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Ceramic tiles white paint
Dimensions variable
Collection: Private Collection


  • OSTRAKON consists of 534 names painted onto ceramic tiles. They record South Africa's governors, presidents, prime ministers and cabinet ministers between 1900--1994. An ostrakon is a potsherd (a piece of broken pottery), an item used by voters in ancient Greece. The names of people in office they wished to banish (for various reasons) were written on the fragment of shell or pottery, in a vote to determine whether any person should be ostracised or temporarily banished. In some cases the bad administrator was stoned into exile with the very potsherds used in the voting process.


    Like LIBRARY CARDS (1980), this work acts as a filing cabinet for names, in this case those of undesirable people. These persons come from previous political eras in South Africa, and belong to those who governed South Africa for almost the whole of the twentieth century. They were elected to their various positions and portfolios by the votes of the white minority who controlled South Africa during these years, who chose only white people to lead them. In a sense we've always had a democracy for whites.


    It is interesting to remember that Jan Smuts referred to politics as 'something that was not for the races', meaning that black people had no part to play in South Africa's politics. After the South African war ended in 1902, an interim government was established that consisted of whites only. The British turned their backs on the blacks, especially after 1910. Black Africans were excluded from parliament when the Union was formed. Three years later the Land Act was passed, limiting black land ownership to only 8% of the country's overall extent. Head taxes were also imposed, leaving many black men with no choice but to move to the city in order to find work on the mines and in industry.


    When the Boers came to power in 1948 they made matters worse by building an incredibly strong military and police force, which marginalised black people even further. The Nationalist government went as far as even trying to remove black people from the country, by starting a system of 'homelands'.


    OSTRAKON is a sister work to PSEPHOS, which I made in 1993--1994. Both look at the origins of democracy in ancient Greece. Demos means 'people', and kratos in Greek means 'power'. The process of throwing someone out of your group, and making him or her an outcast, is known today as 'ostracisation' or 'ostracism'. I first made the work with plastic tile pieces, on which we printed the various names. However, I felt this first version seemed artificial, so I remade the work using real ceramic pieces treated with soil, to give them an archaic quality which would evoke a sense of history. The names, which were painted on the ceramic by hand, are those of South Africans of the last century who have been found wanting because they mismanaged the country. They were put in positions of power without the consent of the populace, because it was only whites who voted. Therefore these names represent the people who I feel should be ostracised.


    (transcript from an interview conducted with the artist by W Siebrits, June 2007)

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