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Dominic Thorburn throws light on South African Printmaking

Printmaking in the ‘New South Africa’ holds a proud and prestigious place in its visual culture. This is due in part to its contributory role as change agent during the years of struggle for democracy, and part in its present role as vehicle for introspection and reconciliation. South African printmaking is a meta-narrative with ready metaphors reflective in the transfer of power, resistance of medium, pressure of protest, transformation of image, transparency of process, multiple nature of diversity and diaspora, and negotiation within collaboration.

The print is a valuable conduit of communication within our society. It is also proving its inherent power as the mobile messenger in a world of cultural exchange, a world South Africa can once again feel part of. Furthermore the mobility of ideas, intrinsic to the print, is vitally important in penetrating perceptions and decolonising minds within South Africa.

The medium, often characterised by indigenous approaches developed during times of cultural isolation and economic and academic boycott, remains both expressive and accessible. It is a tensile tool in a country engraving its name into the walls of the global visual village. Printmaking is proving its ability to bridge divides, to be the true ‘democratic medium’ of the fine arts in South Africa.

The concept of transfer of image, so central to printmaking, is an especially fitting metaphor for our recent history. One that has seen political power transferred from a white minority apartheid regime to inclusive majority rule. A parallel that could be seen as a move from an exclusive restricted matrix to one of widely disseminated multiples.

This was largely achieved through pressure of protest, and resistance to the regime. Pressure is again central to much printmaking and there is a notable symbol of social struggle in the resistance of working some resilient mediums, such as linocut and woodcut, which is very popular in South Africa and allied to a rich history of woodcarving. This relationship between printmaking and social change is not exclusively metaphoric. Printmaking proved to be a potent device in the freedom struggle of South Africa reflecting the miscarriages of justice and providing an active voice denouncing apartheid. The print of the 80's and early 90's continually faced repression and even censorship. The power of the medium was often found in posters, banners and even T-shirts. It also played its political role less overtly in fine art galleries often under the threat of state security restrictions. This intrinsic democratic nature of the print, which is versatile enough to shift between high art and pragmatic applications, remains pivotal in our contemporary context. Printmaking has managed to straddle the art of the academy and that of the informal sector - while some techniques require sophisticated equipment, printmaking can also be pursued with minimal means.

As we emerge from the spectre of apartheid the South Africa of the 90's is characterised by transition - again a concept that is familiar in many ways to printmakers as prints are often transitory while being developed. The medium itself is also in continual transition as technologies and therefore aesthetics are in continual flux. The print idiom operates as a mediating medium proving to be infinitely adaptable. The social and political transformations have signalled remarkable achievements centred around discussion and negotiated settlements. The country has moved from a position of confrontation to reconciliation. Evidenced most recently with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which is investigating the crimes and injustices of the past, and in certain cases granting amnesty.

There has inevitably been collaboration aplenty - yet another printmaking concept. A process often involving mutually confronting creativity and reconciling how to harness it. Collaborative printmaking has really come of age in the last 5-10 years in South Africa. This tradition was not very popular before, probably due to there being a relatively small print market in the country and also due to there being a dearth of professional printers. This position has changed and we now have in the region of a dozen printmaking studios and presses, many with excellent facilities and skilled printers trained at places such as Tamarind Institute, Yorkshire Printmakers, Peacock Press, Pratt Institute - in fact all over the world including Holland, Germany and Sweden. The suitability of working collaboratively is becoming increasingly popular amongst artists from diverse backgrounds and education who can come together to share ideas, expertise and especially facilities - facilities which in the past were often difficult for black South Africans to access. The collaborative process appears particularly attractive in a society involved in social redress and redefining itself. It is also especially well suited to an African context wherein skills and knowledge are traditionally communally ‘owned’. Printmaking after all is characteristically a social process and we are seeing the initiation of many joint projects including exchange portfolios, books and combined media prints.

Most of the presses and printshops are presently engaged in working with a diversity of artists, often from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, in an attempt to redress past imbalances and to find common ground. This was again a primary motivating factor in the organising last year of The First South African Printmaking Conference, titled ‘New Ground - Common Ground’ (reported in Printmaking Today Vol8 No1 Spring 1999).

