FREEDOM HUNTERS, 1977, Photo: Ann Purkis © Gavin Jantjes , licensed by DACS
  • Art
  • Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel
  • Recommended


Gavin Jantjes: ‘To Be Free! A Retrospective 1970-2023’

3 out of 5 stars
Eddy Frankel

Time Out says

In the right hands, art can be a devastating weapon. And South African-born artist Gavin Jantjes uses it with brutal force.

He left South Africa with a degree in graphic design and fine art in 1970, and made it to Germany where he was granted political asylum. There, he combined his righteous anger at the state of his native country with an eye for design to create a series of ultra-confrontational political screenprints. They’re collaged aesthetic manifestos, calls to action, visual poems that still resonate today.

They’re on display in a room upstairs in his show at the Whitechapel Gallery, and they’re incredible. A 1977 triptych combines newspaper clippings, press photos and images of barbed wire to expose the violence of the Soweto Uprisings, the 1974 series ‘A South African Colouring Book’ attacks the dehumanising language and symbolism of apartheid with fusions of text and African art, all sourced from Western archives.

These screenprints are a searing indictment of exoticism, division, apartheid, injustice, and most of all, of racism. The fact that they’re posters, that they’re so direct and loud with their messaging, is what makes them so successful.

A celestial approach to exploring Black spirituality

But Jantjes wasn’t limited to screenprinting, and the rest of the show is made up of paintings on canvas. In earlier works, he continues to explore outwardly political themes – violent suppression of student uprisings, colonial division – but now rendered in post-surrealist, dramatic, stark compositions. The ‘Korabra’ series see Jantjes mix paint with cotton, wool and sugar – the commodities of the slave trade – to create allegorical depictions of the ways Black culture has been commodified and exploited, a later series takes a more celestial approach to exploring Black spirituality.

So many of the ideas here are ongoing concerns in contemporary art, so much of what he did is still being explored and considered; the creation of a Black aesthetic, the erasure of African culture, the violence of colonialism, the use of art as an attempt to grasp an identity that has been ceaselessly attacked.

But with the exception of the very first works here, they’re just not great paintings for the most part. They lack clarity, they’re not brilliantly composed. The more recent paintings are much better visually, but they’re fully abstract, they’re calls for ‘shared meditation’. They’re pretty things, but totally decorative.

You miss the ire and invective, the passion, of the earlier work. But maybe anger can only fuel you for so long before you need to put down the weapon, and treat art as an escape, a soothing balm instead.


Whitechapel Gallery
77-82 Whitechapel High St
E1 7QX
Tube: Aldgate East

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