Siemon Allen at JCAF 2023

Siemon Allen’s Stamps V 2010

All four of the Otherscapes installations at JCAF , showing in 2023, are intriguing and through-provoking.  But for me the initial visual impact of Seimon Allen’s Stamps V 2010 was the most powerful. From afar this installation reads as some huge, abstract, gridded colour-field painting. As one goes closer the miniature images, comprising over 23,000 South African postal stamps, reveal themselves. Intriguing on so many levels: the sheer obsessiveness of collecting writ large, the compulsive repetitiveness of the stamp sheets, the technical meticulousness of display, the iconography of the stamps and what they reveal about how South Africa wanted to present itself over the century from 1910 to 2010, and also what it wanted to ignore and leave out. 

Siemon Allen Stamps V 100 Years of South African Stamps 1910-2010

How much can be conveyed by a stamp?

The stamp is a fascinating little artefact where several values, technologies and iconographies intersect. A stamp has a printed functional value which may also record a change in political government indicated in the switch from pennies to rands, from colonial rule to republican independence and then to post 1994 democracy.  It has a collectable market value totally divorced from its printed value. Each stamp has its origin in an original work of art, a singular production. But when transformed through printing processes into multiple images, the subject matter, medium, status and value become unhinged from its original production as an artwork. Adhered to letters and parcels and sent around the globe, it becomes a powerful marker and record of how a country wants to represent itself. And in turn what that country wants to erase in its self-imaging.

The stamp series

Siemon Allen is a South African-born artist who now lives in the USA.  He collected stamps as a child and years later he bought an old store display-case being sold off by a bookstore in Durban. Out of this he created Stamps 1993 which was shown at Vita 93 and was purchased by the Gencor Collection, later to become the BHP Billiton Collection.  Stamps V is one in a series of Stamp installations which grew out of the 1993 version. 

Stamps V

King George V 1910 Union Stamp
From the Joburg 2010 International Stamp show marking 100 years from the first stamp in this installation.

The stamps are arranged chronologically with, in the case of common editions, whole sheets of identical stamps, (distinguished from each other by printing proficiency, postmark, or wear). Rarer editions are represented by a single specimen. The narrative starts in 1910 at the top left corner of Allen’s installation with the image of King George V, surrounded by the seals from the four former colonies that had been united to create the new Union in 1910. And ends at the bottom right (you must get onto all fours to see this last stamp) with the same image of King George marking the Joburg 2010 International Stamp Show. 

Orange Tree 6d stamp in the use 1926 to 1951; one of the famous bilingual pairs
Dromedaris 1d stamp in the same series

The recognition of Afrikaans as an official language is marked by the famous “bilingual pairs” format where the stamps in each sheet issued in 1926 (½d Springbok, 1d “Dromedaris”, 6d Orange Tree), were inscribed alternatively in English and Afrikaans. 

The stamps continue to record the colonial presence with successive portraits of British sovereigns.

Stamp issue to mark the Royal visit to South Africa in 1947

The “Facebook of South African history” – how South Africa wants to present itself within its borders and further afield.  

During the Union Period 

In talking about Allen’s Stamps V installation, our guide referred to it as the “Facebook of South African History”.  The analogy being that stamps present an official construction of an idealized national identity that is often in complete contradiction to the social, political and cultural realities.  And so Allen’s installation is a visual record of this public relations exercise in the 100 years from Union to 2010. In all PR campaigns the exclusions say as much as what is included. Of the 174 stamps issued during the Union period, only 3 make any reference to indigenous peoples: a 1927 representation of Zulu huts; a 1952 stamp of locals meeting Jan Van Riebeeck constructed as a highly unlikely “positive welcome”; and a 1938 depiction of the 1838 Dingaan/Retief treaty, in an overtly propagandistic series promoting the Great Trek as a signifier of Afrikaner Nationalism. The sub-texts of these iconographies are not difficult to read.  

1961 – 1994

Here is the full first issue of stamps for the Republic in 1961 (ie not from Allen’s installation. In Allen’s work they are often included in sheets). Although less overtly and heavily propagandistic, the 1961 stamp issue for the declaration of the Republic is no less ideologically charged.  They promote themes of wildlife and natural beauty, of white South Africans’ historical connections to the country in the Cape Dutch gable and the Cape Town castle, of agriculture, of industrial progress and modernity, of international travel, trade and connectivity. This is the new Republic’s “public relations gesture”.

The first stamps of the newly declared Republic of South Africa in 1961
A year after the 1976 Soweto uprising, the image on the stamps that was sent around the world was that of a series of proteas. Apolitical in content but as politically charged by what was ignored.

And with ruthless implementation of the policy of separate development, so-called independent African states were formed: Transkei in 1976, Bophutatswana in 1977, Venda in 1979, and Ciskei in 1981.A large number of stamps was released by these “African states” to promote the notion of independence, with each “state” promoting a sense of national identity despite the totally artificial construction of these states. These “states” were not internationally recognized countries and were puppet satellites of the Apartheid state to be absorbed back into South Africa in 1994. 

1985 stamps from Boputhatswana, Venda and Transkei.  1985 was also the year the first partial State of Emergency was declared by P.W. Botha

Post 1994

South Africa’s self-imaging was obviously completely different post 1994.  Stamps depicted images celebrating unity and peace, the new national symbols of the flag and the anthem, the world icon Nelson Mandela, black South African achievements from Nobel Laureates to composers and musicians.  Many recent releases carry commercial advertisements which speak of the rise in popular consumer culture influenced by the introduction of satellite TV and cell phones – one of the boldest is the MTN Gladiators series. 

Archival recording or critical engagement? 

This work has got me thinking about the complexity of stamp production and printing and has given me a sweeping overview in one room of JCAF of some of South Africa’s historical events – with both its distortions and lacunae. And I am in awe of the scale of the installation and the technical intricacy of the display. But despite all this, a small nagging voice questions to what extent this artwork subverts and critiques the notion of an official view of history and of nationhood, and to what extent it simply records it?  While the images of colonial sovereigns and the overtly propagandistic images of Voortrekker mythmaking and Afrikaner Nationalist leaders are easily accessible, Allen’s ordered chronological arrangement, his archival approach and seemingly objective presentation, requires from the viewer a critical eye and knowledge of South African history to fill in the gaps and erasures.  But maybe that is the role of any active viewer? 


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