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South African Prints

Vincent Baloyi, "Orphan"
signed and dated '74, no 3/18
linocut on paper
42 x 27cm
Rorke's Drift Art School
Rorke's Drift Art School Rorke's Drift Art School has become a symbol of South African art. It was founded in 1962 by the Evangelical Lutheran Art and Craft Centre (ELACC) and was to play a key role in South African art from its inception until its closure in 1982, having trained some 80 artists. Its heyday coincided with the height of the apartheid government's power which controlled every aspect of black people's lives and confined them to the urban and rural periphery. While the Polly Street Art School had been established on the outskirts of Soweto in 1952, there were few places were black people with an artistic talent could train and a place at the Rorke's Drift Art School became highly sough after. The signature developed at the school was to dominate South Africa's print style fusing European art methods with an African aesthetic. This was often totemic placing an strong emphasis on abstract forms and shapes, together with a strong interest in the human form, to communicate a discrete yet powerful political comment at a time when criticism of apartheid met with severe repercussions from the regime. A diversity of techniques were taught at the school ranging from etchings, screen prints to linocuts and famous names in recent South African art history, such as, Azaria Mbatha, John Muafangejo, Cyprian Shilakoe, Paul Sibisi, Dan Rakgoathe and Vuminkosi Zulu, trained there. The school was founded on a Christian ethos and this was to manifest itself in the many images of Biblical stories produced by the students, but with their unique reinterpretations of the Old Testament which challenged the foundations of apartheid philosophy.

Azaria Mbatha, "Woman with child"
signed and dated 1941, no 2/9
linocut on tissue
43 x 22cm
The idea to develop an art school emerged from the ELACC's concern for patients who required rehabilitation at their mission hospitals in rural Zululand. The first initiative took place at Ceza mission hospital in 1962 with a focus on weaving useful items for European homes but with an African theme. The printing side of the initiative developed because it was noted that the male patients did not want to learn to weave. It was decided to place an emphasis on the carving skills of the men and they were encouraged to carve out images on the reverse of linoleum flooring. This gendered division and emphasis on weaving and printing was also determined by the skills of the first teachers, Peder and Ulla Gowenius both of whom were graduates of Sweden's premier art school, Konstfackskolan,. He had trained in printmaking and she in weaving. The art school moved from Ceza to Rorke's Drift in 1963. Sweden's first mission station in South Africa had been established at Rorke's Drift in 1878 and land and buildings belonged to the ELACC.

The aim of the school was to work towards self-sufficiency and so everything produced was for sale. This encouraged an active exhibitions programme and the first were initially held in Sweden at the Konstfackskolan in 1962 and 1963. The tapestries and block print fabrics were to sell well and to provide the financial mainstay of the school. The prints were not always able to bring in the funds required. Nevertheless the print process acknowledged the 1960s move away from elitist art and connoisseurship towards a relatively inexpensive medium. The black and white prints, with their strong design and social comment, embodied a democratic ethos in that many copies of an image could be reproduced and sold at a reasonable price with greater economic potential. Linocuts were the preferred print medium of artists who trained at Rorke's Drift and this format is recognized as the signature of the art school.

Sandile Zulu, "Manual Labour"
signed, titled and dated '83, no 10/10
linocut on paper
33.5 x 46cm
In 1967 an etching press was acquired and this marked another milestone in the art school's development as the emphasis moved away from rehabilitative arts and crafts to focus on a professional and formal fine art course which began in 1968. Gowenius's successors, Ola Granath and Otto Lundbohm, were also trained in printmaking. The etching press enabled the students to diversify from the early emphasis on linocuts to use dry point etching and aquatint methods which allowed for a wider range of textural and tonal variations to be used in the artist's images. The fine art students were encouraged to establish their own style. In 1971 an exhibition hall was built at the school and new markets for the work were established within South Africa. In the mid 70s new print techniques and photography were introduced resulting in experimentation with colour prints and a keener awareness of light and shadow in the black and white prints. In addition, the political content of the prints became more obvious and bolder providing social and political comment on the negative impact of apartheid on people's lives. The school attracted students from across South Africa and they each brought with them their own apartheid experiences leading to lively discussions and debate resulting in a raised political awareness. Many of the artists and their art were to play a significant role in the years of opposition to apartheid. Despite these initiatives, however, the 1970s was a difficult decade beset with financial difficulties and staff problems as the Swedish influence at the school lessened. The school closed in 1982.

In their book Rorke's Drift Empowering Prints: Twenty Years of Printmaking in South Africa' Philippa Hobbs and Elizabeth Rankin conclude:
"…ultimately the significance of Rorke's Drift was the facilitation of a visual language of confidence and critique. The skills and sense of self-belief that it promoted among black artists provided a starting point that made their art possible and ensured it a vital place in South Africa's visual culture, more particularly through its prints. This was Rorke's Drift contribution to the next generation…. In engendering a language of empowerment, Rorke's Drift was a catalyst in the history of South African art." (2003)

Gilfillan Scott-Berning has recently sold a significant collection of Rorke's Drift linocuts and has a selection of prints available for sale by private treaty or featured on our online catalogue.

Azaria Mbatha {view profile}
Sabela Judas Mahlangu {view profile}
John Ndevasia Muafangejo {view profile}
Cyprian Mpho Shilakoe {view profile}
Vuminkosi Zulu {view profile}

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