Perspectives: A Growing South African Presence

By Christine Temin, The Boston Globe
January 19, 2005

Explosions of blazing orange light a sooty dark sky. Calligraphic lines of fire dance: They look as if they're trying to shape themselves into a message.

The work is a 1999 print, ''The Spirit of the Truth," by South African artist Kim Berman. It now hangs alongside other Berman works in the lobby of the Loeb Drama Center at Harvard, part of the visual arts component of the American Repertory Theatre's South African Festival.

The ostensible subject of ''The Spirit of the Truth" is a fire deliberately set to clear the ground for a new crop. In this case, though, Berman used the image metaphorically, as a response to her country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which examined in great detail the horrors of apartheid. Berman's fire symbolizes a fresh start.

Her fire series took on an added, eerie meaning in 2003. On the night of March 9, the Artist Proof Studio in Johannesburg, which Berman had cofounded with Soweto artist Nhlanhla Xaba in 1992, burned to the ground. Xaba died in the fire, which destroyed not only the building but its contents: expensive equipment and, for many artists and students, their entire artistic output.

By that time, Artist Proof had an international reputation, and donations from private and public sources poured in swiftly, enabling the studio to reopen on March 9, 2004, a year to the day after the fire, in a former bus factory near its old location.

In the lobby of the ART's new Zero Arrow Theatre are large linocuts that second year students from Artist Proof made after the fire, and one large collage made from charred fragments of prints that they salvaged. They're part of a project conceived by Artist Proof teacher Stompie Selibe, to help students deal with the multiple losses.

The linotypes and collage are collaborations among students. Working together as a team is part of the Artist Proof philosophy. So is the focus on printmaking: Multiples can send messages to a far wider audience than a unique work of art can.

The collage ''Out of the Fires," is dense with images. Its varnished surfaces buckle and bulge, and the fragments seem to compete for attention, as if from the beyond. But the heart of the piece is a quiet image of a mother with a child on her lap, another symbol of a new beginning. The linocuts are sharp, crisp black-and-white images of related themes: people comforting one another, a curled up newborn, a fetus nesting in a protea, the prickly bloom that is South Africa's official flower.

At the Loeb, Berman's work confirms her status as a major 20th-century printmaker. The images of women bending over to work in the fields recall Millet, without losing any of their authenticity. The same goes for the fire pieces, which are Turner-like, all about ephemeral atmospheres.

The presence of these shows is part of a vigorous ongoing exchange between Boston and South Africa, involving many projects and people. Pamela Allara, a Brandeis University art historian and curator, has become a champion of South African art and has made it a real presence both in the university and its Rose Art Museum.

No one in Boston meant more to the South Africans here than Morris Simon, and no one worked so quietly and humbly to help his native country and its expatriates. A physician who moved here with his family in the late 1950s, Simon died suddenly, on Monday, the very day when he and his wife, Jo, called Josie by her friends, were to host a dinner for the South Africans now appearing at the ART and those who live here permanently.

Margaret Marshall, the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and a fellow South African migr, calls Simon ''the anchor of the South African community in Boston. He was brilliant, generous, and had an inner calm and peace."

''He saved my life," Berman said yesterday, speaking from Johannesburg. She was a student at Tufts in the late 1980s when she fell gravely ill. Simon diagnosed the meningitis that would have killed her had it gone unchecked.

''He was a guardian angel," Berman says, ''and a real patron, buying work by struggling artists. He and Josie connected me with other antiapartheid forces when I was a student in Boston." And when Berman went home, she had a second ''angel," in the form of Simon's brother Barney. A cofounder of Johannesburg's celebrated Market Theatre, multiracial even under apartheid, Barney Simon was a role model for Berman in setting up Artist Proof.

The painter Paul Stopforth fled South Africa after death threats because of his antiapartheid work. Sixteen years ago, he and his wife, Carol, ended up on the Simons' doorstep. ''We lived with them for two months," Stopforth recalls, ''before we found a place of our own. We felt we were an extended part of his family. He and Josie talked to us about living in America and introduced us to people in the arts here." The various introductions eventually led to Stopforth's current post as director of undergraduate studies at Harvard's Carpenter Center.

"He was incredibly curious about the world," Stopforth says, ''not just medicine and science, which were his own fields, but the arts, and social and political issues. We spoke mostly about creativity, which was key to the work of both of us. His medical inventions saved many lives. He was working on one right up until his death."