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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Redressing Past Cultural Biases and Imbalances in South Africa: A Contribution by the Library of the South African National Gallery

Josephine Andersen
South African National Gallery,
Cape Town


The focus is on how an art library can help to redress past inequities. Legislation in South Africa now provides for the incusion of art and culture and adult literacy in the education system and it is within the capabilities of Art Libraries to promote the government initiative by distributing their recources widely. The arts are always concerned with expression and communication which takes place in many forms. The ‘reading’ of texts such as in mass media and visual artworks forms part of the study of all literature and develops skills in all kinds of literacy. Language and visual literacy can be linked together in adult basic education and training as with the project in the South African National Gallery Library.



The Government of National Unity ( GNU) in South Africa has faced enormous challenges concerning the rebuilding of a country that has been torn apart by forty years of apartheid rule. With new legislation much has been achieved to bring about vast changes in every sphere of society, but the government cannot address all the problems alone. It is necessary for every individual and institution wherever possible to play a part and this is particularly the case in education which presents one of the biggest challenges to the social and economic development of the country. In a country where 15 000 000 out of a population of 42 000 000 are illiterate, education and literacy are of prime importance.

Art libraries are in a strong position to assist in the process of reconstruction which is taking place even if this means a departure from their traditionally seen functions. Art libraries can use their resources to address past inequities in education in general and particularly in the field of Adult Basic Education and Training. (ABET).

Past Legacies

The previous government did not encourage a culture of learning amongst the black population and did not provide an arts education for black people [1,p.14].

Subsistence living in poor communities where 12 million people did not have access to clean drinking water and 21 million did not have proper sanitation was not conducive to educational or cultural development and self improvement. There was a lack of resources of every kind which resulted in a poor quality of life for many people. The present government has set itself the task of transforming the country and if everyone contributes to this process there will be a better life for all.


Significant changes are being made in the field of education where a new National Qualifications Framework (NQF) has been designed for education standards and the South African Qualifications Authority Act (SAQA) was passed in October 1995. These together with the new South African Schools Act passed by parliament late in 1996 will result in a new education system and a new curriculum. The NQF will ensure that learning is assessed on competency based rather than content based outcomes. ABET will benefit through implementaion of the NQF because learners will be able to enter the system at any level which is appropriate to their needs and prior knowledge. For the first time school will be compulsory for all people up to the end of Standard 7 where examinations will be set for a General Education Certificate. The new curriculum recognises eight learning areas (LAC), Arts and Culture being one of the eight.

At Junior Primary School level an integrated approach to Arts and Culture will be phased in and at Senior Primary School level there will be an emphasis on Integrated Studies in the Visual Arts, Dance, Drama, Music and Culture.


Since the first democratic government was elected in South Africa in 1994 a new Ministry of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (DACST) was created which appointed an Arts and Culture Task Group (ACTAG) in November 1994. This task group consulted widely and invited members of the public to submit recommendations which resulted in a Draft White Paper being issued in November 1996: Draft White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage: All Our Legacies, All Our Futures. It is significant that the White Paper sees culture as the glue which holds the social fabric together. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) [2] drawn up for the election campaign in 1994 sets down guidelines for transformation. One of the main recommendations of ACTAG was the establishment of a National Arts Council for the distribution of public funds and for the ensuring of coherent arts policies. Criteria for funding will be consistent with the goals of the RDP and will require certain obligations of accountability on the part of the recipients.


Until the 1970's art museums concentrated on art which came out of Western traditions and traditional African art forms were housed in ethnographic museums. Attempts are now continuously being made to correct the Eurocentric policies of the past when some of the finest examples of African art were exported as curios. There has been an emphasis in the school curriculum of the past five years on South African contemporary art on which there is very little published material. Museums are striving to reach out to the wider community in spite of being geographically so placed, as not to be accessible to many communities. A report on museums of October 1996 makes recommendation for new museums structures: Towards a new National Museums Service: a vision for the restructuring of declared institutions, in line with ACTAG, proposes that two new "flagship" institutions be formed in Gauteng and Cape Town through the amalgamation of existing "National Museums".


Libraries are part of the restructuring process and in the Western Cape, Provincial and Municipal libraries are being allocated to different substructures, which will come into effect in July 1997. There are approximately ten main art museums in South Africa some of which have libraries and from a recent survey of art information resources in South Africa, there are forty six fairly substantial collections of art resources in University, College, Museum, Special and Public libraries. Many libraries are participating in outreach programmes and some public libraries offer their premises for the conducting of literacy classes.

The South African National Gallery (SANG)

The South African National Gallery is committed to the provision of cultural and educational resources that will encourage involvement in the visual arts and the library in line with this vision assists with the advancement and understanding of the visual arts and the dissemination of information. SANG Library

How can a small reference library assist in attending to past inequities, cultural biases and imbalances. Situated in the centre of Cape Town the SANG library was mainly used, until 1987, by the staff of the Gallery. It was a difficult decision in that year to open the doors of the library to school children because there are only three staff members and a floor area measuring 120 sq metres. In this small area, are housed 12 000 books, approximately 50 000 pamphlets, 500 000 newscuttings, the periodical collections, 45 000 slides, a manuscript collection and 150 videos. There is no work area, office space or reading area set aside specifically for these purposes, which means that all library activities take place in the same area as the collections. When many visitors use the library, uncatalogued and unprocessed materials are therefore vulnerable.


