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  • Writer's pictureLucelle Pillay


Updated: Jun 21, 2023

Figure 1. Sarat Maharaj profile [s.a.]

(Centre for arts and Media Karlsruhe 2023) © Sarat Maharaj

The life and work of the art historian, curator and theorist, Sarat Maharaj is traced from his place of birth in Durban, Natal, to his academic career in the field of visual art in the United Kingdom and Europe. Upon graduating from the Salisbury Island’s ‘University College for Blacks of Indian Origin’ during the apartheid era, Maharaj sought academic exile (Van Robbroeck 2011:117) in the UK in 1979. In 1980 he began his doctorate at Goldsmiths University. Maharaj is currently the Professor of Visual Arts and Knowledge Systems at Lund University in Sweden. This study first located Maharaj within the South African publication of The Visual Century (2011). Although Maharaj appears rarely in South African journals and publications, his writing and keynote speeches in western centres are prolific, as Birnbaum states,

"Maharaj’s theoretical competence, combined with his willingness to bring the concepts of cultural, diversity and difference to a more public forum, makes him a key intellectual voice on the Continent today (Birnbaum 2002:PAR2)".

A request was made to the Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre in KwaZulu Natal to forward copies of records or articles relating to Maharaj’s life and work. The study was informed that no information or current academic articles were available on this art historian. This highlighted the historic deficit of many Indian identities whose narratives have fallen through the cracks of the collective memory. Maharaj, was therefore positioned as the key protagonist within this study, to address an enquiry of the low representation of Indian identities within the South African visual arts field. His professional trajectory from Natal to the UK and Europe, also provides invaluable insight on Indian identity within a local and global context. The collaboration between the two African expatriate art curators, Enwezor and Maharaj, at the accredited Documenta 11 , marks the global representation of the African and Indo-African identities at the centre of the European art world. Within this platform, Maharaj (2021) invokes is experiences in Natal within curatorial practice, as a methodology to inform and direct mainstream discourse relating to his theories on multiculturalism and the ‘Untranslatable other’

From Apartheid’s dying grip, gently, gently ease the idea it turned against us with such murderous force – ‘the untranslatable other’ (Maharaj:1994).

Professor Sarat Maharaj was born in Kwazulu Natal in 1951 to the Indian diasporic communities of Durban. His grandfather, worked in the sugar cane plantations established by the British during South Africa’s colonial occupation in the nineteenth century. As a ‘discovered’ Indian identity central to the field of visual art, this study opened a dialogue with Maharaj (2021), during which he discussed his life and education in Natal during the seventies. With the tone of the dialogue being conversational and convivial, Maharaj presented an unassuming and modest persona. As he reminisced on his childhood during the apartheid, his tone oscillated between deep melancholy and light hearted amusement. He recounted an unsettled young life punctuated by his family having to move homes several times, due to the forced removals and demarcations of ‘white only areas’. Life as a young Indian man in Natal brought harsher challenges, as he described the numerous long bus rides and ferry trips he had to undertake to reach the far-flung University College for Blacks of Indian Origin on Salisbury Island (see figure 2). He emphasised at this point that collective Indian identity was categorised as the ‘black other’, the hierarchical educational landscape merely enforced this label. His notable article, ‘Fatal Natalities: The Algebra of Diaspora and difference after the apartheid’ (Maharaj 1999:1-36) speaks directly to the diasporic stigma of the contemporary Indian identity in South Africa. Construed as ‘different’ and thereby ‘other’ in both post colonial and post apartheid nation states.

Figure 2. Students of the Salisbury Island University College for Blacks of Indian Origin. [s.a.]

(Image rights reserved by the Ghandi-Luthuli Documentation Centre. KwaZulu Natal, 2023)

At the 50th year reunion , an alumnus of Salisbury Island, Betty Govinden (2011:61), pondered on the prediction of Frantz Fanon, ‘of the betrayal of the liberation struggle in Africa, of a post-liberation culture that would renege on its very ideals and values’. Sentiments echoed in Maharaj’s (1999:2) socio-scientific analysis of the current state’s racial prioritising over the promised values of equality. Fanon’s controversial book entitled, ‘The Wretched of the Earth (1961), would have been circulated as a ‘secret curriculum’ (2011:59) under desktops, states Govinden. She alludes that the radically dangerous ideas of Paulo Freire and Karl Marx were regarded as contraband under the militant watch of Afrikaner censorship at the college. The brute force of this ‘censorship’ was experienced first hand by Maharaj, when his master’s thesis raised questions of anti-apartheid sentiment, which catalysed his exile from the country. With a derisive tone, Govinden (2011:54) smirks at the ‘absurdity’ of a regime that relegated ‘others’ to prop up their ideology of superiority and invincibility. Such ideologies were propagated in the ‘uncensored’, freely distributed book on campus, ‘The Super Afrikaners’ (1980). Govinden states that Salisbury Island was designed to be an ‘intellectual desert’, to ‘ghettoize and quarantine’ (2011:61) the Indian identity, ironically, it produced graduates that excelled in all fields, like Maharaj. Her own success as an interdisciplinary academic writer, she maintains was achieved, ‘…because of and in spite of, Salisbury Island’ (2011:57).

