A Fine Line: An Artful Interpretation of South Africa’s Transition to Democracy

BY Millard Arnold, August 28 2019

Dean Simon’s


A Fine Line:


An artful interpretation of South Africa’s transition to democracy



Millard Arnold



History began with words.

To be sure, of course, there were deeds and many of them, but it was words that gave us history. Words whispered in ears or shouted in exaltation, spoken reverently or angrily muttered.  Words became sonnets and songs; fables and folklore. Often, a mythology of things which never happened became a reality, whilst painfully important events were conveniently forgotten. Words, even if written are, in truth, nothing more than hearsay, and with history, the words no longer belong to those who spoken them first.

So we know history through words, and inevitably what the words have given us is a history of a selected kind. A history reflective of the views of those who were the keepers of the words; the custodians of the thoughts the words represented. Weighty, ponderous, self-righteous words, so full of their intent that truth habitually was but a passing notion, sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

Although history began with words, history is also about what once was — installments from the past; a recollection of memories; nostalgic reminiscences.  History is a process, a timeline to infinity, chronicling the never ending story of humanity.   Or maybe history is a journey within a journey; possibilities not taken or alternatives that were ignored. Whatever the choice, and for whatever reason, the decision is frozen in time, a lesson for the future. History is a way of learning, proclaimed the American historian, William Appleman Williams, pointing out that “only by grasping what we were, is it possible to see how we changed, to understand the process and the nature of the modifications, and to gain some perspective on what we are.  Indeed, that is what history is all about: reconciling the past with dreams of the future.  It is a metaphysical challenge, and it is precisely the raison d’etre behind Dean’s Simon’s compelling and illuminating work, A Fine Line.

History may have begun with the word, but today, the word has been displaced.  Today, history is the image. It is a visual world in which we live, played out on a global stage visible to all.  Images – rather still or not – are ubiquitous.  Our history is now documented on film, in documentaries, through photographs, and in cinemas for any and all to see, to interpret and to opine.   Now, history is recorded in images. What we know of the past comes as much via the illuminated media as ever it did by the printed word. We are guided by these images, but we independently form our own views and opinions even as we are subconsciously being shaped by those images. “”Image is everything”, proclaimed one of the most successful advertising campaigns of the Nineties, and with respect to how we see the world today, images are everything, and often the only thing.

Images are persuasive because they seemingly appear to be incontestable reflections of reality which demand no degree of literacy or political sophistication to understand. Images appeal to the emotion first and only subsequently to the intellect. And the pervasive nature of powerful images resonate in such a way that they implant an almost subliminal message not just in the mind of individuals alone, but in the political and social consciousness of a nation as well. In so doing, they shape our notion of history, and often our response to that history.

In today’s world, history is this milieu of things and events which swirls relentlessly around us, being ruthlessly minuted by countless and often conflicting images. It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but the value of pictures and images turns on how persuasive they truly are. Persuasiveness is amorphous; a balancing act among untampered reason and seductive influences. In the mind’s eye, the difference between proselytizing and conviction is often ideological, and because it is, there is a fiercely combative struggle being waged by a full spectrum of ideologues all purporting to be the honest, and the only true purveyours of the truth.

There is little to argue that history has always been a murky place filled with ambiguity and complexity, but today, through a multiplicity of visual bombardments, we draw conclusions and form opinions, shaped by the seemingly compelling nature of images that often dictate a highly charged, visceral response when a more thoughtful, measured and less emotional response is required.

Dean Simon’s A Fine Line, offers us a glimpse, an understanding, perhaps even an indulgence of those contradictions.




History then is who we are and how we came to be, and no one forces us to think of our past and wonder about our future in quite the way, and with such intensity as does Dean Simon. His exquisite series of 15 drawings which comprise the exhibition, A Fine Line, is an epochal appreciation of the implications of history.

Interwoven with the fullness of events and the moments which shape them, Dean’s art works are replete with cameo appearances by all and sundry, from presidents to songwriters, from artists, feminists, and politicians, to activists, lawyers, and humanists – a rich smorgasbord of themes and personalities that forged our history.  Because however artfully written, the past is about people and is profoundly more complicated than words can ever express. The complexity of the past helps explain the compelling appeal of Dean’s provocative and illuminating images.

There are multifarious political and psychological relationships explored in his work which provides the viewer with a privileged access to selected moments from the past which in turn, helped define our historical knowledge and our appreciation of the present.  Novelist Jeanette Winterson points out that “the difference between the past and the future is that one has happened, while the other has not.”  A simple truth, but a moving tribute when there is only one present and nothing of the past to remember.  Dean’s work reminds us why history is important.   Collectively, the 15 art works provide a comprehensible chronology of disparate events that awakens in the viewer a history lesson of riveting theatre.  As the American scholar Alan Trachtenberg would suggest, Dean’s art works make possible a “path from the present to the past, to bring the past into our present lives with a vividness, immediacy and gripping concreteness”.

