Out of Africa

UT Downtown Gallery reflects on South Africa's past and present

Artbeat

by Lisa Slade

As fortunate Westerners, it's easy for us to forget that the rest of world has not always enjoyed the same basic liberties we have. We're aware of social injustice in Iraq, and we're comfortable with the poverty stricken in our own regions, but when it comes to parts of the world a little farther out of the glare of publicity, there's a lot that is ignored.

For instance, it was only in 1996 that South Africa adopted a new constitution and Bill of Rights. The first democratic, and racially unbiased, election was held a short time prior to that, in April of 1994. Before that there was apartheid and government corruption, and many South Africans enjoyed few of the human rights we accept as the norm.

Art can open our eyes to the previously unseen, and it can do it in a more powerful, and sometimes less abrasive manner, than news broadcasts and columnists can. In the case of Images of Human Rights , currently on display at the UT Downtown Gallery on Gay Street, that is certainly true. The 27 images exhibited each portray one segment of South Africa's 27 clause constitution, and the prints were designed by South Africans.

All the pictures are black and white, giving the gallery an austere quality that perfectly complements the somber subject matter. There are no bright colors to distract the viewer, or to sugar coat anything. The prints hang in order, leading the observer on an illustrated tour through one country's past. Some prints show the past, what it was like before the constitution. Others look at the present, at what the new laws are doing to help people for the future.  

Some of the images are concrete representation of the clauses. One picture depicts â“Clause 2: The Right to Human Dignity.â” It's a linocut by Norman Kaplan, and in the picture there are people whose dignity has historically been disrespected, such as the poor, the elderly, and women.

Some pieces are more abstract than that, though. The print for â“Clause 4: Freedom and Security of the Person,â” a masonite cut by James Mphahlele, is an example of a less tangible illustration of freedom. In the picture, several men and women stand clustered around a large book. Some are musicians, some writers, but they are all engaged in creative activity of some sort. There's an implicit motion within the print, hinted at, rather than showed explicitly, along with the sensation of explosion. It's not the violent form of explosion as much as it is the slow, hard-earned explosion of hard work and creativity.  

Other works demonstrate the right to housing, the right to health care, the right to education, and the right to equality, for example.

But the subject matter is also celebratory . The prints provide a fresh way of looking at government. Or, as the forward by South African activist Desmond Tutu says, â“The images powerfully complement the words of the Bill of Rights. Given our history, they serve as an apt reminder that words, however inspiring and lyrical, have been used as much to subvert as to create. It is therefore necessary to portray our commitment to human rights in pictures, which are less open to corruption.â” It's an appealing idea, enriching words with pictures, or in some cases, replacing them altogether. It also poses an interesting question: Are pictures less open to corruption than words? If all of our legal documents were pieces of art, would we be better off?

In this case, South Africa is better off than they were 15 years ago, but it's mostly because of words, not art. However, the art can be a beautiful complement to the language of politics, a reminder of both the aesthetic side of the law and of the people that the law sometimes helps.

The exhibit is also a reminder that situations can change. South Africa's constitution is now considered one of the most progressive in the world, and though some of the prints look back at the injustices suffered in the past, they also look forward into a new world, one where social equality becomes the norm.

As the forward explains: â“It is a dedication to the spirit of hope, and a celebration of South Africa's place among the nations which respect and uphold human rights.â”

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