CROSS CURRENTS: Contemporary Art Practice in South Africa. The Atkinson Gallery. Millfield School, Street, Somerset Tel: 01458 444187. Part 1 closes July 29. Part 2 August 7-September 30. Monday-Saturday 9.30am-5pm.
The Atkinson Gallery functions both as a teaching resource for Millfield, with other schools and the public welcome to visit, and a porthole to the international art world. This summer, the porthole gives on to a view of contemporary South African art with 120 paintings and sculptures created in the past 20 years. The Cross Currents exhibition is in two parts: the first concentrates on the figurative tendencies; the second will cover abstract and conceptual works.
The exhibition came about - and came to be in the Atkinson Gallery - through the vision and efforts of Len Green, director of art for Millfield Arts Projects. Green visited Zimbabwe in 1993 and was inspired by the sculpture he saw to organise an exhibition of stone pieces for the school. In 1997, he came up with ideas for this exhibition, and later curated the work of black and white artists now on display, collecting it from many of the main art centres of South Africa.
Cross Currents encompasses diversity of style and approach. Sharing generous exhibition space are works of art which had their genesis in academic institutions, workshops, the countryside and the ghetto. The large-scale fluid ink drawings by Marlene Dumas, an artist of international status, hang near a striking carnivalesque painting by Billy Mandini, an artist who has been in the front line of community struggles. Mandini's "Live Life My Dear" is an ironic take on the risks implied by the title, as Death, ringing a handbell and accompanied by her Fool, gallops across the picture plane astride a zebra. Between the work of these two artists are small watercolours by 15-year-olds T Shabalala and Octavio Selepe, painted at the Open School ( a community arts programme that opened in Johannesburg during apartheid to help young black students develop artistic talent).
Political and historical expression appears in both implicit and explicit symbols. "Oxford Man", a carving of an urban intellectual by rural sculptor Owen Ndou, is a slyly humorous figure. Dominic Tshabangu's "Family" (made in 1994, the year of the first non-racial democratic elections) is a painted collage portrait of a black family posing like apprehensive pioneers; the medium - scraps of torn paper - is a visual metaphor for the struggles of apartheid, itself torn from scraps of family life. Willie Bester's "Transition" (also, 1994) is a diptych with images of war and its victims, framed by found objects: barbed wire, bandoliers of bullets, animal bones, chains, a baby's shoe.
Penny Siopis applies intellect and emotion to history painting. "Cape of Good Hope" has as many layers of connotation as it has layers of paint. The head and torso of a female nude, viewed from behind, is set against blue drapery. So far, so classical. The woman' body at first glance seems to be covered in tattoos or scarifications, but the patterns reveal themselves to be a mosaic of miniature forms of slaves: roped, chained, manacled, shackled, sacrificed. The medium has been built up so that the figure literally bulges off the picture plane.
In this part of the exhibition, the spiritual dimension of experience is particularly evident. It manifests itself in Jackson Hlungwani's cultural carvings of an affectionate pair of chickens, in an inscrutable "Son of Adam", and in his huge wood construction "Throne", an abstraction on the concept of ritualised power. Biblical, and ancestral expressions find form in Johannes Maswanganyi's robust figures of David and Goliath, which contrast with Phillip Rikhotso's "Spook Family". In the second part of the exhibition, there will be examples of abstract Expressionist paintings from masters such as Bill Ainslie (represented in this part with one ravishingly atmospheric picture), David Koloane, Dumisane Mabaso, and Garth Erasmus.
These artists are practising within a tradition of transcendental art which stretches from Caspar David Friedrich to the present day. There are allusive responses to Western Art. Chabane Manganyi's "African Feast" asks who influences whom. What Picasso picked up on and used for the ancestor of modern abstraction in painting - "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" - is reinterpreted by Manganyi, with figures who could be the ancestors of those very Demoiselles. Johannes Phokela, who trained in London where he now lives, displays formidable virtuosity, adopting styles and schemes of traditional painters and adapting them to contemporary African themes.
Three threads run through the exhibition, connected to key figures in the development of South African art. The first is the influence of Bill Ainslie as both artist and teacher. During apartheid,Ainslie was responsible for organising an underground workshop - a dangerous enterprise - where black artists could receive the opportunity to practice art and develop skills.
The second thread is the seminal Tributaries Exhibition of 1985, curated by Ricky Burnett. The event saw for the first time in the country's history the juxtaposition of non-western "cultural objects" with "high art objects" of the Western tradition in a large-scale exhibition.
The third thread relates to the role of workshops, associated with Robert Loder - curator,collector, founder, and directorof international workshopprogrammes. The essays in the catalogue are an invaluable source for those who want to know more about the key figures and the cultural background to the exhibition.
Cross Currents is an invitation to students and the community to engage in the process of understanding art. While the exhibition addresses many of the targets of the national curriculum in art, for GCSE, AS and A-level, everyone, irrespective of age, could take pleasure in the vibrant colours, patterns and arresting tactile objects.