(With Your) Back to the Wall: Kendell Geers's Murals by Anita Nettleton

Centre for the Creative Arts of Africa

Wits Art Museum

University of the Witwatersrand

Arguably among of the oldest forms of murals in the world are painted on the walls of caves, possibly as far back as 40000 years ago . In Southern Africa, paintings on rock shelters by hunter-gatherers date back at least as long, with apparently figurative imagery that has been interpreted as a complex semiotic sign system. It is also taken as the index of ‘authentic’, indigenous African art in the subcontinent (Lewis-Williams 1989).  When Geers was a student in Art History at Wits he did a course on Southern African rock art, during which he and some friends went (unrequired) to Natal and researched Eland Cave for one of their assignments. His interest in semiotic sign systems, especially in the art forms that we encounter in our inherited world of material culture has clearly continued, it can be argued, is visible in differing degrees in some of his more recent work.

Thus the rock art of hunter gatherers and, as is increasingly recognized, of agriculturalists in Africa, is not the tradition that most urgently presented itself to Geers as a prototype. In a series, called “ritual slips”, he drew on, perhaps even appropriated, apron forms from the repertoire of Ndebele design and clothing, and he has stated an interest in the political and social aspects of Ndebele mural painting traditions. Both San and Ndebele traditions represent in some way persons who  have been marginalized within a larger South African historical context. It is on the basis of an understanding of this that Geers seeks to establish a degree of affinity or parallel identity.

Ndebele mural painting was only one of many painting traditions developed by African peoples living on the highveld.  The inhabitants of the area were largely seSotho-speakers  living in circular houses with plastered walls as opposed to woven grass beehive structures built by the Ndbele, who migrated to the highveld from Nguni-speaking Natal in the 17th Century.  In this new environment, Ndebele-speakers adopted local building materials, techniques, mural execution and design motifs.  Thus Ndebele house painting, in its initial, early 20th Century iterations, derived from Sotho/Tswana traditions. Homestead construction and decoration among North Sotho and related peoples, belonged in the women’s domain of the use of clay and earth pigments and it was originally a means not only of beautifying homesteads, but also of cooling potentially ‘hot’ public spaces, something achieved through the use of ‘cool’ materials (Vogel  1983 & 1985, Schneider 1983, 1986 & 1989, Friedman 1992). Among the North-Sotho the designs were relatively restricted in range. Originating as intricate designs, finger-traced into the dung and clay floors of courtyards, they expanded in the same form to earthen courtyard walls that replaced reed fences in the early 20th century (Vogel 1983). That this North-Sotho painting tradition remained conventional using subdued colour and limited motifs throughout the early 20th Century, while Ndebele painting developed on a different trajectory, points to the political differentiations that were at work under apartheid(Friedman 1992).

The linguistic group of siNdebele-speakers split  into the Ndzundza and Manala polities in the 16th to 17th centuries, after they had settled on the Highveld.  The Ndzundza section of the larger Ndebele group was dispersed as indentured labourers on white farms in 1883 after their defeat by the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (Delius 1996 Schneider 1989). Apart from some land-grants in the 1920s and 1930s,Ndzundza Ndebele-speakers had no consolidated land that they could call their own. As identity groupings form around shared languages and histories, as well as around physical proximity and land, the legacy of this dispersal was not only a lack of a clear sense of belonging in the places to which they had been scattered, but an enormous battle to forge community identities. Therefore, as the National Party sought to consolidate so-called ‘homelands’ for black South Africans from 1948 onwards, siNdebele speakers grouped together to demand a ‘homeland’ of their own, similar to the homelands that were being parceled out to other ‘ethnic’ groups (Delius 1996).

This process of ethnic differentiation, opposed on the political level by the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress, was supported by traditional leaders among the Ndebele and most other ‘ethnic’ groups. The call for culturally specific homelands was thus not simply imposed by the Apartheid regime, and the homeland demanded by the SiNdebele leadership was declared in 1972, to be prepared for ‘independence’ in 1986 (Schneider 1989). In this process of re-grouping, Ndebele ethnic politicians mobilized what they saw as ‘traditional’ culture, including the paintings, to reinforce their claims to a separate and specific identity without showing much understanding of how the paintings had come to be so clearly differentiated from those of their neighbours (Schneider 1986, Friedman 1992, Powell 1995).  The ambivalence around recognition of ethnic traditions as the authentic African cultures of South Africa that resulted from this kind of apartheid cultural intervention continues to inflect contemporary debates about traditional authority and ethnic identity today.

The visual record of how Ndebele homesteads were painted to to make a bold claim for an identity different from their neighbours includes photographs starting in the 1920s, written anthropological accounts and one or two more recent publications.  In the most comprehensive study of the unfolding of a consciously Ndebele style in the mid-20th century, Schneider (1985, 1986 & 1989) demonstrated how it culminated in very intense but formulaic repetition of motifs and ultimately a subversion of traditional forms at the very time when the leaders of the siNdebele-speakers were agitating for their own ‘homeland’ under the apartheid regime.

