It began with the ostensibly inchoate act of making signs on surfaces, be they recordings of constellations, simple decorations or more arcane representations of shamanistic experiences, on rock surfaces and in caves. Indeed the origins of humanity cannot be extricated from the history of art – creative activities or products made in visual form, expressing ideas, emotions and worldviews. But since the discovery of papyrus by the ancient Egyptians BC, followed by the development of the pulp papermaking process in China during the early 2nd century AD, paper and its derivatives have been pre-eminent as the materials of artistic choice. The paper trail, however, has not been without controversy or contestation.
Picture & Paper presents the work of selected contemporary South African artists who engage with this material in diverse and at times confrontational and provocative ways. The exhibition includes paperworks by some of the country’s most illustrious visual practitioners, including amongst others Diane Victor, William Kentridge, Deborah Bell, Brett Murray, Anton Kannemeyer, Walter Oltman and Robert Slingsby, as well as newer names such as Alexia Vogel, Sarah Biggs, Katherine Spindler, Ryan Hewett, Marna Hattingh and Dominique Edwards. South African art has a rich and diverse history of works produced on paper, whether through drawings, graphics, printmaking, painting or collages. The material has served variously as a mainstream or coded – even subversive – medium.
Historically, paper is regarded as a ‘democratic’ material. Its accessibility, affordability, malleability and mobility have enabled it to traverse the spectrum of all socio-cultural and political landscapes. Consequently, it has served as the primary medium through which information is disseminated, be it as a form of propaganda, as the means to spread hegemonic visual ideology, or the medium of the marginalised, communicating dissent, resistance and satire. Today, paper remains a major influence in popular media, as well through conventional aesthetic endeavors, including drawing, painting, printmaking and photography. This much is evident through the proliferation of contemporary exhibitions and art fairs showcasing art on paper in major international cities.
But paper as artistic material is also wrapped in ethical issues, its endangered status steadily accelerating in an increasingly environmentally conscious world. Picture & Paper considers how this material continues to be used by contemporary artists to address new, complex and contentious discourses around the politics of representation, consumerism and the implications of the digital world. And even in the paperless world of smartphones and ipads, paper continues to serve as the primary medium of creative communication. Whether through printmaking or photography, cartoon or comic book, the ancient art of making signs on rocks, caves and papyrus has come a long way. Despite predictions of a paperless world, pictures on paper look here to stay.
Hazel Friedman, June 2015