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  • Writer's pictureLucelle Pillay

JCAF Presents: Women Artists of the Global South

Cover Image. 2021.The exterior of the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation. Image courtesy of JCAF. © Photography Graham De Lacy.

Inhabiting Forest Town’s former electrical tram shed and substation that was in operation in the early to mid twentieth century, emerges the sleek Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF). Housed behind impressively scaled oxidized solid metal facades, lies a sensitively renovated redbrick service building of the old order. Echoes of the tram rails, now sculpturally reconceptualized as a corridor to the main entrance. The frontage presents with sheets of double-glazed glass supported by a modernist black steel grid. The warmly lit interior spaces visible behind the glass, beckon the curious visitor to explore further.

As the old municipal structure is usurped by the new, JCAF stands as an architectural metaphor for becoming a beacon within the locally emerging global arena of visual art academic research, museum exhibitions and technology. It describes itself as a non-profit hybrid with an intention to promote the appreciation of modern and contemporary art by stimulating production, sharing and preservation of knowledge. Their current exhibition which exemplifies their mission, is entitled ‘Modernist Identities’ and brings together three integral female artists from the Global South, namely Frida Kahlo, Amrita Sher-Gil and Irma Stern. A small group tour hosted by the charismatic Emeka Ntone Edjabe takes patrons on an interesting and informative sojourn of the historical context, influences and methodologies of these three enigmatic women.

My point of access to JCAF relates to my PhD research, which focuses on local ‘Indian South African Identities within the Visual Arts’, set against the contemporary tide of global changes. In keeping with their ethos of academic research, JCAF has provided me with three divergent visual narratives, embodied in the life and work of Kahlo, Sher-Gil and Stern. The commonality being that these artists resided in the Southern peripheries of the planet, each an active creative agent, working within the complex and tumultuous socio-political realities of Mexico, India and South Africa during the early to mid twentieth century. Their work bearing visual testament to the Modernist aesthetic, sparks a vibrant, intellectual discourse of how ethnicity, place, gender and culture can inform the construction of female identity.

As global artistic tides, heavily agitated by European sentiment ebbs towards a hinterland or undefined limbo. JCAF affords us a retrospective of the neglected voices, whose narratives have significant sway in how we forge inclusive contemporary art platforms locally. The exhibit highlights how the female portrait-artist disrupts the ‘visual politics of representation’ which resided within the domain of the male gaze.

Kahlo’s German-Spanish ethnicity, Sher-Gil’s Hungarian-Indian heritage and Stern’s German-Jewish ancestry are relevant to the complexities of multicultural global discourse. Academics such as Durban-born Professor Sarat Maharaj (1999:1) and Indian-born, Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (De Kock, 1992:41) de-shroud notions of ‘post-colonial diversity and multiculturalism’ from the perspective of a marginalised Indian minority, as cloaked essentialism managed by modernist entities for their own ends. JCAF had recently hosted another very pertinent and resonant voice, that of Arjun Appadurai, who unpacks the complexities of 'universalism' within the global age and its impact on minorities and subaltern identities. All conversations worth having within the context of these three female artists.

Revisionist art literature may find the inclusion of Irma Stern’s ‘Watussi Woman in Red’ (See figure 8) as highly problematic. This is due to a post-apartheid, decolonial stance that denounces the representation of black people by white artists in post-apartheid South Africa. Similar issues abound in the work, ‘Portrait of an Indian woman’ (See Figure 9. *Note that this painting is not included in this exhibit ) which sold for R6.6 million at an auction in Cape Town. Sterns female subject’s avert their gaze from the viewer, they appear passive and disengaged, having no democracy over the representation of their semblance. Stern subverts the sitters personality in favour of an impasto application of brushstrokes and the organisation of colour and compositional elements, reducing the subjects to a German expressionistic still-life. Stern as a product of her socio-political context, whose artwork not only exists as a visual production of her sitters identities, it inadvertently reveals more about her identity and attitude toward them. Appadurai (2004: 121) states that ethnic marginals become engrossed in the melancholy of uncertainties, acting as a mirror to 'white fears' of the loss of status and national identity.

The Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation serves as a inclusive creative incubator that extends beyond the idea of art as a static, physical object. It is about the business of invigorating a 'living culture' of social mutualism through art and education. Like Kahlo, Sher-Gil and Stern, all South Africans of all races are navigating their identities through past traumas, alienations, inhumanities and broken histories, as Colin Richards suggests, 'The struggle to become fully human is never over' (Goniwe:13).

Reference List

Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF): The Hybrid Institution Educating Audiences Through an Art-Historical Lens. ArtAfrica. 2021.

JCAF Mission and purpose. 2022. (Accessed 06/11/2022).

Artthrob. Issue:115. 2007. (Accessed 06/11/2022).


Sarat Maharaj.1999. Fatal Natalities: The algebra of diaspora and difference after apartheid. Sydney, Australia: Artspace Visual Art Centre.

Leon de Kock.1992. Interview with Gayatri Spivak. New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa.

JCAF. 2020. A lecture from the Global South, presented by Arjun Appadurai, on the occasion of the launch of the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation on 27 February 2020. (Accessed 07/11/2022).

Arjun Appadurai.2004. Minorities and the Production of daily Peace.

Goniwe,T, Pissara,M, Majavu,M. 2011. Visual Century. Volume 4: 190-2007. South African Art in Context. Wits University Press: Johannesburg.

Image References

Cover Image. 2021.The exterior of the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation. Image courtesy of JCAF. © Photography Graham De Lacy.

Frida Kahlo. 2020. Floriane Reynaud. Vogue. Bettmann/Getty Images. (Accessed 07/11/2022).

Amrita Sher-Gil. 2018. Tariro Mzezewa. New York Times. (Accessed 07/11/2022).

Irma Stern. (Accessed 07/11/2022).

Figure 1. 2020. Front view of tram rail corridor at JCAF. Image courtesy of Kenny Gilroy.

Figure 2. 2018. Street view of JCAF entrance. Image courtesy of JCAF.

Figure 3. 2020. Side view of tram rail corridor at the entrance of JCAF. Image courtesy of

Gloria Rums.

Figure 4. 2022. The entrance of JCAF. Image courtesy of Akhona Ndungane.

Figure 5. 2022. Museum tour guide: Emeka Ntone-Edjabe. Image courtesy of Akhona Ndungane.

Figure 6. 2022. Lucelle Bernadette Pillay at JCAF. Image courtesy of Kevin Leicher.

Figure 7. 2022. Patrons contemplating the paintings of Khalo, Sher-Gil and Stern. Image courtesy of Lucelle Bernadette Pillay.

Figure 8. Figure 8. 1946. Irma Stern. Watussi Woman in Red. Oil on canvas.

Figure 9. 1936. Irma Stern. Portrait of an Indian woman. Oil on canvas

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