In the German media there was little sympathy for the self-determination of African people and most mainland European broadcasters presented very few facts about what apartheid meant to the majority of South Africans. When curious young Europeans asked about my home, I often recognised the same ignorance about apartheid in their questions, as the white South Africans, who had not made that daring step across the dividing line into a black South African township. The issues of race and identity within national cultures as postulated by W.E.B. Du Bois and Franz Fanon had not yet penetrated the almost impervious rhetoric of the Marxists, Marxist-Leninist and Maoist student groups of the day, not to mention the conservatives.
Against this background I decided to follow Bertold Brecht’s idea of art as an instrument of political struggle and make a work that could be understood as a tool for knowledge about South African apartheid politics. I also wanted to make this work using the new and popular technologies of photographic silkscreen printing invented for mass production. Most importantly it allowed photographic images to be integrated into a work of art. Photography in those days represented the real. It was seen as indisputable fact.
My research for 'A South African Colouring Book' took me to the offices of the African National Congress (ANC) and the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) in London. Their archives provided some visual and textual material. Many photographs came from Ernest Cole’s seminal book 'A House of Bondage' and the German Magazine, 'Stern'. There was also a great amount of material in the UN and UNESCO archives.
I had to organise the abundant research material into chapters and then edit the material down to one composite image. I understand each sheet of the 'Colouring Book' as a heading for a much larger text on apartheid. This also applies to the folder and together these twelve images operate as an archive, perhaps an incomplete one.
The work’s main title has references to art, early learning and politics. I wanted it to conjure an image of early learning and first steps in art, such as painting by numbers, but simultaneously the prints reveal something completely different. The main and sub-titles of the work play with the euphemisms for institutionalised racial discrimination such as 'the colour question' or 'the colour bar'. In cultures where human creativity has a low status, and art is not taught in schools, the ubiquitous colouring book replaces the encouragement that children need to express their ideas. The prints draw attention to the issue of creativity, to alternative ways of making art. The 'Colouring Book' is an extension of European Pop Art ideas of 'multiples' and 'artists’ books' of the 70s. It mirrors the dichotomy of a brutal and inhuman interior, camouflaged by an exterior of innocence.
Inside South Africa few contemporary artists, myself included, dared to address the issues of apartheid through a direct criticism of the status quo. The political consequences were dire. Some did it indirectly, many avoided it completely. In the late 60s and early 70s, discourses around late modernist abstraction could, and very often, did deflect debate away from the issue of an artist’s role in an undemocratic society. It provided an escape from any political expressions.
'A South African Colouring Book' was first exhibited at the Hamburg art academy in 1974. In 1976, at the time of the Soweto uprising, it was on exhibition at the ICA in London and in 1997, upon the request of Joseph Beuys, it was exhibited in the artist’s Free International University space at Documenta 6. In 1978, after exhibiting the work at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, a replica of 'A South African Colouring Book' was produced by the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF) and distributed by the UN Special Commission on Apartheid.
In April 1979 the work was banned under the South African Publication Act.
Copies of 'A South African Colouring Book' are held in various private collections as well as the following institutional collections: Victoria and Albert Museum, London (1974); Hellias Foundation for Human Rights, Palo Alto, California (1982); Arts Council Collection, London (1991); The South African National Gallery, Cape Town (1998); Tate Gallery, London (2002); Sindika Dokolo Foundation, Luanda (2016); and the Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland (2017).
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.