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Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso was an iconic artist from whom Donald Rodney had drawn inspiration. At one point Rodney had sampled one of Picasso’s most famous and celebrated works, Guernica, in the making of Rodney’s own Soweto/Guernica, (Soweto/Guernica, 1988, oil pastel on x-ray and paper. Exhibited in Crisis, Chisenhale Gallery, January 18 – February 18 1989) which used Picasso’s monumental, masterful and violent commentary on a bloody episode from the Spanish Civil War to illustrate a more recent episode of equal barbarity, viciousness and lack of respect for human life: the South African state’s vicious attempts to suppress Black South Africans’ demonstrations against apartheid, sparked by school children protesting against being taught in Afrikaans, a language they perceived to be that of their oppressors.

Soweto/Guernica was a hugely successful work that was, in essence, a composite of the iconic work by Picasso and the equally iconic photograph by South African photographer, Sam Nzima, of the slain body of schoolboy Hector Pieterson, the first casualty of the Soweto uprising, the series of clashes in Soweto, South Africa, killed on June 16, 1976 between Black youths and the South African authorities. The now celebrated photograph quickly came to symbolize, in this solitary frame, the barbarity of the apartheid system and its apparent predilection for destroying Black lives, including those of school children. The Soweto uprising represented, at the time, the latest bloody and violent episode in the anti-apartheid struggle. Over a period of some several months, well over 500 persons lost their lives, including many schoolchildren, though it was the killing of Hector Pieterson, on the first day of the uprising, that eclipsed all others, in the imagination of the sympathetic public beyond that fractured and tormented country. Nzima’s photograph showed fatally wounded Pieterson, who was no more than 12 years old, being carried by an older young man, with Pieterson’s distressed sister running alongside. The image was in many ways somewhat surreal, indicating as it did the ways in which the full force of one of Africa’s most sophisticated militaries was unleashed, with extreme prejudice, on protesting school children. No other single image provoked outrage and garnered sympathy, as much as Nzima’s iconic picture.

Guernica was one of Pablo Picasso’s most famous and celebrated works. It was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, in the Spanish Basque Country, by German and Italian warplanes at the instigation of the Spanish Nationalist forces, in late April 1937, during the course of the Spanish Civil War. Created by the artist to draw attention to this act of savagery against innocent and defenseless people, the painting was first exhibited later that year. Thereafter it came to represent not only the depravity of the Spanish Nationalist forces, but also the wider tragedies of war and the suffering it increasingly came to inflict upon non-combatants, caught up in conflicts not of their making or choosing. Guernica rapidly achieved, and maintained, iconic status and is widely regarded as a commentary against military violence. In the same ways that Sam Nzima’s photograph helped draw the world’s attention to the barbarity of apartheid, Picasso’s Guernica helped bring the Spanish Civil War to the world’s attention. Two atrocities, two outrages against humanity, two murderous acts of depravity. Two stunning pictures. Rodney’s work represented an arresting and innovative fusion of these two powerful pictures, from different spaces and times, brought together in a compelling late 20th century work.

An installation view of Picasso’s Guernica, on a Havana hoarding, in 2003, was reproduced as part of the text, C.L.R. James as a Critical Theorist of Modernist Art, by David Craven. The test was part of Cosmopolitan Modernisms, inIVA and MIT Press, 2005. The volume was part of Kobena Mercer’s Annotating Art’s Histories series.

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