Vedant Nanackchand was born in 1955 in Durban. He was one of the early groups of students who studied Fine Art at University of Durban-Westville (UDW) and graduated in 1978 with an Honours Degree. In 1979 after being awarded a British Council Scholarship, he studied Art and Design at the Middlesex Polytechnic in London. Nanackchand went on to lecture at UDW for many years- one of the few lecturers of color in the Art Department. He taught Print Making and Theory of Art and from all accounts was an influential figure for his young students.
During the late 1970’s and 1980’s, the campus at UDW was for many young Indian students a site for mobilisation against apartheid. Security police regularly raided the campus and students involved in the struggle were banned, detained or beaten. Nanackchand recalls that the staff at UDW were instructed to discourage students from making what they termed ‘protest’ art. As part of their protest action, students refused to attend graduation ceremonies and the art students refused to exhibit their work under the university’s banner.
In 1977, artist Andrew Verster wrote, “it is the first time that students from…UDW have refused to participate in the traditional year- end campus exhibition arranged by staff – but have instead chosen to organise their own show…in order to assert their independence.”
In 1993, Nanackchand became Acting Head of Department (HOD) for two years. In 2000 the Art Department at UDW was closed down when the University of Natal and UDW merged to become the University of KwaZulu Natal. Nanackchand then joined the University of Johannesburg in his current position as HOD of the Visual Art Department.
Nanackchand has several works in national collections and institutions- many of which reflect his concern with Human Rights and social justice.
Vedant Nanackchand is primarily known for using the medium of print in his work but his large body of work also includes paintings. In 1987, the T. N. Bhoola Trust commissioned a series of large paintings for the Documentation Center at the UDW. These three large works illustrate the history of Indians as they arrived in South Africa, their experiences as indentured laborers and their growth within the business sphere. The Sugarcane Fields (the featured image above) and They Came from the East are two of those paintings.
In the above painting, Nanackchand depicts the arrival of the Indians in KwaZulu Natal after the long sea voyage from India. The background of the top right hand corner contains a map of India while in the foreground a white official appears to count the new arrivals indicating their subject positions.
Nanackchand’s iconic work The Purple shall Govern is owned by Iziko- South African National Gallery. This print contains images of Archbishop Tutu, Dennis Hurley and Frank Chikane – religious leaders who were also activists in the struggle against apartheid. At anti-apartheid mass rallies and protest marches the police used tear gas and water canons to disperse crowds. Water canons were sometimes laced with purple dye so that protesters could be marked, making it easy for police to later identify and detain them. This phrase ‘the purple shall govern’ – a play on the phrase ‘the people shall govern’ became popular during the struggle. The prominent cross and the leaders upward gaze to the heavens indicate a sense of optimism for the future.
Part of the Durban Art Gallery collection, Nanackchand’s Let Us Pray is a woodcut produced as part of a print portfolio to celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1999. Print-makers from 30 countries around the world each contributed a print illustrating one article of the declaration. In this print Nanackchand depicts Article 17 – ‘the right to own property’.
The image shows a row of shacks at the bottom while at the top is a row of suburban houses. The figures of two women and a man’s head are the central feature of the image. Connecting them is a band with three vicious looking dogs. The inclusion of a man and the women refer to the right of those of both gender to own property.
Both women have tribal markings on their faces which suggests that everyone regardless of their race, class or background deserves to own a place that they can call home. The dogs are the kind that most people keep to protect their property – so despite their vicious appearance they offer security. Flowing rope-like knots connect the disparate items together and add to the aesthetic appearance of the print.
“This print celebrates the inalienable rights of individuals, especially women, to enjoy the freedom to own property. The print also questions social distinctions based on class. It reflects ambiguously on the element of criminality in society as well as the extreme measure to which this right to protection of property is exercised” (Nanackchand).
These few examples of Nanackchand’s body of work produced over many decades is closely tied to our history. This encompasses the early days of establishing an Art Department within a segregated university, the protest and struggle for freedom and the need to protect and promote human rights.
Moodley, N. Unpublished Dissertation
Proud, H. Scratches on the Face
Mokotedi, O. http://www.artthrob.co.za