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The Art of Life in South Africa is very much about how people lived in conversation (and limited by) their perception of the possible” – read the JRB interview with Daniel Magaziner

From 1952 to 1981, South Africa’s apartheid government ran a school for the training of African art teachers at Indaleni, in what is today KwaZulu-Natal.

The Art of Life in South Africa is about the students, teachers, art, ideas, and politics that led to the school’s founding, and which circulated during the years of its existence at a remote former mission station.

It is a story of creativity, beauty, and community in twentieth-century South Africa.
Daniel Magaziner radically reframes apartheid-era South African history. Against the dominant narrative of apartheid oppression and black resistance, this book focuses instead on a small group’s efforts to fashion more fulfilling lives through the ironic medium of an apartheid-era school. Lushly illustrated with almost 100 images, this book gives us fully formed lives and remarkable insights into life under segregation and apartheid.

Daniel Magaziner is associate professor of history at Yale University. He is the author of The Law and the Prophets: Black Consciousness in South Africa, 1968–1977.

‘A richly suggestive and moving contribution to South African intellectual history.’
— Achille Mbembe, author of Critique of Black Reason

‘This book is as important for students of global modernism as it is for scholars of South African art, history, and politics.’
— Tamar Garb, author of Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography

‘A profoundly human story of the institutional and social constraints under which African artists operated and the different ways they sought to produce beauty in the midst of oppression.’
— Frederick Cooper, author of Africa in the World: Capitalism, Empire, Nation-State

‘A meditation on what happens if we examine a past that is shaped by broader historical forces (in this case apartheid) but that cannot be reduced to them.’
— Clifton Crais, coeditor of The South Africa Reader: History, Culture, Politics

Daniel recently was in South Africa for the launch of The Art of Life in South Africa, during which he was interviewed by Johannesburg Review of Books editor, Jennifer Malec:

The JRB: The Art of Life in South Africa centres mainly on Ndaleni, an apartheid-era, government-funded art teacher training school outside Richmond in the Natal Midlands that has been all but forgotten. How did you come across this story?

Daniel Magaziner: Like most students of South African history, I had never heard of Ndaleni before I began to do this research. I was attempting to research the intellectual history of black artists during the twentieth century and was spending many hours in the basement of the Johannesburg Art Gallery getting frustrated because the voices and opinions of white reviewers were drowning up whatever artists’ voices I could access. I was reading a short biography of an artist named Dan Rakgoathe and learned that he had corresponded with someone named ‘L Peirson’. There were generous excerpts from his letters, which led me to think that these files might be a useful source, so I tracked them down at the Campbell Collections in Durban. Long story short, it turned out that L Peirson was the head teacher at the Ndaleni art school, where Rakgoathe had studied during the early 1960s, and that the Campbell Collections held the entire archive of the school, in a cabinet locked since the early 1980s. The Rakgoathe correspondence file was voluminous and it was only one among many similarly voluminous files.

The JRB: Why do you think Ndaleni has been neglected in South African art history?

Daniel Magaziner: I think there are many reasons why the school has been neglected in art history; I’ll highlight two. The first is that it was not in the strictest sense an art school and art history, both in South Africa and elsewhere, is a very elitist discipline that typically focuses on those artists who were trained and identified as such at the expense of those cultural producers who come from a different tradition and practice. Ndaleni was a teacher training institution, first and foremost; the students were to be art teachers, not artists. To this we can add the second element: it was a government school, run by and for the purposes of Bantu Education. This reality is at odds with the conventional wisdom on South African art, which has long been interested in the intersection between artists and resistance and certainly not interested in exploring the co-production of South African art and separate development. I surveyed art historical texts about black South African art from the 1960s through the present and this process of forgetting was quite apparent. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ndaleni was well known both to people interested in South African art, both locals and internationals, before it was gradually effaced as other black artists with more ‘conventional’ training and politics rose to prominence. The end result of this was made quite clear in Wits University Press’s recent multi-volume collection, Visual Century, where the Ndaleni school earns a only a paragraph.

The JRB: Your first book, The Law and the Prophets, focused on Black Consciousness and the student and resistance movements of 1970s South Africa, when politics was seen as a ‘way of being’ and was a dominant force in the world of art specifically. In The Art of Life in South Africa, the picture is subtly different. Could you talk a little bit about that difference?

Daniel Magaziner: Like many Americans of my generation, I was first exposed to South African history through the lens of the struggle against apartheid. Steve Biko and Black Consciousness were a tremendous intellectual and political inspiration for me personally and I was fortunate to spend many years studying and writing about the movements and its times. But even as I continue to be fascinated and inspired by its politics, I have also begun to recognise that Biko and his comrades were exceptional (as revolutionaries often are) and not necessarily representative of a more widespread intellectual experience under apartheid. More common than those who ‘were’ against the system were those who strove to live along the grain of what the system allowed; this was true in South Africa and it remains true around the world, where the majority of human beings struggle to find meaning and self-definition within the realm of the possible, rather than by probing beyond current realities (as Biko had once done). The Art of Life in South Africa is very much about how people lived in conversation (and limited by) their perception of the possible, something I strive to get at by considering subjects such as the material limitations of art production, for example, as well as the ethical compromises that training at a government institution and teaching in Bantu Education entailed. My argument is a classically historicist one—the beauty and worth such historical subjects produced must be seen in the light of context in order to be assessed and understood.

Continue reading their interview here.

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