon and Hague schools. Long before novelist J.M. Coetzee — in an essay on South African landscape art included in White Writing (1988) — questioned ‘the place of the artist of European heritage in the African landscape’. Making statements about the sublime, novelist and poet William Plomer pointed to an omission in the ecstatic landscapes being produced by white painters such as Goodman, W.H. Coetzer, J.H. Pierneef, J.E.A. Volschenk and Pieter Wenning — all masters of the genre. ‘We are in danger of too many veld-yearnings, too much Karoo-urge, too frequent sunsets on the Drakensberg and moonrisings on Groot Constantia,’ wrote Plomer in his 1925 letter to a Durban newspaper, pointing to well-known landmarks across the country. ‘A little less landscape and a little more portraiture would be highly stimulating.’ This is exactly what Plaatje’s bicycle trip was about: making portraiture, albeit of a very particular sort.
Plaatje, a translator of Shakespeare and occasional correspondent with African-American scholar and political activist W.E.B. Du Bois, was a writer not a painter. He was also a political journalist and secretary of the newly established South African Native National Convention, a precursor to the country’s ruling African National Congress party. So, unlike the Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky, who in 1914 travelled through Egypt, Ceylon and India ‘to seek the miraculous’ — the title of his book In Search of the Miraculous (1949) was later pilfered by Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader for his tragic misadventure on a small sailing boat in 1975 — Plaatje did not set out to write a treatise (much needed as one was at the time to explain the difference between land and landscape). ‘Mine is but a sincere narrative of a melancholy situation, in which, with all its shortcomings, I have endeavoured to describe the difficulties of the South African natives under a very strange law,’ writes Plaatje in the prologue to Native Life in South Africa.
And while open to the kind of accidental portraiture that informs Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (1977) and Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea (1971) — both ravishing accounts of small-scale discovery in alien landscapes — Plaatje did not set out on his bicycle to compose an ecstatic travelogue. The sweaty repetition that characterized his trip was nothing compared to the hardship being endured by black peasants. Not only did the new law restrict their ownership of land to designated areas, effectively compressing the majority black population onto 13 percent of the land, it also set out to obliterate black commercial farming by outlawing sharecropping. Like the Enclosure Acts in the UK, the Natives’ Land Act was central to the ‘great rural spasms associated with South Africa’s uneven transformation into an industrial society’, writes social historian Charles van Onselen in The Seed is Mine (1995). Plaatje’s narrative of encounter offers a less detached and more fine-grained sense of the great dispossession this entailed.
Shortly after leaving Bloemhof, after passing ‘several farmhouses along the road, where all appeared pretty tranquil as we went along’, Plaatje met a man named Kgobadi. A goat farmer, Kgobadi had summarily been expelled from land he had farmed after refusing to become a wage-earning labourer for the land’s white owner. Plaatje recounts how, while wandering through the Orange Free State with his family and diminishing herd of goats, Kgobadi and his wife were forced — ‘amid fear and trembling’ — to bury their infant son under cover of darkness along a road, because they had no right or title to the farmlands through which they trekked.
Although Plaatje didn’t suffer the indignity of later black writers, who were banned, harassed and chased into exile, an outraged Colonel Hendrik Mentz, minister of land, dismissed his book (first published in London in 1916 by P.S. King) as ‘a scurrilous attack on the Boers’ during a parliamentary session. Louis Botha, a former Boer general and first prime minister of the union, accused Plaatje of ‘biased’ reporting, adding that he had ‘exaggerated incidents’ and ‘suppressed facts’. Undeterred, Plaatje continued his social activism, in 1922 publishing a US edition of his book with the help of Du Bois. In her foreword to a 1982 South African edition of Plaatje’s book, exiled novelist Bessie Head highlights the particular moment Native Life in South Africa chronicles: ‘The wars for the land — spear and shield against cannon and gun — are over and he unfolds the history of a mute and subdued black nation who had learned to call the white man baas (boss).’ Head’s is a cogent analysis, one that doesn’t shy from the decisive battles that were elided from the ecstatic landscapes of Coetzer, Goodman, Pierneef, Volschenk and Wenning. In 1988, artist William Kentridge, writing in the now-defunct literary magazine Stet about his recent interest in drawing landscapes, also made these bitter conflicts a key point of discussion as he placed the white tradition of landscape painting in the dock.
