Concluding Remarks

What I hope my focus on the early Seventies has revealed is that "protest" took root in events prior to 1976. In several recent books, by contrast, the impression is given that protest art is a phenomenon of the Eighties, or that Soweto 1976 heralded the first wave of overt political opposition in art. This is the view of Sue Williamson's Resistance Art in South Africa (1989). She writes: "...this book concerns the way artists of my generation responded to the truths made clear by events of 1976, the issues we addressed and the work that followed" (8). I would have had no quarrel with this had she not implied that prior to 1976 socio-political art was non-existent or, at least, nowhere to be seen: "Before 1976 a trip around South African art gal­leries would have given little clue to the socio-political problems of the country. Strangely divorced from reality, land­scapes, experiments in abstraction, figure studies and vignettes of township life hung on the walls" (8). The institutionalised nature of our art galleries ensures, of course, that even today little resistance art will be found on permanent display. The real point, however, is that socio-political art was very much in evidence in the early Seventies. As this study has demonstrated, some of the people whom William­son designates as "her generation" (for example, Stopforth and Younge) were already sensitive to "truths made clear" as early as the beginnings of Black Consciousness.

A neglect of overtly political art from 1968 to 1976 is also evident in Matsemela Manaka's Echoes of African Art (1987) which, to its credit, was the first account of art in this country to include politicised artists like Thami Mnyele and Lefifi Thladi, and to adopt a strongly Africanist and partisan perspective. Nonetheless, the book pays only passing attention to the art of the Seventies. The same oversight occurs in African Art in Southern Africa (1989), edited by Anitra Nettleton and David Hammond-Tooke, while Steven Sack's Introduction to the catalogue of the exhibi­tion, The Neglected Tradition: Towards a new South African art history 1938-1988 (1988), briefly examines the Seventies, but hardly mentions the early part of the decade. Gavin Younge's Art of the South African Townships (1988), devotes considerable attention to questions of art and politics, but focuses on the Eighties. In relation to these books, therefore, the purpose of the pres­ent study has been to correct the record by adding to informa­tion on political protest in art while shifting the emphasis from the "description" of examples to a theoretically self-conscious reading, something Williamson and Younge, for example, do not develop in any extended way. What I have also tried to do is to shift attention from a predominantly white view of artistic developments to one that gives "South African" significance to both the iternational influences and local communicative purpose. Here I have added a voice to early pioneering works like Eddie de Jager's Contemporary African Art in South Africa (1973), a book with good "Africanising" inten­tions but which now seems bound by ethnic registers and paternalisms (For example, de Jager writes: "Very often this Neo-Africanism or Negritude is regarded as dangerous, degrading and unwanted. It is, however, none of these things provided it is not abused" (19).) In the light of such a view, it is valuable to recognise Manaka's Africanist insights, and also to note the more flexible categories as to what may be valuable as art to South Africans in books such as those of Hammond-Tooke and Nettleton, Sack, Williamson and Younge.

What is perhaps equally important, however, is to turn to earlier journals which have hitherto not really been regarded in art circles as valuable sources. In this regard I have in mind Staffrider magazine with its graphics and commentary on protest in the 1970s. Further sources of information and insight include SASO newsletters, the Black Review (a project of the Black Community Programmes based in Natal, which recorded events for the years 1972 and 1973) and papers delivered at the Black Renaissance Convention (December 1974), all of which have been utilised in the present study. In fact, in the nine years that SASO functioned before it was banned in 1977, members produced regular papers and newsletters explain­ing Black Consciousness thinking and ideals, a number of which were published in March 1973 under the title Creativity and Black Development . Here are to be found mention of people like Thami Mnyele and Lefifi Thladi, and groups such as Dashiki (Ga-rankua) and the Black Art Studios (Durban): artists and art groups that remained unrecorded in art histories prior to the appearance of Matsemela Manaka's book (1987). One of the reasons for this omission is that in keeping with the counteractive racial exclusivity of Black Conscious­ness, artists like Mnyele refused to participate in exhibitions organised by whites, and became part of an under­ground culture inaccessible to, or ignored by, most white art historians. Yet the fact went unnoticed that Mnyele's work was readily visible on the covers of books by the black poet Serote (Renoster, 1972; Donker, 1974 and 1975). Illustration, it seems, failed to attract attention in art circles wedded to a "fine art" tradition. In this, the present study has suggested a reassessment.