Among the factors that led to the use of bright colours, the development of elaborate geometric designs (possibly derived from some developed earlier or in parallel with beadwork) that are generally associated with Ndebele painting were processes of modernization. The first of the brightly coloured paintings were made at KwMsiza, a tourist village established outside Pretoria at the prompting of a local architect, Meiring (Meiring, 1955). The paints were given to the SiNdebele- speaking artists, identified by Meiring and documented by Bierman and Spence (1954) as already doing extraordinary (and therefore arguably not really ‘traditional’) designs, by the Nationalist Party local government, who also provided the tourist visitors. As the new paints were oil-based enamel, as opposed to the earth pigments used before, they lasted longer and enabled very different kinds of designs. They transformed the appearance of the paintings.  

One of the changes in these designs that most interests Geers (pers comm July 2012)), however, is the artists’ introduction of new motifs, specifically those which reflected a changing world. This world was one of modernity, of electrification, of motorized transport and migrant labour, of literacy and education in western-style schools, and the motifs derived from it included images of aeroplanes, cars, electric light fixtures, double-store houses, razor blades and lettering and numerals. These items had very little to do with a world of ‘traditional’ mores. They were aspirational, an expression of a desire to be part of the modern world, but were sometimes camouflaged within the geometric conception of the overall design of the wall. It was this aspect of submerging the images in the design, so that the design remained dominant and in a recognizable style, that enabled the style developed at KwMsiza to be identified as ‘traditionally’ Ndebele and therefore to be so influential. It spread from the isolated village at KwMsiza to other Ndebele homesteads, particularly in the region of Weltevrede farm, Groblersdal and Dennilton, the kernel of Ndebele regrouping and of the ‘homeland’ KwaNdebele.  KwaMsiza collapsed in the later 1970s because it was situated within Bophutatswana, the apartheid ‘homeland’ for Setswana-speakers, and there was strong antagonism to its being there among the Tswana nationalists who nominally governed that homeland (Schneider : 1989, citing the Transvaal Action Committee).  Schneider’s photographs show, however, that the women on farms, not connected with the tourist villages, continued to produce paintings in a much more subdued style well into the late 1970s.

Interestingly, with the collapse of apartheid, the ‘tradition’ of these paintings all but disappeared, except on some tourist-oriented houses, on ‘traditional leaders’’ houses, in some suburban landscaping projects in Gauteng, on obstacles in equestrian show-jumping competitions and on occasional aeroplanes. In all the latter cases the modern and aspirational decorative forms of the highly coloured and geometric style developed in mural painting of KwaMsiza were deployed as synecdoche: Ndebele style stood as African style commissioned in artworks for those claiming African heritage. Here identity shifted from a particular politico-cultural grouping in a historically-specific locality, to a broad, supposedly ‘African’ but historically generic utopia, in the sense of actually being in no place (Jameson 2005). Thus Ndebele murals have had a life beyond their geographical origins and spaces of ‘authentic’ deployment, a life probably first made possible by Esther Mahlangu’s murals at the new tourist village of Botshabelo between 1980 and 1986, then of an “Ndebele” mural in the Musee d’Afrique et Oceanie in Paris in 1989, and her transference of the mural design onto a BMW motor car in 1991, as well as onto canvases sold as artworks and signed by the artist.

It is at this point that the intersection of Geers’s murals with traditional forms takes on a fully persuasive dimension. Because both occupy a utopian (no place) space, the art gallery/world, their potential to affect the viewer is always inscribed within a detached set of referents. The loss of a strong political dimension to ethnic  mural styles, in a country in which black people can now, at least theoretically, own land (except so-called tribal land) anywhere, unconfined by ethnic identity, rendered the paintings redundant. Nevertheless the acknowledgement of ethnic differences and eleven official languages in the so-called “rainbow nation” suggests that questions of identity, while less racially inflected than during the apartheid era, are still open to contest. In this context Geers’s adoption of the mural form speaks as an act of claiming an identity within a space from which he, as a descendant of white Afrikanerdom, has been alienated; his references to Ndebele painting are thus coloured by a particular engagement with identity as it underpins South African art’s histories.

In the murals, Postpopfuck,   Geers uses lettering in ways that parallel Ndebele use of letters: his letters are configured so that the word FUCK itself is absolutely visible, legible and in your face. These murals have no subtlety in their content, and the use of sans-serif square-ended typeface reinforces their absolute lack of compromise. Even the reversal, mirror imaging, merging and repetition of some letters as the word FUCK unfolds across and down the surface of the mural, do not leave any ambiguity as to what the word is that is thus blazoned forth. It insists on the iterability of sexual intercourse rather than its representation through visible images of the act. It also insists on a challenge to rules of politeness and social convention and in doing so, possibly offers a comment on contemporary identity politics and the position of those who do not want to abide by a refusal to confront common desires and shared needs . The murals thus work to mark out a particular space for Geers in his examination of identity within a painful historico-political space and within the utopian no-space of the international art world.

