South Africa's Indian art: A neglected social history

Vajisdar, Monique
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The days when Art History was seen as a discipline related to Art and to none of the other social sciences are long since gone. Art, as a product of the society which generated it, can inform us about that society. So, in the case of my own research, what started as a straight-forward art-historical documentation process, listing Indian artefacts in private collections, developed rapidly into a social historical documentation relating the story behind each object listed. In my research, I have chosen to focus on the PWV area of the Transvaal. Professor Matthews at the University of Durban-Westville has done some work relating to collections of Art in Durban,but no work has been done in the Transvaal. As a lecturer starting a new course in Indian Art History, I undertook this project to record original artefacts which could provide source materials for seminars and research. A second objective of the research, was to make a selection from the objects discovered, exhibit them at the Gertrude Posel Gallery with a detailed catalogue, to give them exposure to a wider public. My research uncovered many items which deserve such exposure. There are pictures, textiles, carpets, clothing, furniture, architectural elements in stone and wood, domestic utensils and ornaments. There are objects of considerable religious importance and others which are purely secular in function. Some of the items are from India and others are locally made. The objects are of interest purely as art objects: they show considerable technical skill, and enable one to observe the stylistic developments in Indian Art History. However, it became clear that considerably more could be learnt from the objects by relating them to their function and social history context. As my research began, over a year ago,and I interviewed a range of collectors, I became aware of the fact that there were a variety of reasons why these collections were so little known by the wider South African public. These reasons relate, on the one hand, to the marginalisation and physical relegation to seperate residential areas, and on the other, to the effective dismissal as inferior, or "uncivilised" by the South African Government of all non-European Cultures. These factors have given the Indian community a level of media "invisibility" astonishing in a community of over one million. I propose to analyse the factors contributing to this state of affairs, look at the implications of it for the study of Indian Culture in South Africa, and then conclude by looking to the future.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented 22 April, 1991. Not to be quoted without the Author's permission.
Art and society. South Africa. Transvaal, East Indians. South Africa. Transvaal. Social life and customs, Art, South African. South Africa. Transvaal, Art, South African. Indic influences