sat 20/07/2024

Gavin Jantjes: To Be Free, Whitechapel Gallery review - a sweet and sour response to horrific circumstances | reviews, news & interviews

Gavin Jantjes: To Be Free, Whitechapel Gallery review - a sweet and sour response to horrific circumstances

Gavin Jantjes: To Be Free, Whitechapel Gallery review - a sweet and sour response to horrific circumstances

Seething anger is cradled within beautiful images

Freedom Hunters, 1977 by Gavin Jantjes, screenprint on paper Courtesy the artist. Photo: Ann Purkis © Gavin Jantjes, licensed by DACS

Born in Cape Town in 1948, Gavin Jantjes grew up under apartheid. He openly criticised the regime in his work and, forced into exile, was granted political asylum in Germany in 1973.

Nearly 10 years later he moved to England and his Whitechapel retrospective begins with work from those early years of exile. School Days and Nights, 1978 (pictured below right) was painted in response to the Soweto uprising, when black schoolchildren held a rally in protest against the imposition of the Afrikaans language in schools. The police opened fire on the children sparking an uprising that lasted eight months and saw the deaths of some 700 students.

In Jantjes’ painting, it’s night time. A spotlight bathes the scene in harsh yellow light; silhouetted against the glare are two boys, one lying motionless, the other caught mid-fall, riddled with bullets. Behind them is a man with a briefcase, probably their teacher, running to escape the gunfire. Looking on from a doorway is a white man who resembles Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid. He may not be wielding a gun, yet the deaths are his responsibility.

Gavin Jantjes Amaxesha Wesikolo ne Sintsuku (School Days and Nights) 1978 Oil on canvas 150 × 150 cm Private Collection, Johannesburg Image courtesy the artist © Gavin Jantjes, licensed by DACSDespite being quite small, the painting packs a mighty punch. The drama of the event is underscored by the violent contrast of blazing red against searing yellow, dark green and midnight blue. It’s as though the massacre has burned itself into the artist’s retina.

Homesickness, a Blindman’s Paradise 1982 (pictured below left) hangs beside it. Painted in the hazy colours of nostalgia, it portrays the artist's home town, which he inevitably misses. Dominating a landscape of limpid greens, soft oranges and pale turquoise is the silhouette of Table Mountain. The acacia trees are in full bloom and their fragrance seems to fill the air.

Two somewhat sinister white men, a collector cradling an African mask and an Afrikaner with a rifle tucked in his holster, are surrounded by Cape Town landmarks – the fort and prison, a slave bell and the cross commemorating the arrival of Portuguese explorer, Vasco de Gama in 1497.

This apparently tranquil scene turns out to be a riff on colonial rule. The men symbolise the seizure of land by Dutch settlers and the shipment of African artefacts to the West. And the buildings indicate the various means used by the colonisers to subjugate the indigenous population. Ironically, the place the artist recalls with such tenderness has been indelibly shaped by the oppressors.

Jantjes is best known for silkscreen prints which, like the early paintings, are bitter sweet commentaries on the horrors of apartheid. Photographs, drawings, news clips and snippets of text are juxtaposed in complex arrangements that are as beautiful as they are horrific. The duality, he explains, is the result of “a need to cry rage; yet simultaneously I wanted a voice that could sing a visual song for and about black people.”

Gavin Jantjes, Homesickness a Blindman‘s Paradise, 1982, Oil on canvas, 150 x 150 cm. Image courtesy the artist. © Gavin Jantjes, licensed by DACSFreedom Hunters 1977 (main picture) pays tribute to the bravery of Soweto youth while Notes From Slavery features the diagram of a slave ship beneath a picture of a man in a slave collar and a handbill advertising negroes for sale.

The tile of his best known series A South African Colouring Book, 1974-5 makes ironic reference to the categories used, under apartheid, to define people’s racial identity. The artist was labelled "Cape Coloured”, for instance. Eleven prints elucidate aspects of the regime’s brutality. On 21 March1960, the breaking news was “Massacre of Africans at Sharpeville”. Police had opened fire on a crowd protesting against the imposition of passbooks. Beneath photos of the massacre, the caption reads “Colour these people dead”.

A black woman scrubs the floor of a public lavatory beneath a sign reading “whites only”. Repeated six times, the image encapsulates the tedium of demeaning labour. Pinned to the sheet are the hand written thoughts of South African president John Vorster. “The fact that they work for us can never… entitle them to claim political rights,” it says. “Colour this labour cheap” reads the caption.

Jantjes started lobbying for greater recognition of black and Asian artists and began curating exhibitions of their work. Gradually the curating took over until, in 1998, he became director of the Henie Onstad Arts Centre near Olso before moving to Norway’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design. On view in Gallery 4 are catalogues, photographs and videos of the exhibitions he organised as well as those he took part in, which provide an overview of his impressive contribution as both an artist and curator.

But after 25 years he’d had enough of curating and, in 2017, returned to the studio. And what a surprise awaits you! The new paintings are physically and emotionally expansive. Gone is the political content, but the beauty is still there. These days it’s safe for him to return to South Africa, and one of his favourite haunts has become Cape Town’s National Botanical Gardens, where every species of African plant is grown.Gavin Jantjes Untitled from The Kirstenbosch Series 2023 Acrylic on canvas 145 × 200 cm Image courtesy the artist. © Gavin Jantjes, licensed by DACSInspired by the lush vegetation, the recent paintings engulf you in pure sensation. Swathes of translucent colour waft across large canvases like coloured smoke hanging in the air. And elsewhere, delicate colours that are as luscious as Italian ice cream – pink, apricot, lilac, yellow, pistachio and peach – conjure the heady sensuality of perfumed tropical nights.

It’s as though, purged of negative associations, the landscape portrayed so lovingly in Homesickness…  has finally been restored to him. At last, he is able to let go of the rage and relish the beauty of his homeland.

Jantjes is best known for silkscreen prints which, like the early paintings, are bitter sweet commentaries on the horrors of apartheid

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