The Documenta 11 is described as ‘the first truly global, post colonial exhibition’ (Documenta 11 Retrospective 2023). Maharaj (2021) states that within Enwezor’s curatorial team, including Basualdo, Bauer, Ghez, Nash and Zaya, he was able to facilitate peripheral narratives from artists in Africa, Asia and South America. The team, driven by a common goal, of the inclusivity of non-European artists, developed a five-pronged organisational model. This allowed a distribution of exhibition platforms occurring on four continents a full year before the Documenta 11 opened in 2002. During the curatorial conceptualisation, referred to by Maharaj (2002) as a ‘discursive picnic’, he invokes his ‘Natalism’ and recreates The Apartheid-era Art History Room’ of Salisbury Island, in Kassel, Germany. This study imbues this act with gravitas as Maharaj represents a singular Indian South African identity, who brings the collective Indian Natalian subjugation within the global gaze.

The AAH Room ‘reconstruction’ was occasion to explore a range questions: Approaches to ‘critical difference’ versus the Apartheid treatment of ‘racialised difference’ versus the rise of multicultural managerialism in Europe (Maharaj 2002: PAR4).

Maharaj applies a Photostatted copy of his original classroom on Salisbury Island, as an artefact of memory. A blurry recording of encapsulated time, a time when he felt the weight of ‘difference’. He then physically recreates the image with actual furniture items and objects, which he refers to as ‘re-enacting a scene from the apartheid era’ (2002). The installation acts as a historic catalyst for discussions on race, ethnicity and gender. These themes are extremely pertinent within contemporary geo-politics, as powerful nation-states administer persecutions and exclusions on this basis. By bringing a piece of Natal to Kassel, Germany, Maharaj reminds Europe of the perilous turn in the path, when multiculturalism is ‘managed’ within an inch of its life. When lines drawn in the sand become lines on a map, with the nation- state imposing boundaries and defining identities within legislature. A monocultural legislature will always ‘manage difference in terms of hard and fast departments of division – largely within the frame of the prevailing pecking order’ (Maharaj 1999). Maharaj’s quote can be applied to the European seats of authority in the art world and the power they can wield on non-western sites of art production. By critically engaging the audience to consider the modernist failures of the past, Maharaj theoretically steers the dialogue of multiculturalism toward more open-ended possibilities.

Govinden described Salisbury Island as a place that ‘vacillated between banality and epiphany’ (2011:54), a place that sought to contain, yet fuelled her imagination. This bittersweet ambivalence of remembrance, described by Maharaj as, ‘…a hankering after belonging and birthplace – the refrain of the Natal – something it never quite shakes off’ (Maharaj 1999). The perpetual condition of diasporic identities to seek belonging and return to their country of birth. Although Maharaj has not returned to South Africa in decades, his ‘Natalism’ has informed global discourse on diversity and inclusion in contemporary cultural and creative industries. His proposal of visual art as a medium of knowledge production, is to a lesser extent a statement, and to a greater degree a question. A question on how visual art can tell stories that celebrate human 'difference', rather than a meek acceptance of assimilation. The answer maybe as obvious as a single Indian identity telling a story of an 'art history room' on an island, in a place called Natal.

List of References:

Fanon, F 1961. The Wretched of the Earth – A Negro Psychoanalyst’s Study of the Problems of

Racism and Colonialism in the World Today. [Published in France]

Goniwe, T. Pissarra, M. Majavu, M. 2011. Visual Century. South African Art in Context. Volume 4. Johannesburg: WITS University Press.

Govinden, D. 2011. Remembering Salisbury Island. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 11 3 2023].

Maharaj, S. 1999. Fatal Natalities: The Algebra of Diaspora and Difference after Apartheid. Sydney, Australia: Artspace Visual Arts Centre.

Van Robbroeck, L. 2011. The Visual Century, South African Art in Context, Volume Two. Johannesburg: WITS University Publishers.

Wilkins, I and Strydom, H 1980. The Super Afrikaners – Inside the Afrikaner Broederbond.

Penn State University: Jonathan Ball.

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