In terms of print education and training there is a wide variety of options available. The universities and technical colleges generally have good facilities and tutoring but are almost exclusively for full time structured study towards an accredited qualification. Academic and portfolio entrance requirements are competitive. Community art centres such as Dakawa in Grahamstown, FUBA in Johannesburg and CAP in Cape Town offer more flexible and accessible skills training programs. Most of these non-governmental facilities started originally as a means of empowering disadvantaged communities during the apartheid years and received external international funding. Since the elections of 1994 much of this support from abroad has been curtailed and many of these projects are being forced to close or become self sustaining through production and regulated training programs. This is one of the reasons why the professional presses, with education, outreach and partnership programs, are playing such a necessary role at present.

Printmaking is facilitating social and economic mobility. The print is portable and dissemination unrestricted and affordable. It is quite common to see printmakers from community based ventures selling their prints laid out on the sidewalk. The print is their livelihood and a saleable commodity. It is quite refreshing to see this applied democratic role of the print in practice - literally on the streets! The reality of the situation is that the niceties of printmaking as many of us know it - meticulous editioning, careful curation and records, perfect registration and so on - are of less concern to a popular market and artists struggling for survival.

Within the contemporary genre of South African art we now find that much of the protest art has run its course. A lighter spirit is replacing the content of struggle which seems more appropriate to the new ‘rainbow nation', as christened by Rev. Desmond Tutu. There is often the feeling of celebration and discovery. There is a call for revitalization and crossover, for hybridization and global contexture. There is talk of an ‘African Renaissance’ and certainly much work is characterised by vitality, spirit and energy - reflective of growth and transformation. A vibrancy of colour and texture, and a move to larger formats is replacing the often small black and white linocuts which expressed despair and anger at the atrocities of apartheid. Alternative and accessible print mediums, which were often invented or discovered by necessity during these struggle years, continue to be employed and have also been expanded. Examples include relief matrices made from masonite, cardboard and cheap floor tiles, recycled elements in collagraphs, aluminium and plexiglass street signage used for drypoint intaglio, roofing zinc for etching plates, monotypes and drypoints from x-ray plates, plaster cast print matrices and recycled printing paper. At the same time many South African printmakers are experimenting with expanded and innovative approaches and technologies. The areas of digital imaging, sculptural and dimensional prints, combo-prints and extra large formats are energetically explored. The cultural boycott and the countries remote geographic location has often had the effect of making some print artists in South Africa virtually over compensate in terms of attempting to be contemporary, and ‘up to speed’ internationally. This has certainly contributed to exciting work being produced in the expanded field.

The process of transformation may, for many who waited so long for it, seem slow. This again finds comparison with print process which is often labour intensive and time consuming, and even painful - especially when new to the printmaker. Prints also go through many stages of transformation before final proofing and printing. In spite of the time delay and teething problems of our new democracy in South Africa the arts are playing a vital healing role through promoting reconciliation and transformation. There have been tangible changes in the resonance of our art. While anger has often changed to irony there is also a strong interest in heritage and customs. History and identity are critical elements in our new cultural landscape of shared South African consciousness - a landscape no longer bleak and barren but sunny and fertile.

Contact: Prof Dominic Thorburn, School of Fine Art, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, 6140, South Africa. Tel +27 (46) 6038194 e mail:


Enwezor, Okwui. Trade Routes, History and Geography. 2nd Johannesburg Biennale 1997 Catalogue. Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council. 1997.

Geers, Kendell, ed. Contemporary South African Art, The Gencor Collection. Johannesburg: Johnathan Ball. 1997.

Hobbs, P and Rankin, E. Printmaking in a Transforming Saouth Africa. Cape Town: David Philip. 1997.

Picton, John, ed. Image and Form. Exhibition Catalogue. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 1997.

Williamson, Sue. Resistance Art in South Africa. Cape Town: David Philip. 1989.

Younge, Gavin. Art of the South African Townships. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.

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