A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
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Many of the works, chronicling the turbulence of the last two decades of apartheid and unappreciated in their own country, were bought by diplomats and others visiting South Africa.
They found there way to boardrooms and private collections in the US, UK, Australia, Canada and elsewhere.
Now, Ifa Lethu - the Homecoming Foundation - is working to bring the artwork back to South Africa. Headed by Dr Mamphela Ramphele, Ifa Lethu already has a substantial collection of township art.
This collection is set to grow after the BHP Billiton Development Trust (BBDT) handed over a R1-million contribution to the foundation this morning.
'Men and women of courage'
"Works of art are the soul of the people, their history," he said. "Once they are gone, they are gone forever. This project seeks to reclaim the works of unsung people of the townships in the 1970s and 1980s. These were men and women of courage, who worked under the most difficult circumstances."
The two-year-old Ifa Lethu project began when Australian diplomat Diane Johnstone, who served in South Africa in the 1970s, donated a historically important collection of South African art to the foundation.
During her time in the country she built strong links with artists working in the apartheid townships. Her aim was to donate the works back to the country once South Africa had gained its freedom - which it did with the first democratic elections in 1994.
Johnstone's donation brought to light the fact that a significant body of similar artwork, produced during the depths of apartheid and of great cultural significance to South Africa, was in foreign collections.
of the soul'
"Our aim is to bring our lost art home, where South Africans can learn from its depictions of township life in the dark days of apartheid," she said.
"This art will help in what Madiba so aptly called the reconstruction and development of the soul. Without art like it, we will always be a wounded, scarred nation."
The Department of Arts and Culture provided R4.5-million over three years to Ifa Lethu, with the proviso that this be matched by private sector contributions. The R1-million from BHP Billiton is the first major contribution of this kind, making the company a platinum -and a founding - patron.
"In business terms, this is what we call a first-entry advantage," joked Maphai.
"Works of art are the soul of the people, their history," said BHP Billiton SA chair Dr Vincent Maphai (Image: Ifa Lethu)
'People matter, history matters'
A township artist's self portrait, produced in 1975 (Image: Ifa Lethu)"
The strong Australian link to this project made the BBDT an obvious first choice for us to approach as a sponsor," said Ramphele. "The company has demonstrated its commitment to creating a positive and conducive environment for business growth in this country.
"With support from business, our project will help build a value system to complement the growth of our economy and society," she said. "Central to this system will be that people matter, that history matters - that South Africans are a proud people."
The Ifa Lethu collection will be housed at the Pretoria Art Museum in Tshwane, from where it will tour art galleries across the country.
Prophet by E Madiba, 1974 (Image: Ifa Lethu)
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