Insightful and penetrating, there is a precision to Dean’s work — a near mathematical certainty that is almost uncannily photographic in nature providing a gravitas to the message each of his images portray. The lines, figures, shapes, lightning and overlays of Dean’s work provides a stage for the drama which unfolded over time and the subtle revelations now found in the drawings themselves.  Each art work is a confluence of meanings, symbols and ideas consciously designed to illicit a considered appreciation of the complexities and implications of the transition which would follow.

What Dean seeks to do is what drove the renown photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and that is, “to find the structure of the world — to revel in the pure pleasure of form” and to reveal that “in all of this chaos, there is order.”  Or to put it another way and paraphrase, the brilliant novelist, essayist and social commentator, Susan Sontang, Dean seeks to democratise our history by translating it into images that reveal secreted truths, consciously ignored.

A Fine Line is a perplexing collection of extraordinary artistic work complicated by what is included and what is not. Perhaps the most notable omission is the contribution of Jewish and Indian South Africans.  There are sightings in the persons of Albie Sachs and Ruth First; Ghandi and Mac Maharaj, but one could be forgiven — based on the exhibition — for believing that Jews and Indians were largely irrelevant in the history that created today’s South Africa. It is a curious observation, but perhaps it could be argued equally as forcefully that Dean’s images reflects something far deeper, more altruistic and ultimately more politically persuasive, and that would be a shared view of Steve Biko’s notion that a future South Africa would be, and should be, “a non-racial, just and egalitarian society in which colour, creed and race shall form no point of reference.” This latter view is one wholly consistent with the passion and integrity at the heart of Dean’s work.

But with that said, and whether intended or not, it is inevitable that works of this magnitude and power requires some wonderment as to the mind and intentions of the artist himself.  To reconstruct how Dean arrived at the sequence of happenings he chose to illustrate, how he staged in his works, the petit dramas that populate much of his images, is to venture into the realm of political sophistry; nuanced and contemplative, a reflective personal and poignant, moment of deep and probing thought.  It is perhaps fair to surmise that A Fine Line is precisely that: a delicate weighing of sensitivity and concern about seemingly incongruous individuals and events captured in a panoply of innocent endeavours.  Slivers of isolated moments, separate and distinct yet part of an evolving tapestry that eventuality coalesced into a unified movement for change which gave us the South Africa we know today.

It is forever difficult to separate an artist from his work –he is his work and his work is him. What compels an artist to create and what message, if any, do they wish to convey? Stepping back and seeking to observe A Fine Line from the perspective of an objective and impartial (if that is every possible) arbiter of Dean’s work, it is difficult not to appreciate his discerning mastery of the history before him, and his appreciation of the sacrifices made by the many before him.  There is a sadness as well, because his work is driven by the rueful recognition of the low level of understanding among many South African as to what was accomplished and achieved.

As an artist, Dean takes seriously liberties with his portrayal of our past. He has not sought to take a moral stance, or defend or support any perceived political position.  The issue of political consciousness is left to the viewer.  Discretely, yet shamelessly he undresses the past, exposing foibles with imagination and imagery far better than words, could ever say.  It is a direct, yet intuitive process that leads to a perplexing awareness of just how fragile we have come to be.  It may well be argued that A Fine Line is an ode to cynical sentimentalism, marrying the righteous of justice, freedom and liberation with the inevitable humanism and consciousness which comes with honest and fair scrutiny.

It may well be that, but in truth, A Fine Line celebrates the transition of South Africa from a totalitarian state to a truly representative, if uncomfortable democracy. Through superbly evocative graphic drawings A Fine Line seeks to signpost important milestones in what has become a passage to today’s imperfect political construct. Dean’s works provides no judgment about the correctness of democracy for a country and society as fractious as South Africa, but there is an implicit, foreboding message that unless monitored carefully, democracy, as Plato has observed, would be chronically unruly, corrupt and unstable. The tensions between tradition and modernity is the South African story, and because of those tensions, there lurks in the fabric of our society the ever dangerous possibility of groups fragmenting to pursue narrow interests to the detriment of the public at large, and indeed — perhaps more portentously — a willingness to disregard the promise of democracy to the detriment of us all.

The images of A Fine Line are replete with nuances, meanings and symbolisms which pay homage to history whilst unveiling deep, complex socio-historical suggestions and analysis that are necessary to understand our history. Details so vivid, and with thought provoking implications, Dean’s images force you to think, to question, to consider, to surmise.  Perhaps as revealing, Dean’s work allows for flights of fantasy, investigative interrogation and reflections on ideology – his is the magic of a visual philosopher and alchemist who conjures up our painful past and reflects it in our troubled future.

