The mission schools
Why is it that biblical stories are such a recurring subject matter in South African art, especially for the generation of artists born in the first half of the 20th century?
One reason is that the influence of the Christian church during that time was very strong and far-reaching, and it impacted heavily on South Africans’ indigenous traditional beliefs. Christian missions and missionaries made it their life’s work to spread their faith and beliefs far and wide across the African continent during the 19th and early 20th centuries, including South Africa.
There is another very important reason for this interest in biblical themes. Under the former political regime in South
Africa, opportunities for learning about art were extremely limited for young black learners. The Nationalist government had not seen fit to provide art education to black students – in fact, they barely provided basic general education.
From the late 19th century, schooling for black children was usually limited to that provided by the church and mission schools. In 1945 there were 5 360 mission schools in South Africa, and only 230 schools sponsored by the state.
In the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, only Christian mission schools offered art education to young black artists. A generation of black South African artists thus had their grounding in such schools. Some teachers and clergy encouraged black artists to make images for their churches. These schools included the Diocesan Training College in Polokwane, the Mission College in Mapumelo, the Good Shepherd Mission in Hlabisa, and also the art programmes at Rorke’s Drift and Marianhill in KwaZulu-Natal.
So it is hardly surprising then that the Old and New Testaments provided so much of the subject matter of early- to mid-20th-century South African art.
Africa – the setting
Although many artists based at or coming out of these schools were inspired by biblical themes, the images they produced were most often set in an African context, with African characters, landscapes and animals.
Why? There were multiple reasons the artists had for situating the Bible stories in Africa. It seemed important to make these stories real and immediate for the people who would see their work; viewers would more easily identify with a setting that was familiar. Some artists also blended Bible stories with traditional African stories that they had been told as children.
There were also reasons relating to the politics of the time. Black South Africans suffered oppression in their own country, both before and during the apartheid era. Because of the political constraints they lived under, they were not really free to express their feelings directly: it would endanger them and expose them to the authorities. Biblical stories gave them a way, which everyone would understand, of telling their own stories, metaphorically. Jesus on the cross was often depicted as a black man, for example; his state of extreme suffering standing for the suffering of black people.
Talk About This
Look at the images on this page, and discuss the following questions:
These are narrative images, i.e. they tell stories. In the images on this page, how has the artist told the story?
What particular details, would you say, reveal these scenes to be “African” in their setting?