An annual awakening

In the 1980s, the South African arts collective Vakalisa Art Associates reclaimed time as a tool of social control through their subversive calendars.

Vakalisa Art Associates, 1985 Calendar [cover]. Courtesy SAHO.

Two years after the 1982 Culture and Resistance Conference of Gaborone, Botswana , a group of around 20 “cultural workers,” carrying the emancipatory seeds that germinated during the landmark conference, took to producing posters on their own turf and on their own terms. Not only did they carry the iconic Medu torch handed to them by two of the event’s key-note speakers, Thami Mnyele and Dikobe wa Mogale Martins, but they also took to making art as a social activity, producing and smuggling subversive calendars—despite the banning orders on these materials. The collective, known as the Vakalisa Art Associates, used their calendars to turn what is otherwise a violent European unit of measure, used to compute industrial time vis-à-vis the indigenous lunar month, to serve in the struggle against racist domination, calling for daily and monthly defiance in the oppressive face of apartheid.

The 1982 Conference, which brought together a never-before-seen multi-racial group of attendees, sought to interrogate and define the role of the visual artist. For Cape Town-born artist Gavin Jantjes (who spoke at the event), the role of the artist was to function as a verb in the grammar of culture. Aligned with the farmer, poet, and freedom fighter, the artist’s practice needed to be rooted in the people and tied to national reality. To quote Jantjes: “We are working words and our artistic praxis becomes a tool for change.” In this spirit, the 1985 Vakalisa calendar, produced shortly after the event, states on its cover:

Vakalisa Art Associates accept the responsibility that artists and cultural activists have a duty to identify and respond to the needs of the community they find themselves in. Vakalisa strives toward a close co-operation with other cultural groups who share a common progressive ideology and further seeks to encourage other individuals to work collectively with others in their own community to establish similar cultural collectives.

Out of the conference, print became the quintessential medium of communication, with anti-apartheid posters and other visual materials (including calendars), being pressed at odd hours and clandestinely distributed through an informal solidarity network.

An ongoing and integral part of the print tradition in South Africa, annual calendars have been distributed by firms as end-of-year rewards to employees and patrons throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Such is the case of the state-run South African Railways (SAR, today Transnet), which produced and distributed postcards, pictorial calendars, and postcard calendars from the 1920s to stimulate travel and tourism throughout the country. As historian Jeanne van Eeden has noted, these portable, accessible, and affordable products of popular culture simultaneously distilled and disseminated protestant, white, middle-class ideals of territory, nature, and progress by way of images of bustling cities with their attendant industries, bridges, dams, coasts, and luxury carriages, as is the case of the SAR. A portable medium, calendars were widely deployed as agents of modernity (and territorial appropriation). Pinned to walls of offices and middle-class homes, adorning kitchens and entrance halls, calendars signal annual feasts and breaks, work weeks and months, whilst simultaneously promoting products, brands, and vistas.

1984 desk calendar. Nelson Mandela began ordering these in 1976 to keep personal notes and records. Courtesy Nelson Mandela Foundation.

These time-keepers were equally important to political prisoners, like the one above, kept by Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela during his years of incarceration. According to Justin Lawler, calendars were held close by those who had been kept in solitary confinement where the manipulation of light was used to encumber prisoners from telling the passage of time. As Breyten Breytenbach notes in The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1984), “The sun and its absence become the pivot of your daily existence. You wait. You build your day around the half an hour when you’ll be allowed in the courtyard to say good morning to the sun.”

It seems no coincidence that the word Afrika written with an empowering “k” in the late Peter Clarke’s inimitable and distinctive calligraphy, finds itself hypnotically repeated on the cover of the 1985 calendar. Void of spaces between the word, “AFRIKA” occupies the upper half of the sheet. Presented as a dense graphic block, the unit of meaning is broken, making the viewer aware of the absence of space between words, which, united and weaved together form a visual tapestry. There is a mesmerizing call to inseparability—countering the prisoner’s isolation; an indivisibility and rhythmic togetherness in this opening block of concrete poetry that sets the tone of the calendar.

Vakalisa Art Associates, 1985 Calendar. Courtesy SAHO.

This theme of unity finds itself iterated on the images chosen as illustrations for the months of April (Rashid Lombard, b. 1951), July (Jimi Matthews, b. 1955) and December (Peter Clarke, 1929-2014). Matthews, for instance, gives us the picture of seven chanting women, gloriously illuminated by the pious shaft of South Africa’s sharp winter sun. The moment includes a shadow that unites the women below their swaying waists, directing the viewer’s gaze from the left to the right, ending in an exclamatory uplifted first. Matthew’s image is accompanied by Mavis Smallberg’s subversion of “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” which detourns elements of the original English nursery rhyme to read “Sing a son of sixpence/ A pocket full of stones/ A pocketful of violence/ To show/ We care.” The motif of shadows is again present in Clarke’s image of a backlit family of farmers, with the mother figure, her hair in a doek, in the center, and plowed fields in the distant horizon.

Shortly after its launch in the home of Vakalisa member Meryn Davids in Lansdowne, Cape Town, a banning order was placed on the 1985 calendar. From then on, it was considered an “offense to possess” copies of this message holder. Between then and 1992, only four calendars were produced.

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