Book Review: Something to Keep the Coffee Table Company
The season's best oversized books
Reviewed by Kate X Messer, Fri., Nov. 27, 2009
South African Art Nowby Sue Williamson
Collins Design, 320 pp., $65
Don't assume by the title of this book that this is some lighthearted tour for armchair ethnographers or whimsical directory to a certain antipodean aesthetic. Author/curator Sue Williamson is one of her country's preeminent artists and critics, as well as a respected antiapartheid activist. The title may very well be a riff on (or jab at) the book African Art Now by Italian Jean Pigozzi, an internationally acclaimed art collector whose exuberant personal tastes and collection-lending is said to have greatly influenced the Western concept of contemporary African art, somewhat to the dismay of numerous experts such as Williamson. That said, the heft and gravity of Williamson's 320-pager may far exceed the typical mission of the coffeetable genre; while quite lovely to look at, this work is more likely to warm, nay, singe a spot in laps and proper libraries as much for its compelling commentary (by Williamson, curator Okwui Enwezor, Performa Biennial Director RoseLee Goldberg, Sir Elton John, and Nobel laureate/beloved ZA author Nadine Gordimer) as for its crucial and often jarring visuals. Some 97 artists are presented, some more than once and at different points in their careers and on the timeline. The book's first third is titled "The Last Century," a view of apartheid-era and immediately post-1994-election art: South African art "then," if you will, as essential context for South African art "now." The last two-thirds are dedicated to that very titular distinction: South African Art Now, a colorful posttraumatic history of the emergent postapartheid nation through the eyes of the artists whose own roles became manifest in a revolution.