Gavin Jantjes: To Be Free! A Retrospective (1970-2023).

Whitechapel Gallery 12 June – 1 September 2024.



How’s this for a bit of craziness?  “At first in the definition of “white person” the emphasis was on appearance or general acceptance.  Section 1 of the Act read:

“A white person means a person who in appearance obviously is, or who is generally accepted as a white person but does not include a person who although in appearance obviously a white person, is generally accepted as a coloured person”.

After a large body of case law had grown up around this definition, the Government decided that too many brown-skinned persons were sneaking into the white group on the basis of general social acceptance, so the Parliamentary draftsmen were asked to provide a new definition that placed more stress on appearance.  The Population Amendment Act, No. 61 of 1962, accordingly substituted the following definition in Section 1: “’White person’ means a person who-(a) in appearance obviously is a white person and who is not generally accepted as a coloured person; or-(b) is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously not a white person”.

This infantile nonsense was all part of South Africa’s 1959 Population Registration Act and its subsequent amendment, and it was into the nascent apartheid state that the artist Gavin Jantjes was born in 1948.  This large retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery provides a comprehensive view of his output through several decades and an account of his work as an activist and curator.  The works on show are mostly paintings and screenprints and the gallery’s cinema also shows a 45-minute documentary about Jantjes with contributions from several colleagues and admirers.

Jantjes studied graphic design and fine art at the University of Cape Town (the only black student on the course) and, chronologically speaking, the earliest of his works on show here is a range of screenprints where he expresses his rage, not just at the oppression in his own country, but in other colonial territories such as Algeria, Ghana and Mozambique.  These are displayed in a gallery on the first floor and include a remarkable piece, ‘Whites Only’, which incorporates the quotations from South African law mentioned above.

A collection of Jantje’s polemical screenprints in the first floor gallery.

Such work led to Jantjes being censored in his own country and to political exile, firstly in Germany, then in the UK and Norway.  Indeed, after he produced A South African Colouring Book (1974-75), a withering critique of his homeland, the enraged apartheid regime tried to have him extradited home to face the music.

Visitors to the exhibition first encounter, on the ground floor, large paintings made between 1977 and 1990, a deliberate move away from the screenprints.  They are figurative works reflecting the political realities of the time (for example Amaxesha Wesikolo ne Sintsuku (School Days and Nights) 1977 was a response to the police massacre of protesting school children) but moving into more symbolic and metaphorical modes.  Particularly good is Vaal, 1987, a depiction of Boer trekkers’ wagons in a dull grey landscape and reflecting this pioneer group’s moving north to take over the lands of indigenous peoples.

Gavin Jantjes: Vaal, 1987.  Acylic on canvas.  Courtesy of the artist.

But the more allegorical works contain symbolism which I think will elude many viewers.  A winged saxophone hovering over a rust-red pyramid? Three coffins sailing across choppy waters? The designs are big and bold and Jantjes plants little clues in the corners, but the intentions, to me at least, remain unclear.  Untitled No 7, 1986, for example, depicts a headless figure, its arms bearing broken shackles, running off with a television set.  A reflection on South Africa’s late adoption of this medium, perhaps?, or a comment on its dampening effect on revolutionary fervour and original thought?

The exhibition is very well arranged and gives the visitor plenty of space to take in these large works.  This is particularly the case in the final galleries on the first floor which are given over Jantjes’ move into pure abstraction from 2017.  Here we see large, ethereal canvasses, reflecting a much more meditative attitude than anything which has gone before.  They are pleasing to the eye but lack the provocative element which we have encountered previously.

Untitled No 2, 2022.  From the Shahjar Series, 2022.  Acrylic on canvas.  Courtesy of the Artist.

It is stressed throughout the show that Jantjes is also a writer, an activist, a curator and someone who has held senior positions in the Arts Council and in Norway, and who has successfully moved the conversation towards a more nuanced consideration of culture, liberation and the African diaspora.  Given that he has been exhibited so little before now this retrospective is much to be welcomed.  Considered purely as a painter, though, his middle and late period work remains somewhat elusive and unengaging.

© Graham Buchan, 2024.