Saluting the worker-hero, as brought to life by South African artists

Workers make the world – and the economy – go round. They are its engine room, its life blood. And, just as Europe lays claim to a body of acclaimed representations of labourers by the likes of Van Gogh, Millet, Courbet and Degas, South Africa also has a proud canon of art with the worker as the hero at its centre.

Despite the importance of the working class to society, workers seldom wield the political or economic power. Inevitably, given South Africa’s legacy of colonialism and apartheid, not to mention the inherent top-down nature of capitalism, the worker is often exploited and undervalued. Yet there is frequently a quiet dignity, tenacity and even defiance at the core of such depictions in South African contemporary art, with the worker refusing to be a victim and seizing the moral high ground.

Indeed, the artist as worker is also not immune to such hardship. Jackson Hlungwani, for example, was a migrant worker before becoming an artist. And it’s no secret that, right now, arts fraternity is struggling more than ever to earn a living in these Covid-19-afflicted times.

Many of our artists use the working situations they observe in everyday life as the basis for their art – and that reality is not always pretty. But they have become masters at twisting and cajoling this subject matter in ways that challenge, subvert and poke fun at the status quo.

To celebrate South African workers during Workers’ Month, we decided to cherry-pick a few examples of outstanding pieces – works about workers – by South African artists that form part of our 101 Collecting Conversations: Signature Works of a Century exhibition.

You’ll be able to see these, and other, extraordinary African artworks once the nationwide lockdown eases and our museum is able to welcome you to the home of African contemporary art once again.

0002 Gerard Sekoto Song Of The Pick
Gerard Sekoto: Song of the Pick

Gerard Sekoto: Song of the Pick

(1947; oil on board; courtesy of South 32 Art Collection)

Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993) is regarded as one of the most important South African artists of the mid- to late-20th century. His style is widely recognised as a pioneering form of urban social realism, for the dynamic and imaginative way in which he interpreted his subject matter.

Born in Mpumalanga, Sekoto lived and worked in Sophiatown, District Six, Polokwane (then Pietersburg) and Pretoria before going into self-imposed exile in Paris. There, he eked out a living as a musician while continuing to paint, and died in 1993.

His 1947 work Song of the Pick, depicting workers wielding picks, is an example of Sekoto’s early mix of the realistic mode with more emotive and expressionistic elements.

The scene depicted cuts to the heart of colonial and apartheid control of South African society. The rhythmic, symmetrical and powerful line of the black work gang is set against the lone white baas. Sekoto’s mastery of line and colour is evident in the implied movement of the workers – which emphasises their collective power – and in the bright colours of their clothes against the earth they are about to strike.

But the work does not simply reflect the social reality of labour and inequality. One can read it as a political allegory, too, with the work gang exerting a powerful physical presence over the foreman by virtue of its prominent positioning in the picture plane.

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Mary Sibande: Cry Havoc

Mary Sibande: Cry Havoc

(2014; fibreglass, polyester, fibrefill stuffing, cotton and resin; courtesy of the artist)

Mary Sibande was born in 1982 near Johannesburg, where she continues to live and work and where her first solo exhibition was held in 2006. She has won numerous awards, having risen to prominence when a series of billboards featuring her now-iconic character Sophie went up around the city when South Africa hosted the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

Sophie, a domestic worker, reflects the artist’s interest in the overlap between fashion and visual art. Sophie is usually depicted elaborately draped in a domestic worker’s uniform but with a Victorian twist – deriving from the domestic oppression of black women that dates back to colonial times. Sibande has said that Sophie is a tribute to her grandmother, who was a domestic worker.

Cry Havoc is a multimedia work that was initially part of Sibande’s travelling exhibition The Purple Shall Govern, and presents the central character in a familiar purple period costume, typical of those worn by 19th-century female servants in affluent Western homes. However, far from being a subservient “servant”, Sophie is a figure of revenge and righteous anger who is ready to set loose the dogs of war she holds on leashes.

The sculpture challenges the usual perception of menial domestic work, empowering Sophie and making her into a goddess-like figure.

0070 Michael Goldberrg Hostel Monument 01
Michael Goldberg: Hostel Monument for the Migrant Worker

Michael Goldberg: Hostel Monument for the Migrant Worker

(1978; mixed media installation; courtesy of the Wits Art Museum)

Born in South Africa in 1952, Michael Goldberg is an artist and curator, and has been a senior academic at the Sydney College of the Arts (University of Sydney) since 1992. Even after he relocated to Australia in 1988, his work has continued to focus on colonial and racialised histories.

This work homes in on the exploitative and cruel conditions of the mining industry, and especially its use of migrant labour. The practice of separating families and housing men on the mines in hostels led to the destruction of family and community life. In addition, families were subjected to further fracturing through forced removals in urban areas under the Group Areas Act.

Through a set of found objects, Goldberg constructs a poignant critique of the migrant labour system by showing the appalling conditions under which mine labourers were forced to live in hostels.

Comprising metal bed frames, clocks and grey flannel blankets, the work evokes the prison conditions that were common at the time (which was just after the Soweto Uprising of 1976). The “headrests” of the tiny sleeping bunks bring to mind the materials that men would value from their homes in rural areas (cattle horns, grass, firewood) and point to the extent to which the dehumanising migrant labour system separated people from themselves and from the things most precious to them.