Special to the NNPA
CHICAGO — Politically significant and aesthetically beautiful describes the original paintings and drawings by South African artists and their countrymen and women still living abroad, having fled South Africa’s oppressive apartheid regime.
Soraya Sheppard was one such South African. On a yearlong trip back home in 2011, Sheppard found her calling – to curate original South African art and bring it, and the artists, to the U.S. for a one-of-a-kind exhibit and special collector’s show called “From Apartheid to Freedom.”
“The exhibit expresses the range of emotion and strife at a time when Blacks were agitating for an end to apartheid,” says Sheppard, who left South Africa during the 1987 uprisings in a self-imposed exile. She returned in 1993 to visit family, a promise she kept after Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990. “In South Africa, apartheid-era art is gaining in popularity as the nation continues to come to terms with its past and the death of their beloved Madiba,” she said, referring to the late South African president. “It is a statement of a time gone but not forgotten.”
Sheppard was invited in 2012 by the South African consul general in Chicago to bring some of the collection, number 22 paintings at the time, for an exhibit at the African International House. Sheppard agreed and launched Color Me Africa on Freedom Day on April 22. The featured artists were unable to make the trip because of lack of funding and complications with visa applications. Sheppard is working with the U.S. consulate to South Africa in Chicago to navigate the process of obtaining visas. Still, there are funding gaps she hopes to fill with two crowd-funding campaigns on Kickstarter and Indiegogo to support the exhibit in conjunction with the annual African Festival of the Arts later this year. Sheppard also hopes to secure a dedicated gallery space for the work and eventually take the show to other cities in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
During apartheid, artistic practice and the subject matter in paintings effectively depicted the hurt and oppression of South Africa’s majority Black population. Much of the work produced during this period was anything but passive in its visual impact or political message, with one main objective – social change. This change did not come easy. Black artists’ works were rarely exhibited and politically minded artists were persecuted. Much of the township art was destroyed by security forces, leaving a significant gap in the nation’s cultural legacy.
Today, South Africa’s artists often fall victim to unscrupulous art dealers, who will buy their work for as little as $10 USD and resell it abroad for thousands of dollars.
“One of the reasons I decided to do this was to ensure that the artists are fairly compensated for their work and that they become known, by name, for the wonderful talents that they are,” Sheppard said. “Theirs is an important legacy and one that is worth preserving.”