Gavin Jantjes Retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery: A Legacy of Liberation

Gavin Jantjes | To Be Free! A Retrospective | Whitechapel Gallery
Gavin Jantjes: To Be Free! A Retrospective 1970–2023 (installation view). Source: Whitechapel Gallery

The Whitechapel Gallery’s retrospective of Gavin Jantjes showcases five decades of the South African activist and artist’s career, encouraging younger audiences to think critically about the intricate relationship among art, identity, and freedom.

To Be Free! A Retrospective 1970-2023 honors Jantjes’ artistic accomplishments and reaffirms his position as a vital change agent. His unwavering pursuit of creativity and social justice is evident in his works. With more than 100 prints, sketches, and paintings, in addition to historical materials, the show provides a thorough understanding of his career.

Jantjes’s subtle work encapsulates the duality of his creative process. Strong political and social criticism can be seen in his work, especially in his depictions of apartheid in South Africa. His creations are more than just beautiful images; they are richly layered with cultural and historical references that compel viewers to consider questions of identity and freedom.

While tracing his development from his early non-figurative paintings to his figurative depictions of the global Black struggle for liberation, the exhibition’s segments, which each focus on a distinct period of his life and career, enable viewers to follow the evolution of his creative vision and his unwavering pursuit of independence from Eurocentric artistic traditions.

For example, Jantjes’ 1976 ICA exhibition of his “A South African Colouring Book” series was one of the turning points in his career. To convey a strong political message, the series uses the format of a children’s coloring book to critically scrutinize the absurdities of apartheid.

The exhibition also covers Jantjes’s participation in the 1986 Whitechapel Gallery show From Two Worlds, which he co-curated in addition to being an exhibiting artist. The show was a major turning point in the UK art scene, contributing to the conversation about diversity and how African art is portrayed in Europe.

The retrospective draws attention to Jantjes’s impact on London’s cultural scene as well as how African art and its diasporas are portrayed. The exhibition’s scheduling coincides with the 30th anniversary of South Africa’s first free general election, which marks Jantjes’s return to South Africa in 1994 after almost twenty years of exile, and his ongoing work on the subjects of identity and freedom.

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