For Kentridge, the landscapes produced especially by Pierneef and Volschenk describe ‘a vision of pure nature’, of ‘majestic primal forces of rock and sky’. Typically, they are unpeopled: flora and geology are its chief subjects. ‘A particular fact is isolated and all idea of process or history is abandoned,’ writes Kentridge, ‘these paintings, of landscape in a state of grace, are documents of disremembering.’ But what exactly do they forget? The artist offers a helpful list: scenes of conquest, battles, puffs of gun smoke and falling black bodies. In 1992, art historian Nic Coetzee controversially argued much the same thing in an essay accompanying a showing of Pierneef’s Johannesburg Station Panels (1932), 32 panels describing mostly rural scenes, at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. ‘Pierneef’s landscapes are clearly an outsider’s view of the land, a view that was de-historicized, de-humanized, drained of compassion,’ wrote Coetzee.
Pierneef is one of those unavoidable figures in South African art history. Copied, criticized, parodied, his grave even danced over by the artist collective Avant Car Guard (Zander Blom, Jan-Henri Booyens and Michael MacGarry), his legacy remains a point of debate. Born in Pretoria a decade before Plaatje, Pierneef was 23 when the Union of South Africa was founded as a dominion of the British Empire. Unlike Plaatje, who initially regarded the union with optimism as a mechanism to extend universal suffrage to all men regardless of race, Pierneef was sceptical of the British imperial project. He early on projected his loathing onto the new government buildings overlooking Pretoria, which he rendered first in pencil and later in hoary commissioned paintings. Yet, where Plaatje’s hopes of equality and fairness were crushed after a fruitless trip to London in 1914, Pierneef prospered in the new, white union.
A contemporary of Edward Hopper, Pierneef — like Hopper — found a way of silencing the tumult of the 20th century. At a time of rapid urbanization and labour strife, the South African artist rendered the world as a quiet, unhurried, sometimes awkwardly lifeless place. In other words, he made a good propagandist. In 1929 — the same year he exhibited alongside his mentor Anton van Wouw at the founding of an Afrikaans cultural organization in Bloemfontein — Pierneef received his career-defining commission to paint 32 station panels advertising various scenic places for the new railway station in Johannesburg. Unveiled in 1932, the year Plaatje died, Pierneef’s railway commission paintings are widely regarded as a foundation statement in South African art. Viewed up close, they are, however, disappointing. His brushstrokes are perfunctory and notational. Their ‘Tintin comic vibe’, to quote the Pierneef appropriationist Wayne Barker, fulfills their key objective as leisure propaganda. But this, along with the artist’s membership of the Afrikaner Broederbond, a secretive nationalist brotherhood, is well known.
Pierneef’s Johannesburg station panels include a number of mountain scenes. These iconic works suggest a more complicated involvement with the land than is sometimes admitted. In 1922, Pierneef was commissioned to decorate the school hall in Ficksburg. His first public work comprised interpretive renderings of San (or Busmen) rock art, characterized by its attenuated figures and scenes of labour, which he based on documentation produced by early researchers, notably Helen Tongue and George Stow. Despite his second-hand encounter with ‘the artists of the rocks’, as Walter Battiss described South Africa’s first people in 1948, Pierneef held their work in high regard. In a 1916 letter, he proposed their art as an ‘ideal basis’ for a new national style. He briefly experimented with the idea but, unlike Battiss, who pioneered a syncretic form of painting that drew on rock art, post-impressionism and, later, pop, Pierneef retreated from the idea. The empty landscape became his hallmark.
So, where are we now? Not very far from the world described by Plaatje, who died largely disappointed, despite being the first black South African to publish a novel in English (Mhudi, 1930). (His rich legacy as an activist and journalist was only recovered in the late 1970s. Plaatje is now enshrined as a national hero; the town of Kimberley, where he worked, has been renamed Sol Plaatje Municipality.) In 1988, photographer Santu Mofokeng visited Bloemhof, where Plaatje’s journey of discovery started. Mofokeng photographed black tenant families enduring ‘low wages, long working hours and inadequate living conditions to mention a few of the less contentious laments,’ as he put it his book Chasing Shadows (2011). One particular photo jolts: three black farm workers are pictured gathering dried sunflowers. Mofokeng’s work echoes Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners (1857) — but for the punctum of a white hand. It emerges from the left of the frame, from inside a stationary vehicle, and bears a cigarette while pointing towards the cultivated landscape. ‘Do this!’ the hand instructs. This is the world Plaatje’s chronicle of endurance and discovery foretold. It is a world in which black peasants are faced with two options: ‘perpetual bondage on the farm, or […] a sunless life in the unwholesome mine’. Arguably, if there is such as thing as a South African national art form, its truth must necessarily be tested against this history of dispossession and bondage, a history that endures, notwithstanding democratic rule.
First published in Issue 4