To know him is to know that surrealism and intimacy is not Dean.  What is surreal, Sontag asserts, “is the distance imposed and bridged” by Dean’s images: “the social distance and the distance in time.”  But if surrealism is also taken to mean an irrefutable pathos from the past and an intimation of a painful socio-political history, then the raw reflections of hopes, dreams and aspirations found in his works, demonstrates a subtle richness and a courageous intimacy which he is sometimes at pain to conceal. At the core of his work is his suspension of time so as to allow the viewer an opportunity to observe and reflect and to arrive at an understanding of what was meant to be ignored. However compelling his images, the onus is on the viewer to apply his or her own set of beliefs and understandings so as to connect with their consciousness, their sense of morality, their internal logic, their sense of ethics and taste. Through his art works, Dean engages the viewer in a process of political self-exploration.

Witness the sheer strength, beauty, compassion and intellectual forcefulness found in the face of Ruth Mompati, which Dean captures so well in his piece, “In Her Mind’s Eye.” She gazes out with a calmness and nobility; a quiet, thoughtful reflection on what she had achieved; what she had made possible.  No other image in the exhibition is as broodingly sensitive yet sonorous in its appeal. There is an ageless universality to the story of Ruth Mompati which allows Dean to pay deference to the global struggle of woman using South Africa as a context.

Equally compelling is his treatment of Albert Luthuli, the first African recipient of the Nobel Prize for peace.  This image, entitled “Disillusion” is multi-layered and multi-tiered spanning the past but equally, serves as a harbinger of the future.  Words do not accompany Dean’s work; the images are there to interpret, yet it is difficult to be indifferent to the deeply symbolic and near religious overlay of disillusion and trouble.  Reflected are the turmoil of the times and the conflicted nature of advocating peace but realizing that struggle is about the necessity of casualties.  And although the image is about the realities of the past, one cannot but help wonder if the despair etched across the face of Luthuli, is not as a consequence of what he foresaw about today.

Philosophically, it is easy to suspect that Dean is uneasy with aggression and conflict and the inconsistency and perhaps hypocrisy of waging a “liberation struggle.” For Africans, it was not a struggle about democracy per se, rather it was based on the notion of African nationalism, but a nationalism that was about expression, about exuberance, about freedom and choice and owed little if any to the notion of democracy.  That notwithstanding, Dean’s art works nonetheless weaves in and out of what has shaped us throughout our transition, and that is a yearning for democracy and a need for recompense.  Through paper and pen, he seeks to education and awakens a consciousness by revealing all of the “secreted truths” that were “consciously ignored.”

“Everyone remembers things which never happened.” Winterson wrote, “And it is common knowledge that people often forget things which did.  Either we are fantasists and liars or the past has nothing definite in it.”  A Fine Line reminds us that we are forever shaped by our past; forged by truths, real and unreal.

History is as much about the future as it is about the past. But so to is art.  For whatever it may say about history, A Fine Line is also about art.  It reminds us that art is a window to  the lessons of life: to fulfill dreams; to find expression; to discover who and what we are.  What Dean has done is to use art as a medium to present in an instructive way, the social, political, and economic transformations that shaped our lives.  In a gentle, proffering way, he has illuminated social and cultural shifts in a fashion that balances our internal process of growing.

There as always been, and always will be a mystery to art, because art is about the beholding, bewitching notion of discovering the unknown. It is about releasing, explaining and unraveling an alternative comprehension of the ordinary.

As an artist, Dean sees thinks differently.  He has seen the common in uncommon ways, because for an artist, creativity is that force within which Carl Jung called an “inner necessity,” that allows him to perceive things that others can only hope to discern.

There is a logic in Dean’s art that is defined only by the creativity of his imagination.  It is a humbling, yet powerful view, and the more powerful the view, the more compelling is Dean’s vision. As a consequence of Dean’s talent,  A Fine Line is something immediately recognisable, something very personal, and something that has become a signature of our past.

Dean, like many artists of yesteryear and today, seeks to expand humanity’s reach and understanding by perceiving, by creating, by communicating ideas, whether ultimately comfortable or not.  In his humble way, land like artist before him, Dean’s gift to us all is one of hope, passion, knowledge and truth.

Dean Simon’s A Fine Line allows us to embellish, to enrich, to discover within ourselves the greater truths that our history has made possible, and to open in our minds, the possibility of what we can achieve in the future.  It is a work of monumental importance, because far more than words, his images resonate a political consciousness driven by a moral impulse which reinforces the notions of justice, truth, and equality. Its message is timeless; its appeal is universal; it is a fine line, but thanks to Dean, one we can safely navigate with ease.