Geers’s murals have further iterations in the mobiliary forms of frameable (saleable) paper works, ‘painted’ with India ink, a move interestingly paralleling the turn to creating easel painting by Esther Mahlangu, one of the most famous Nedbele muralists. These subsidiary works in both cases follow the same trajectory as the murals. Geers works with stark black and white imagery composed of letters of the alphabet combined into shapes which make them sometimes undecipherable. In some ways these works are reminiscent of the hand-writing exercises that children do in primary school; where letters have to be spaced on each line so as to coincide with the letters above and below them. In Geers’s images letters are combined so as to create positive, white, shapes, against a background of black ink, an inversion of the usual relationship of the black letter to the white page. Taking a set of words, from the apparently ubiquitous FUCK of the murals, to RUIN, RAPE, HATE, KILL and CUNT, Geers creates signs that are apparently empty, because the arrangement of the letters makes them unreadable. But, as with all empty things, there remains a trace which can be used to reconstitute the filling. Here the letters are brought into focus by the trace found in the title, the only point at which they are syntactically arranged to form a recognizable word. But these words are emotive, considered unspeakable in themselves, or as indexing unspeakable, prohibited actions.

At a formal level one can understand the relationship of Geers’s murals to Ndebele wall painting, or indeed to beadwork design, as an engagement with elements of a semiotic system that indexes elements beyond their most obvious connotations. The use of lettering in Ndebele design, initially derived from car license plates with the letters TP (Transvaal Pretoria) or TJ (Transvaal Johannesburg) were incorporated, manipulated and deployed as pure visual signs by often illiterate artists. These artists also transformed the shapes of razor blades by breaking them into geometric modules, from which entire designs were built, including light fittings or houses of squares and triangles, and aeroplanes abstracted from images seen in print. The resulting images are not simple representations, they are signs, indexes of an identity linked to the  contemporary world where many men worked but were not allowed to live. This world of a desired modernity with electricity, air travel and shaven bodies was denied to black people.

The Ndebele-ization of the signs happened through their transposition into ‘traditional’ forms of production, in particular uses of colour, abstraction and juxtaposition, in other words in a complete visual and syntactical appropriation. In the Ndebele communities of the 1940s through to the 1970s and beyond, such appropriations may initially have appeared as transgressive of a purely abstract ‘tradition’ of mural painting and hence as in some ways “inauthentic” (Richards 2007). However, within the context of apartheid they could have challenged, via their modernity, the dominant white ideologies that relegated black people to a state of pre-history. That they were always painted on the most public faces of the houses, often visible from the road and photographed by many passing traveler, suggests that this was an intentional announcement of a particular status, an introduction, as it were, of the persons who lived there to the passer by, and an enunciation of their identity. Yet they also remained always within a space of everyday life, where people interacted with one another on a daily basis. Their scale is the scale of this personal engagement.

Geers’s large transgressive letter murals, and other letter works, such as his neon signs, occupy significant wall areas within the quasi-sacred space of the art gallery, their home as works of art.  But in some of their iterations the murals have been placed, in streets on billboards, in the public sphere beyond the art equivalent of the homestead. In the gallery space they have protection that is not afforded to art in the streets. The scale of the murals Geers placed in fully public places makes them more likely to attract attention from passersby who may recognize in them the presence of an individual but will not feel the history they carry with them. One could argue that they announce Geers’s alienation, through his insistent presence, in a manner similar to the Ndebele woman’s insistence in her house murals on a specific identity in the disputed land of Apartheid South Africa.

But here the analogy may come un-stuck. The Ndebele woman’s marginalized identity went, as Schneider (1986) documented, far beyond a pride in her Ndebele-ness. It also announced the value she accorded to keeping a beautiful homestead, her talent and aesthetic sensibilities, and women came to compete with each other in painting their murals. Thus many of the paintings, which were executed in earth materials well into the 1960s, were renewed annually or biennially and represented a major investment of resources in the form of labour. This competition increased as outsider interest was cultivated and some Ndebele painters became more famous than others and started to travel internationally and work in art museums. The act of inscribing letters and words onto walls was to become another commodity, but not before it had been transposed onto the body by its adaptation on pieces of beadwork used as clothing.

Ndebele women’s acts of self-representation reflected values shared among individuals within a given and defined community, and are thus different from the ways in which Geers, as an individual, challenges public mores and their (at best) ambiguous standards or (at worst) hypocrisy around the acceptable use of language and the use of visual and physical violence. This he does through his play with, and appropriation of, semantics, of letters, of words shared by many across cultures. Ndebele women’s murals are affirmative of shared internal cultural ideologies, of the place women occupied in Ndebele homesteads and of their creative abilities. Geers’s murals, on the other hand, refer back to the artist as a contemporary subject in contest with society, ultimately rejected, rescued or redeemed by an art-world in search of the transgressive tone. Your back is always to the wall in the face of the onslaught, not only of the words or their absence, but also of the brutal black and white, aesthetic of Geers’s murals as statements of his own alienation.