Op-Ed: Warhol in Africa – contradictions, complications and conflicts

Stacey Vorster | University of the Witwatersrand


On the evening of 26 July, over 5,000 people streamed into Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg to attend the opening of its latest exhibition, Warhol Unscreened: Artworks from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Collection. Andy Warhol, an American artist known for his images of pop culture, celebrities and everyday objects, is arguably the person who invented fame and celebrity in the art world.

At the very least, Warhol is credited with coining the term “15 minutes of fame” after his statement that appeared in a programme for an exhibition in 1968.:

In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.

Warhol’s own world-fame has lasted decidedly longer. Almost 50 years later, he is still popular enough to pull unprecedented crowds to a museum on the southern tip of a continent that he never visited.

The Wits Art Museum show, which spans two floors, features many of Warhol’s iconic screen prints including a Marilyn and set of Campbell’s Soup Cans. And despite having seen these images in a hundred books, on t-shirts and mugs and countless TV and computer screens, it’s hard to not feel bewitched by the actual objects.

For one, they are much larger than expected and the surface quality of the print is so much more impressive in real life. Perhaps this reference is a ghost of some high school art history text book past, but Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”comes to mind. Published in 1936, German philosopher, Benjamin, differentiated between the original and the copy. He argued that the actual artwork has an “aura” that is complicated once a work is mass-distributed via reproduction.

For Benjamin, the aura is diminished by the copy, though he does not posit this as a negative effect. Rather, the death of the aura allows the viewer a different kind of subjectivity: one which is open to the politicisation of art.

The fragile surface of the American dream

Of course, in the context of mid-20th century America, Warhol’s works were political. They commented on capitalism and mass consumption. They commented on advertising and the fragile surface of the American dream advertised on larger-than-life billboards.

The process of screen printing is rooted in the very practice and effect of reproduction. What is fascinating, however, is that the blur between the original and the copy doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of the minds of visitors to the WAM exhibition.

Most of the works shown are one of an edition of 250 odd prints. In other words, these are “diluted” originals. They’re limited editions yes, but not in any way unique except for the small number marking the edition.

Nonetheless, the cult of genius that Warhol embodies, and which is clearly still inscribed onto the surface of these famous works, inspired thousands of selfies at the opening. Interestingly, the act of reproducing the images again — even viewing them through an additional screen in the form of cell phone cameras — seemed to be the mode through which the audience engaged. Warhol clearly had a prophetic grip on what the future indeed does look like.

Why is Warhol popular in Africa?

If we are to consider Benjamin’s prophecies too, it’s intriguing that the political context of post-apartheid South Africa manifests in small ways in the exhibition. Wits Art Museum has been under pressure in the last few years, caught in the crossfire of debates around what constitutes African art, who has the power to decide and how narratives are constructed, mediated and authored.

Increasingly, the museum is being challenged to show more African artists, contemporary and historical, rather than international blockbusters. The curators’ understandable self-consciousness of these issues comes through in several “feedback” installations, which ask the audience to consider the appropriateness of the Warhol exhibit in an African art museum. One of the panels asks:

Why do you think WAM should be showing the work of Andy Warhol?

And this is the question, right? Why is Warhol still so popular (in Africa) after the post-colonial turn? How do we reconcile the massive popularity of an exhibition of artworks by a dead white man, when Wits University, where the museum is located, is caught in the (sometimes violent) conflict of decoloniality?

Furthermore, as the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall student protest movements continue to unfold, how does the blatantly western capitalist flavour of these works go unnoticed as young people Instagram their participation in this spectacle? How is the late-capitalist neoliberal agenda screened or unscreened?

Un-ironically, the exhibition is sponsored by and comes from the collection of the Bank of America. But since Wits Art Museum couldn’t afford the copyright fees, the invitation and marketing of the show features imitation screen prints by local South African artists.

This exhibition embodies so many of the contradictions, complications and conflicts in both art and society in contemporary South Africa. What interrogation or translation of the exhibition can we look forward to as exams loom closer and universities brace for a possible third wave of protests? I look forward to reading the responses accumulated on the feedback panels in two months’ time.

Warhol Unscreened: Artworks from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Collection runs until 8 October 2017

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