HISTORY: Standard Bank Gallery curator Barbara Freemantle has mostly kept politics out of the commemorative exhibition. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
HISTORY: Standard Bank Gallery curator Barbara Freemantle has mostly kept politics out of the commemorative exhibition. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

IF I had a dollar for every time I’ve written the words "Standard Bank" and "art" in the same sentence, at current exchange rates, I could probably cover my minimum monthly credit card payment. The Standard Bank Group has received a lot of positive publicity from its substantial arts sponsorship portfolio: the National Arts Festival, the Young Artist Awards, jazz festivals and of course its gallery and visual art collections. The arts sector tends to look appreciatively on this patronage.

It is fair to say, however, that Joe Public is sceptical about banks nowadays. So how can Standard Bank commemorate its 150th year without alienating clients? And how can it leverage its involvement in the arts to achieve this? This was the challenge faced by Standard Bank Gallery curator Barbara Freemantle in assembling The Art of Banking: Celebrating through Collections, an exhibition to show selected works, to tell the Standard Bank story and articulate something about South African history. "We wanted to avoid ‘bragging’ about the 150-year mark," says Freemantle. The Art of Banking "reminds people the bank is a stable, longstanding entity — safe to invest in — but that it is not staid."

The two-part exhibition thus acknowledges tradition but also aims to emphasise innovation and contemporary resonance. In the gallery’s downstairs rooms, Letitia Myburgh of the bank’s Heritage Centre has created a chronological narrative starting in 1862 (the year in which the "Standard Bank of British SA" was incorporated in London — one is reminded that Standard Bank became fully South African-owned only in 1987). Artefacts, advertisements and documents have been gathered from the bank’s archives to complement the timeline; the machines and materials give a clear sense of period, decade by decade. Yet sociopolitical "history" is largely absent from this account.

As Myburgh notes, her task was to tell the story of the bank in a limited space (Richard Steyn and Francis Antonie, by contrast, fill 270 pages in their anniversary volume, Hoisting the Standard). In the heritage display, "historical events are only noted where these directly affected the operations of the bank — the impact of the Transvaal coming under British jurisdiction, or the shortage of male clerks during the First World War, or the lifting of sanctions that facilitated the bank’s expansion into Africa and Asia".

But the question must be asked: to what extent have banking and politics remained separate over the course of one-and-a-half centuries? The bank’s British origins hint at an inevitable complicity in the imperial-colonial project. Myburgh acknowledges the pioneering spirit of the bank was driven by "a good eye for business", but argues that this commercial imperative would subsequently run counter to the country’s race politics: "We banked both black and white."

The apparent disjunction between politics and commerce is most acutely demonstrated in a video projection pointing out some of the major technological developments in the banking industry. In 1948, we are told, manual calculators were introduced; this also happens to be the year in which apartheid became formal state policy. Likewise, no major innovations are listed between the introduction of AutoBanks and telephone banking in the 1980s and the advent of internet banking in 1997; there was, however, the small matter of the country’s transition to democracy from 1990-194.

In the same room there is a solid wood, old bank counter. Seeing this, it’s hard not to yearn for an era of actual personal banking, when branch managers knew clients’ names and there was no bulletproof glass between customers and clerks. But nostalgia is a contentious impulse in SA — who would want to go back to that? If, in this section, the representation of the bank’s history skirts some difficult questions about South African history, then it is telling that the upstairs artworks from the bank’s collection foregrounds aspects of the national narrative spanning 15 decades.

I suggest to Freemantle this indicates a valuable role for the arts: forcing sponsors or patrons (particularly companies) to consider broader sociopolitical issues, challenging them to act ethically. Freemantle resists this prescription; the collection is there, she believes, to "inspire creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, rather than moralising".

Such creativity is on display in the connections made between historical moments and works of art. The arrival of Indian indentured labourers in the 1860s is linked to one of Andrew Verster’s Sacred Works (1998), which were influenced by a South Asian cultural aesthetic. Less effective is the use of Frans David Oerder’s Village Scene, East Africa (c.1930) to represent "the scramble for Africa" in the 1880s.

On the whole, however, such anachronistic pairings are apposite and invigorating. Wim Botha’s miniatures, Premonitions of War (2005), are appropriated to evoke the first decade of what would become a horrendously violent 20th century; Alexis Preller’s Sandals (1949) are related metonymically to Gandhi; Willem Boshoff’s remarkable word-art installation, Kyk Afrikaans, is cheekily tied to the declaration of Afrikaans as an official language in the 1920s; David Goldblatt’s Boorgat is die Antwoord and Georgia Papageorge’s photographic collage, Inferno, echo the depression and drought of the 1930s. Other resonances across time are more obvious, particularly in the urban landscapes of Gerard Sekoto’s Sophiatown Evening and Sam Nhlengethwa’s Baragwanath Bridge — produced more than 50 years after Sophiatown was established (in the 1890s) and the hospital was founded (in the 1940s). There are works in which the artists clearly intended to address contemporary events and phenomena. These include Thami Mnyele’s Things Fall Apart (the 1976 Soweto uprising); Churchill Madikida’s Virus III (the HIV/AIDS pandemic); or Penny Siopis’s Always Something New Out of Africa (the 1989-90 watershed). Other works are given fresh significance, possibly far removed from artistic intention, because Freemantle has recruited them into new contexts: the "Arab Spring", consumerism and recession, xenophobic riots and the Square Kilometre Array.

This is by no means a potted history presented through works of art. Quite the opposite; while Freemantle has chosen to highlight certain prominent facets of South African history, she has also found marginal, tangential approaches.

She has avoided cliché (there is no 2010 Soccer World Cup art) and has found place for the quirky and eccentric: her account of the 1920s includes Samuel Daniel’s Hippopotamus to represent the seriocomic travails of Huberta the Hippo.

Perhaps, this inclusion seems to hint, we shouldn’t take historiography too seriously.

The Art of Banking: Celebrating through Collections runs until December 1, Standard Bank Gallery, Corner Simmonds and Frederick St, Johannesburg, www.standardbankarts.co.za, (011) 631-4467.