In the light of such "re-positionings", therefore, it is instructive to allow the period 1971 to 1976 to throw light, in retrospect, on two important conferences that, in their evident concern for politics in art, act as kinds of culmina­tions to the 1970s. In 1979 a national conference on the "State of South African Art" was organised by the University of Cape Town (with Neville Dubow as convenor). Signs of dis­satisfaction with the decon­textualised and depoliticised character of art education in this country had manifested themselves in the form of a "popular" art school broadsheet. The first of the only two issues of Gdunk voiced the grievances of staff and students from a variety of art institutions. Not unexpectedly, the shockwaves of the Soweto Uprising had left an impression on the artworld, as well as on white society as a whole, and not unexpectedly in 1977 the Black Consciousness Movement, including its affiliated organisations (such as SASO) and its publications, was banned. The violent death in detention of SASO's first president, Steve Biko, occurred in the same year, and 1978 was also marked by a spate of treason trials, the assassination of the academic and activist Richard Turner and, as a result of the Information scan­dal, the fall of prime minister B.J. Vorster. In this context the Cape Town conference focused on ques­tions of social responsibility in the arts. Papers from a wide range of eminent writers, artists, architects, academics and educators, including Nadine Gordimer, Jan Rabie, Adam Small, Pancho Guedes, Lorna Peirson, Gavin Younge and Paul Stopforth, revealed a consensus about the need for a "committed art" in South Africa.

The suggestion that progressive and radical perspectives were gaining widespread support was enhanced at the conference by the passing of a number of resolutions. Artists were exhorted "to work as diligently as possible to effect change towards a post-apartheid society", and "to request the State to open colleges and schools of art to all people in South Africa". Artists were also urged "to refuse participation in State sponsored exhibitions" until this request had been met (Proceedings, 1979: 159). Tempering this general thrust, however, were somewhat cynical views such as those of Michael Goldberg:

This is the illusion of "present Bondage and future Liberation" which in its expression provides temporary relief, mainly for the politically impotent white onlooker, and which now seems to be seducing many blacks as well". (Proceedings: 126)

The irony of these remarks is that Goldberg continued to avail himself of the possibilities of "personal catharsis" by producing protest works into the late Eighties, and a "liberation" culture proved to be a powerful means of focusing support and signalling solidarity in the struggles of the Eighties. Andrew Verster added the smug comment that I mentioned at the outset of this study: "One cannot suffer by proxy. In order to make suffering and the rest the subject of one's art, one must first have had to suffer" (26). Given Verster's paintings of surfers and bodybuilders in the Seventies, it is difficult to avoid the biting retort. All I wish to say, however, is that Verster's premise dismissed a good deal of art history which has drawn its strength from the capacity of artists imaginatively to enter experiences that they themselves might not personally have encountered. Death by crucifixion, for example, has not been a trial necessary for artists to experience in order for many of them to have created powerful depictions of Christ's grotesque suffering. (In the local context I think of Charles Nkosi's remarkable vision of Christ's suffering in his linocuts of 1979, and I notice that Verster's lack of experience as an ANC activist did not prevent his adorning the walls of the University of Durban-Westville's sports stadium with images of liberation and celebration at the ANC conference in 1991.) More searching than Verster's comment, however, was Gavin Younge's explanation for the absence of black artists at the conference. He indicated that the artists had boycotted the venue at the University of Cape Town as it symbolised educational privilege, and that they believed nothing would come of discussions. In a poem in Staff­rider entitled "Report from the art conference in the Cape" Masilo Rabothata, a musician in a group that "entertained" delegates, had the following to say:

We were there blowing our lungs out to sharpen their appetites so they could gulp down the wine better and fill themselves of the cheese while they relaxed comfortably in their clean cosy park of intellectualism... No! not in the slightest did we manage to arouse feelings that we also mattered that we want to play a part too in the running of our own land! It's a shame, brother; as someone did say a disgusting shame I'd say that there still exists in some people such a big lump of naivete and ignorant complacency... (1979: 10).

