Painting by numbers
In the 70s the South African artist Gavin Jantjes used his art to speak out loud and clear against the policy of apartheid. Above all his “South African Colouring Book” (1974/1975) was a radical stocktaking of South African reality, at once documentation and indictment. The regime was not long in responding: the pictures were censored and the whole of Jantjes’ work was banned in South Africa. The artist was forced to go into exile.
The “South African Colouring Book” (1974/75) stands as Gavin Jantje’s best-known work. It consists of eleven serigraphs in a portfolio (each 45 x 60cm), in an edition of 20.
The sheets show photographs, drawings or texts that document and illustrate the injustice of the regime. Like a logo, each sheet sports a strip with a sequence of six colours and the picture of a paintbox with different instructions for touching up the picture. The harmless game “colouring by numbers” is translated with bitter sarcasm into the tragic situation of South Africa’s non-white population.
“Colour these Blacks White”, one sheet instructs. It shows the negatives of two photographs. One shows a wedding – on the negative it looks like a funeral, because the bride is wearing black – while the other shows a beauty contest. Using a quote by Frantz Fanon, Jantjes illustrates the black population’s assimilation white customs: „Having judged, condemned, abandoned his cultural forms, his language, his food habits, his sexual behaviour, his way of sitting down, of resting, of laughing, of enjoying himself, the oppressed flings himself upon the imposed culture with the desperation of a drowning man.“
Another picture centres on Gavin Jantjes’ identity card, which describes him as “Cape Coloured”. In the absurd race classification system of the apartheid regime, the “Cape Coloured” were the descendents of the mixed-race slave population, with white as well as black and Indian ancestors. “Classify this Coloured” are the instructions on another picture: Jantjes stamps the word “classified” on the copy of his identity card. In a handwritten note, he explains the significance of the classifications: “The racial label put on a non-white child at birth is not only a badge of a race, it is a permanent brand of inferiority, the brand of class distinction. Throughout his life his race label will warn all concerned which doors are open to him, and which are closed.”
Other pictures allude to the exploitation of the black population – “Colour this Labour Dirt Cheap”, “Colour this Slavery Golden” – and to the Sharpeville massacre – “Colour these People Dead”. On a graphic with the instructions “Colour this Whites Only”, the face of the South African Prime Minister Vorster merges into that of Adolf Hitler.
The extraordinary quality of the works in the “South African Colouring Book” comes from their fusion of scathing documentation, didacticism and the bitter sarcasm of the artist suffering from the inhumane system. The graphic quality of this work is striking as well. Especially with its use of the “painting by numbers” motif, it is reminiscent of the works of Andy Warhol.
Alongside his graphic works, Gavin Jantjes has also explored painting. His oil paintings from the nineties show the influence of archaic art, often reminiscent of cave paintings. An untitled picture (1990) shows three hybrid beings with human bodies and animals’ tails. The three stand outside against a starry sky, raising their elongated, deformed heads toward the heavens. Their arms are slightly spread, as if in anticipation – in a sort of cultic ritual – of receiving the divine force from nature. The composition is impressive for its great simplicity: the colours are reduced to black and white, with each figure shown only by a silhouette. The entire picture is suffused by a gentle undulating motion originating from the left-hand figure.
A much more painterly work, also untitled (1990), shows a snake painted across several canvasses attached to one another at a slant; it moves along a white background. The apparently chance arrangement of the canvasses gives the picture a strong, playful dynamic from the lower right to the upper left. The snake seems to want to keep moving forward, it appears possible to indefinitely continue the canvasses that provide the background for its movement.
Due to his many activities as a lecturer, author – among other things of “Fruitful Incoherence: Dialogues with Artists on Internationalism” – and curator – he is the artistic director of the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo – Gavin Jantjes’ artistic work has dropped off in recent years.
Gavin Jantjes was born in Cape Town. Until 1969 he studied at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town. He continued his studies at the Hochschule für bildende Künste, Hamburg, where he received his Master’s in 1972. In 1970 he spent a Berlin sojourn on a DAAD grant.
In 1982 Gavin Jantjes went into exile in Great Britain. From 1986 to 1990 he was a member of the Arts Council of Great Britain. In 1992 he advised the Arts Council on the establishment of the Institute on New International Visual Art (INIVA). From 1992 to 1995 he was an advisor for the Tate Gallery. In 1995 Jantjes taught Visual Arts at the Chelsea College of Art and Design, Liverpool, and from 1995 to 1998 he was curator of the Serpentine Gallery, London. Since 1998 Gavin Jantjes has been the artistic director of the Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo.
His works are displayed in public and private collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Arts Council of Great Britain, London; Wolverhampton City Art Gallery, Great Britain; Coventry City Museum; the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., USA.
Gavin Jantjes lives and works in Christian Malford, North Wiltshire, and in Oslo.
Goup Exhibitions (Choice)
Exhibition / Installation
“Back to Black”, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Great Britain
“Insights”, National Museum of African Art, Washington, USA
“M_ARS – Kunst und Krieg”, Neue Galerie, Graz, Austria
“Head North“, Bildmuseet, Umea, Sweden
“The Short Century”, Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany
“The Short Century”, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany
“The Short Century”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, USA
“The Short Century”, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA
“Art Contra Apartheid“, South African Hose of Parliament, Johannesburg, South Africa
Havana Biennial, Havana, Cuba
Edward Totah Gallery, London, Great Britain
“From Two Worlds”, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Great Britain
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa
(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)