Lovelace also plays on one of Frank Sinatra’s signature songs, My Way, about a man looking back fondly on a life he lived on his own terms.
This artwork inspired a quest for a South African visual artist of Chinese origin. The Chinese community has contributed to the South African economy formally and informally for decades. However, there seems to be an absence of visual arts produced by Chinese South Africans.
The China Johannesburg Connection
Lovelace’s piece highlights the increased focus on the relationship between China and South Africa which transcends pure politics and economics. Lovelace says she created the work to shed light on what happened to Weiwei: “Like many people around the world I was quite upset that he could be taken away like that,” says Lovelace on her Facebook page.
Weiwei was arrested in 2011 and held by Chinese officials for over two months without any official charges being brought against him.
Inter-relations and inter-connections between China and South Africa were explored in the Ruth Simbao exhibition Making Way. Simbao, a Rhodes University professor and art historian, curated Making Way showing contemporary art produced by South African and Chinese artists.
The exhibition took place at the Standard Bank art gallery in Johannesburg, after it was shown at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in July 2012. Making Way looked at the China-Africa engagement in terms of culture and the visual arts.
Simbao says Making Way increased an awareness of art and challenged preconceived notions and fears about the Chinese presence in South Africa and on the African continent by exploring cultural links between South Africa and China. Strangely, there was no representation by Chinese South Africans in the exhibition even though the Chinese South African community has a significant presence in Johannesburg.
“When you are on the fringe of society, your parents don’t want you to be artists, they want you to be professionals”
The quest to find a South African artist of Chinese origin takes me to Emma Chen, an art collector and owner of Red Chamber, a traditional Chinese restaurant in Hyde Park. Chen has a life-sized sculpture of a terracotta warrior in her restaurant, “I imported it from China. It is very heavy and identical to the ones that were discovered in Shaanxi province.”
There are also four traditional Chinese ceramics and a red dragon neatly placed on one of the window panes at Red Chamber. When I ask her if art as a profession is encouraged in the Chinese South African community, she shakes her head vigorously: “Unfortunately the South African Chinese, the SABC one, two and three are not exposed to art. I don’t think it’s encouraged.”
SABC one, two and three refers to the three waves of Chinese migrations to South Africa. According to a paper by Yoon Jung Park and Anna Ying Chen, the first wave of Chinese immigrants came to South Africa as indentured labourers in the late nineteenth century.
The second wave took place in the late 1980s and 1990s, which saw increasing numbers of Chinese industrialists and later small business owners and students settling in the larger cities and towns. The last distinct group arrived after the year 2000. This group came in as workers for the textile and garment factories.
Chen says Chinese South Africans want their children to have professional jobs such as accounting and law and do not consider a career in the visual arts an appropriate profession: “When you are on the fringe of society, your parents don’t want you to be artists, they want you to be professionals.”
After speaking to Chen, I left Hyde Park thinking it was not possible for an entire community not to have visual artists. The SABC twos and SABC threes left China at a time when there was a radical transformation created by the new generation who are a product of rapid change.
This transformation created a multitude of spaces, both physical and metaphysical, for new perspectives and visual expression. The current Chinese generation lives in a time when free-thinking and personal expression is possible, new values are being established while former ones are being abandoned.
GRAPHIC: Chinese-inspired art in Joburg
With this in mind I went to Maboneng precinct, “hipster” central in downtown Johannesburg. The area is a regeneration of old Johannesburg. Maboneng houses a bioscope, the only independent cinema in Johannesburg, the 12 Decades Hotel which has 12 rooms themed with South African history broken down into 12 distinct eras, a number of quaint restaurants and clothing stores. There were hipsters wearing their dark-rimmed glasses dressed in “ironic” wear, typing on their iMacs, iPods and iPhones while drinking international craft beers. Maboneng precinct houses Arts on Main and inside there are a number of art galleries and art studios.
“A Chinese South African visual artist? I have a client who is Chinese, that doesn’t count does it,”
My journey began at David Krut Projects. The gallery is known to give space to young artists who are not established in the industry. On arrival, I asked the receptionist if the gallery had work produced by Chinese South African visual artists. She stared me up and down then pointed her forefinger in the direction of a woman working on what looked like an early 20th century printer.
“I am not Chinese,” she said before I uttered a word. “My name is Kim-Lee Loggenberg.”
“Oh th-that’s q-quite ah-alright,” I stuttered. Could she have read my mind?
Loggenberg, a print maker, says the gallery has never exhibited work by Chinese immigrants or Chinese South African visual artists. She says they have neither been approached by a Chinese artist nor been made aware of Chinese artists in South Africa. Loggenberg says she thinks Chinese migrant families raise their children to run businesses so they can support their families: “In general I’m not sure there are any South African Chinese visual artists. I mean if you had to tell your Chinese mom that you want to become an artist, her reaction would be ‘there is no way you can make a living’ and that would probably kind of affect their choice to be an artist.”
I left David Krut Projects and walked upstairs to Kim Lieberman’s studio. Lieberman, an established artist who has exhibited her work both locally and internationally, was working on a piece for a client: “A Chinese South African visual artist? I have a client who is Chinese, that doesn’t count does it,” she laughs. Lieberman says even when she was at university there were no Chinese South Africans in her class: “There were Muslims, Africans, Coloured, but no Chinese.”