As the age of disaggregated, cloud-stored music flowered, the album cover almost died. For a while back there in the 2000-odds, it seemed as if the sad future of music was going to be tinny little MP3 tracks downloaded from the Web. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. For a range of reasons, including the rise of memorabilia as an earner in the music industry value-chain, and the DJ- hipster- and geek-led return of vinyl (sales up 32% in 2015), albums are a thing again.That’s good – and not only because an album curates and presents a musician’s vision far better than any single track can. Album art is important too. It tells us not only about the music (indeed, sometimes almost nothing about the music), but about the society it came from, sometimes revealing unexpected stories of people, art-forms and struggles.
In an article that ought to be more widely read, US writer Lara Pellegrinelli explored the lives and careers of the models who decorated jazz LP covers when she was growing up; a time when, as she says: “As I remember her, Erroll Garner was attractive and self-confident. Waves of reddish-brown hair swung skyward behind her left ear. Narrowed blue eyes peered from under thin, arched brows. Perhaps she wore too much lipstick, but the red oval circling neat white teeth almost matched the enhanced curve of her lashes. The record jacket squarely framed the slender face with a teasing hint of bare shoulders below. The album’s upbeat title? The Most Happy Piano.” Pelegrinelli uncovered a fascinating narrative of an era when “if Erroll Garner really had been a gorgeous redhead, the cover would have been as far as she’d got.” (http://jazztimes.com/articles/20072-the-women-jacketed-by-records )
That same tantalising sense of a history largely hidden permeates the Alliance Francaise September Jive Musical Graphics exhibition, on show for the whole of this month at the organisation’s Zoo Lake premises (http://www.alliance.org.za/events/johannesburg/september-jive ). 150 covers have been assembled, marking points in South African music history from 1957 to the present. Apart from provoking a serious case of platter envy in any collector – Dudu Pukwana’s debut with ‘The Spears’ in 1969, anybody? – you can shuffle these 12-inch cards in a range of ways, to unfold multiple contrasting narratives. That point had already been made by collector Siemon Allen’s magical 2013 Recording History installation at the Iziko Slave Lodge (http://flatint.blogspot.co.za/2013/01/siemon-allens-labels-curtain-at-slave.html ), a work that sadly never found gallery space in Johannesburg.
The Alliance Francaise collection is based on a different premise: it reflects both interesting artwork and the picks of people in and around the music industry, whose portraits form a parallel display. There are at least three ‘white’ histories on display: religious, military and oppositional. The oppositional work ranges from the bitter, overtly political riffing on themes such as Forces Favourites by Johannes Kerkorrel and his peers, to a rather comical apeing of the Swinging Sixties by aspiring white bohemians. Hennie Bekker’s 1971 Turn On, for example, shows a torrent of psychedelic images pouring from a crudely superimposed galvanised tap. The military history is the most distasteful: deeply racist, sexist and cisgendered; simultaneously titillating and coy about both female bodies and guns. Historian Michael Drewett has for a long time been documenting the censored and manipulated album imagery that wrapped music intended to comfort and distract ‘our boys on the border’.
On Wednesday this week (September 7) at 6:30, Drewett will be discussing that visual landscape, with even more examples of issues such as the epidemic disappearance of white female nipples during the 1960s and 1970s.
But the history that most intrigued me was the history of the growth of a common visual language around jazz in the 70s. The language was created by Black artists: some famous, some barely known outside collectors’ circles. Just as our choral history has erased the tradition of workers’ choirs from its syllabus, so our art history seems to have no place for these painters, preferring to discuss the jazziness of Matisse over the jazziness of Dumile Feni or Lefifi Tladi. Work by two less well known participants in this artistic milieu is on display among these covers: Hargreaves Ntukwana and Zulu Bidi. Both were musicians: Ntukwana had played in the pit band of the musical King Kong; Bidi the bassist with Batsumi and sideman for countless other bands.
Ntukwana was a graduate of the Polly Street Art Centre run by Cecil Skotness. Establishments such as Polly Street built on an urban Black visual arts tradition that can be traced back at least to John Koenakeefe Mohl’s ‘White Studio’ in Sophiatown in the 1940s. (http://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/polly-street-era) Both those establishments permitted walk-in students, and we can learn from the memoirs of township artists and musicians about the rich cross-fertilisation among practitioners of different genres even after apartheid removed and separated artistic communities (http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/thamsanqa-thami-mnyele ). Those who studied shared skills with those who were not formal students; as in every roots creative community, the pedagogical method prevailed.
Some members of those circles travelled, studied and exhibited abroad, and gained fame: Feni, Tladi, Ernst Mancoba and more. Ntukwana eventually made it to Toledo. Others stayed home, putting art or music on the back-burner to earn for their families. The occasional album cover commission must have provided a welcome opportunity to reawaken that side of their creativity. Those covers should be looked on as a legitimate part of the opus of artists for whom creative opportunities under apartheid were limited, stereotyped and censored.
But still, the historical record of this art is incomplete. We can only speculate about motives and inspirations. We have no complete catalogues of works, and only the most skeletal of biographies. And that matters for several reasons, not only for the sake of historical completeness.
Without such information, this work and the artists who made it cannot go into the curriculum. But also without it, the history itself cannot be complete – neither the history of jazz nor the history of art. There was a distinctive visual language about South African music being shaped by these artists and their peers: a particular way of engaging with the music in images, analogous to the way that the jazz appreciation societies developed a kinetic language for engaging with the music through steps. We cannot accurately trace the development of that language with such lacunae in the record. All these artists, major and minor, provide steps on the road that has brought us to today’s way of talking about jazz music in images; expressed in the album cover art of, for example, Mzwandile Buthelezi. Mzwandile is his own man, but he did not emerge, fully formed, from nowhere. Isn’t there an art postgraduate somewhere out there looking for a dissertation topic who has the passion and determination to fill the gaps, and make Ntukwana, Bidi – and the unknown others – more than just signatures on the corners of an album cover?