For ten years (1990-2000) I had the most seductive job a visual artist could imagine as contract art educator at the National Gallery of Canada. The largest spaces in the gallery were devoted to the growing collection of contemporary art. So most educators included some contemporary art along with European, RCA, Group of Seven and modern art . . . in their survey tours of the collection. In the 1990s contemporary art was almost entirely postmodern and it was there in the early 1990s I experienced my own personal experience of the powers and limits of oppositional postmodernism (Altieri 1990). Perhaps I should have paid more attention that day to where the students were from. But they were an animated, interesting and interested group and the Hans Haake exhibition had just opened. I think it was Hans Haake’s (1983) controversial artwork Here is Alcan (Stephen Biko) (purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1983) that abruptly ended my tour. This image of Biko’s severely swollen battered face haunts the history of apartheid and adds weight to the Mandela’s honouring of those heroes like Biko who sought “to redeem the pledge to give a more human face to a society for centuries trampled upon by the jackboot of inhumanity (Mandela 1997). The professor who accompanied the group of CEGEP students from Jonquiere seemed to be personally insulted by Haake’s critique of Alcan and insisted his students leave the gallery immediately.

Yesterday was the thirtieth anniversay of Biko’s death in his prison cell in Pretoria, South Africa. Biko’s friend and biographer, British journalist Donald Woods’ gruesome postmortum photo of Biko was published around the globe resulting in such international indignation that the Security Council was forced to finally enforce the arms embargo they had instated in 1963. In 1994 Nelson Mandela acknowledged that the death of Biko was the first nail in the coffin of apartheid (Conchiglia 2007).

A decade ago Nelson Mandela unveiled the bronze statue of Stephen Bantu Biko by Naomi Jacobson as a contribution towards immortalising his life:

It also gives a certain kind of joy that the financial cost of creating the statue was footed by people in the creative field, including Denzel Washington, Kevin Kline and Richard Attenborough who will be remembered for the film on Biko, `Cry Freedom’. Another contributor is Peter Gabriel whose song `Biko’ helped keep the flame of anti-apartheid solidarity alive. This collaboration of British and American artists bears eloquent witness to Steve Biko’s internationalism (Mandela 1997).

Contemporary artist Jamelie Hassan (1987) reviewed Haake’s work,

Among the other works in this survey, Void Mean has the most visual and emotional impact — perhaps because it brings home Canada’s duplicity in tolerating Alcan’s involvement in the apartheid regime. It is in works like Void Mean that the full potency and immediacy of the issues reach us (and bravo to the National Gallery of Canada, who arranged for its loan during a moratorium on the loan of works from their collection so that Void Mean could be seen in the one Canadian gallery on the Haacke tour). Alcan’s corporate presence is appropriated from its promotional material and juxtaposed to two benign sepia images of a Montreal opera sponsored by Alcan. These images bracket a central, coloured, violent news photo of the dead Stephen Biko. In the accompanying text, Alcan’s involvement in South Africa is described: ‘The most important producer of aluminum sheet and the only fabricator of aluminum sheet in South Africa. From a non-white work force of 2,300 the company has trained eight skilled workers’ (translation from the French). To underline its source, the work is fabricated from aluminum storm windows: the top panels contain Alcan’s silver logo; the bottom panels, the images of the opera and Biko, to reinforce the reality of the violence perpetrated (Hassan 1987).

Bibliography

Altieri, C. 1990. “The Powers and the Limits of Oppositional Postmodernism.” American Literary History. 2: 443-481.
Bois, Yve-Alain; Crim, Douglas; Krauss, Rosalind; Haake, Hans. 1984. “A Conversation with Hans Haacke.” October. Vol. 30. Autumn: pp. 23-48.

Conchiglia, Augusta. 2007. “Steve Biko, la conscience noire.” Le monde diplomatique. September 12, 2007.

Hassan, Jamelie. 1987. “Hans Haacke at The Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, May 15 – June 21.” Vanguard, Vol. 16:4, Sept/Oct 1987.

Mandela, Nelson. 1997. “Address at 20th Anniversary of Steve Biko’s Death.” East London, 12 September 1997. http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/mandela/1997/sp970912.html

Creative Commons License 2.5 Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Stephen Bantu Biko (1940-1977) Thirty Years Later.” >> speechless http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddp3qxmz_361xsrzrh

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