THE NATIONAL MUSEUM of African Art's politically charged exhibition of contemporary art from post-apartheid South Africa could really be called "Exhibit A" instead of the fuzzier "Claiming Art/Reclaiming Space" because what it feels most like is evidence.
Evidence of the petty indignities as well as the atrocious crimes committed in the name of racial separatism. Evidence of old wounds that do not heal. And evidence of a fading way of life it does not pay to forget.
In some cases, the art looks literally like scar tissue, as in Johannes Phokela's huge acrylic and string painting, "Cuts." Its flesh-pink surface is marred with angry red gashes that have been memorialized beneath the painted outlines of several gilded frames. To Phokela, who now lives in London, those frames serve as a distancing device from the horrors of his homeland, but they also call to mind the marks a coroner might draw around a picture of a corpse's wounds shown before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
William Kentridge does the same thing in his video, "Felix in Exile," made from a series of eloquent charcoal drawings that the artist continually erases and redraws in tiny increments to create a flickering, dreamlike vision. Charcoal black blood flows from wounds; gray bruises rise and disappear as a red pencil line futilely attempts to make a record of where they once were.
Kentridge's videos -- at once subtle and nightmarish -- are the standout of the group show, and four of them are on view here. For the past 10 years, as the entrenched apartheid government has gradually (and reluctantly) given way to more democratic representation, Kentridge has been chronicling his own highly personal reactions to the changes in a series of diaristic animations. Many of them concern two alter egos of sorts, the chalk stripe-suited industrialist Soho Eckstein and the naked Everyman Felix Teitlebaum.
In all of them, Kentridge's scorching sense of accusation is tempered with the tacit acknowledgment that he himself bears some guilt for his neighbor's oppression. (Interestingly, although none of the artists here are identified as either black or white, the show itself begs that very question and forces you to evaluate your own assumptions about art and race.)
Some of the scars in the show are self-inflicted, as in Jeremy Wafer's "African Forms," a series of eight mask-like sculptures whose blistered and patterned surface textures evoke the proud scarification of South Africa's tribal people. What doesn't kill me makes me stronger, they seem to say.
Some of the scars are the vestiges and detritus of a bygone world, reminders of the blurring distinction between black township and white city, as in Kay Hassan's "First Time Voters," Willie Bester's "The Notorious Green Car" and Rudzani Nemasetoni's "Apartheid Scrolls" and "Urban Testament" series.
Hassan's wall-sized collage (fashioned from scraps of paper pulled from a peeling billboard) celebrates the polling-day excitement of blacks, never allowed to vote before 1994. Bester's mixed-media assemblage creates a perverse monument to the armored and mesh-screened automobiles used by police to patrol black settlements. And, in Nemasetoni's etchings made from pages of his father's police-state ID and the found-object panels constructed from pieces of rotting Harlem buildings that reminded him of pre-apartheid Soweto, this artist composes a bittersweet eulogy to oppression and poverty.
Two of the most chilling art works are hung just inside the exhibit's entrance: "De Kock Ready to Sing" and "Poison Victim" from Sue Williamson's "Cold Turkey: Stories of Truth and Reconciliation" series. In a series of photos on acetate collected from newspaper articles, Williamson's pieces provide testimony about two notorious incidents, one concerning the sadistic former police commander Eugene de Kock (nicknamed "Prime Evil") and the other relating to late anti-apartheid activist Sipho Mtimkulu.
Headlines and grainy pictures of de Kock (who tested out his home-made bombs on pigs' heads) and Mtimkulu (who survived rat poisoning while in prison only to go missing after his release) are mounted, in the words of the artist, "as they might perhaps be displayed in a courtroom for the information of the jury."
The decision of the jury is in and the verdict is this: Yes, art hurts, but it also can heal.
CLAIMING ART/RECLAIMING SPACE: POST-APARTHEID ART FROM SOUTH AFRICA -- Through Sept. 26 at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202/357-2700. Open 10 to 5:30 daily. Web site: www.si.edu/nmafa.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a free film series titled "South African Cinema: Past, Present and Future" examines the evolution of South African cinema, with introductions by National Museum of African Art fellow Aboubakar Sidiki Sanogo. Screenings will take place at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's Ring Auditorium, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW, and at the S. Dillon Ripley Center Lecture Hall, 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW.
July 17 at 2 and 7 -- "African Violet" and "A Walk in the Night," Hirshhorn Museum at 2. "Come Back Africa," Ripley Center at 7.
July 24 at 7 -- "Voices from Robben Island," Ripley Center.
July 31 at 7 -- "Dolly and the Inkspots" and "African Jim," Ripley Center.
Aug. 7 at 7 -- "Paljas," Hirshhorn Museum.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Aug. 7 at 2 -- Southern African folk tales for families.
Aug. 12 at 6 and Aug. 14 at 2 -- Artist Rudzani Nemasetoni discusses his work.
CAPTION: "De Kock Ready to Sing," part of Sue Williamson's "Cold Turkey: Stories of Truth and Reconciliation" series.
CAPTION: Kay Hassan's "First Time Voters," a wall-sized collage, depicts the polling-day joy of blacks who were never allowed to vote before 1994.