In spite of difficulties the SANG library has initiated outreach programmes in the making of Art Kits compiled in the first instance for school children and teachers. Art Kits have been subsequently taken out on loan to libraries situated outside the central Cape Town area such as Langa, Gugulethu, Belhar and Elsies River. When a visit was made to the Langa and Gugulethu libraries on 12 August 1996, it was a week after the killing of a drug dealer by PAGAD (People against gangsterism and drugs), which threatened to invoke a wave of violence across the Cape Flats where the libraries are situated. It was disappointing, on this visit to the Langa library, to see that the walls were now bare of the artworks and prints which had previously been on loan from the Provincial Library Services. Even the linocut "Langa Train" by Tyrone Appollis had been removed. This removal was due to retrenchments and restructuring in the Provincial Libraries Head Office as the Langa and Gugulethu libraries will soon fall under the Central Substructure and be part of Cape Town Municipal library services. The Langa librarian told us a story based on Xhosa customs which explained her philosophical approach: In rural Xhosa culture, it is not possible to see if a family is poor or starving because the wealthy families lend their cows to their less fortunate neighbours. The Xhosa idiom is "Inkomo yenqoma yintsengabheka" which means, " This milking cow which is lent to you will not remain yours for ever." It was thus with the artworks in the Langa library. The spirit of Ubuntu which means sharing is ever present in Xhosa culture.

Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET)

ABET lies at the heart of the rebuilding of the country and should be of special interest to libraries which are potentially in positions of strength to lighten the burden of illiteracy. A library for the visual arts has the potential to cover every aspect of human life including AIDS and Child Abuse.

ABET in the SANG library

One of the reasons for conducting literacy classes in the SANG library was because the library offered me the opportunity of designing a programme that could be applied in my work situation where I could use the time, space and materials available. In order to carry out such a programme it was first necessary for me to obtain the required qualification and it was only in July 1996 that the project could be started. A proposal was put forward to management, which indicated how visual literacy could be promoted through the use of visual art materials in the teaching of literacy and numeracy skills, and was accepted.


The Language Experience Method devised by Paulo Freire in the 1960's, advocates dialogue between educator and learner. Through the use of images, themes are introduced for discussion sessions in order to generate a vocabulary which is then used to construct sentences. This method can be used in conjunction with the Structured Language Experience Method and the use of Phonics. In the art library, illustrations of artworks could be used instead of, or in conjunction with, the more commonly used black and white diagrammatic drawings.

Images of art

Images of art used for adult learners, should be accessible to the learners both in subject matter and in style so that they can be easily understood by those who are unfamiliar with the discipline of Art History. It has been noted that figurative art rather than abstract art is preferred. In the SANG programme, in an exercise where the learner was asked to choose a work hanging in the gallery for discussion, it was Flying a kite by Dame Laura Knight that was chosen, a joyful painting with all the excitement of childhood games against an atmospheric background of sun and wind. The choice was interesting because it revealed an appreciation of European art and an inclination for pleasurable, rather than distressful, disturbing scenes of sadness.


The examples described here demonstrate the potential which is inherent in visual art material that can be used for different levels of ABET.

The Still life Cheese, Fruit, and Bread on a red silk cloth by Floris van Dijck can be used in discussion classes on health and diet. Words found to describe objects in the painting could be used in conjunction with advertisements from local supermarkets. The painting Flowers in a glass by Jan Brueghel can encourage a love of nature with its delicate rose petals, tulips and other flowers. The inclusion of insects relates to the practice of attaching symbolic meaning to natural objects.

Weddings have been the subject of paintings for centuries and many contemporary South African artists have employed this motif as in: On 8th to 9th December married Mr T and Evelyn Motswai by Tommy Motswai and Bridal Ceremony by Ephraim Ngatane. Comparative studies could include: The village Bride by Jean Baptiste Greuze and Peasant Wedding Feast by Pieter Brueghel. Different customs could be a point of discussion with The Village Bride in which the Bride's father is giving the dot of the bride to the prospective bridegroom whereas in Xhosa culture it is the Bridegroom who pays "lobola" to the father of the bride. Ice Breaker games could include the making of lists for what is needed in the preparation of a wedding and group games include numeracy skills learning with the purchasing of wedding gifts.

Various types of work could introduce traditional roles of men and women and gender issues, as in Ploughing by John Mohl and From the lands carrying food by Helen Sebidi. The Eye of the beholder by Dorothy Kay and Hair do by George Pemba illustrate differences in the colours used, emotions portrayed and setting.

Games and exercises for finding places and directions could be used along with artworks to improve life skills, as in Town by the sea by Jackson Nkumanda. Environmental Life by Patrick Holo would present a familiar scene to many township dwellers.

Short biographies of the artists accompanying the images could lead to discussions of the learners' own backgrounds.


It takes more than legislation for a government to succeed in transforming a country that has been so riven by injustices as is the case with South Africa. In order to succeed, and we will succeed, everyone should play a part. Art libraries have a wonderful opportunity to do this and introduce visual images in the teaching of literacy and numeracy to adults that have been deprived for so many years. As in the Xhosa custom we should learn to share, our resources, our libraries and our learning.


  1. Draft White Paper on Arts, culture and Heritage: All Our Legacies, All Our Futures, Department of Arts, culture, Science and Technology, Pretoria, 1996.

  2. The Reconstruction and Development Programme: A Policy Framework, African National Congress, Johannesburg, 1994.