Less than two years later, unfortunately, it was evident that the reservations expressed by black artists had proved to be well founded. Artists, both black and white, ignored the conference's resolutions and submitted work to the 1981 commemorative Republic Festival exhibition, while books by Fransen and Berman (which I mentioned in the Introduction) appeared in 1982 and 1983, re­spectively, and evidenced little real change in attitude and approach to South African art his­tory. Fransen included sections on San rock art, rural wall painting and sculpture, as well as local Indian architecture and sculpture. His placing of these commentaries at the back of his book, however, suggests that they were after­thoughts rather than part of a substantial revision of thinking. Nei­ther did Berman's book reveal thinking that had progressed beyond the "high art" formalist priorities of her 1975 edition. Her claims to objectivity relied upon the criterion of the "self-contained artefact", while little concern was shown for cultural and contextual specific­ities. In consequence, her notion of "objectivity" reveals the conditioning of her own education. Despite her will­ingness to include in her revised "dictionary" some artists or groups as having historical interest, Berman did not give space to artists who were con­tributing regularly to publica­tions like Staffrider. No mention was made of people such as Lionel Davis, Bongiwe Dhlomo, Fikile, Patrick Hollow, William Kentridge, Dikobe Martins, Mzwakhe and Manfred Zylla, all of whom have subsequently been recognised as important artists. Perhaps omissions of this kind are not to be unexpected. As late as 1979 an eminent artist like Verster could say:

The black artist has no access to the sophisticated kind of training available to whites, to specialised information, to modern processes and equipment, to a wide choice of materials. He has wood for carving, lino, charcoal and paper for printmaking and drawing. His technology is that of the kindergar­ten and his art is therefore defeated before it starts. It cannot rise above the level of folk art, and that means in twen­tieth century terms that it is irrel­evant as art, and of tourist value and anthro­pological interest only. (Cape Town conference Proceedings: 28)

Interestingly, similar narrow and "eurocentric" views were expressed at a seminar held at the University of Natal (School of Architecture - Durban campus, 25 June 1983). The seminar had been convened to discuss the then-controversial addition to Durban's public sculptures of Edaordo Villa's Standing Form. The expense to taxpayers who had to foot the bill for the large bronze figure, taken together with the apparent inaccessiblity of the work's abstraction, was the point of the debate. Dis­cussion prompted David Basckin to ask about the relative value of Villa's sculpture and the artwork in Staff­rider . Professor Alan Crump, who was supported by numerous others in the audience, responded without hesitation in saying that there was no comparison, and that much of the work in Staffrider was amateurish in the worst sense of the word. As it did to many commentators at the time, however, the Villa appears today as lifeless and dull. In my discussion of Mnyele, by contrast, I suggest that the phenomenon of Staff­rider has a continuing vitality and importance in prompting debate about art and relevance.

The point, however, is not simply to remember that valuable resolutions concerning "relevance" were allowed somehow to drift away, but to recover for re-interpretation the proceedings of conferences such as the "State of South African Art" : proceedings that could be regarded significant for any writing of a history of "protest". Another key conference was the 1982 Botswana Festival of Culture and Resistance, which was attended by many South African exiles. The message to white participants - the Black Consciousness perspective dominated the festival - was the one that had been heard many times before: to regard their aim as the conscientising of fellow whites while leaving the task of liberation to the black oppressed. Culture, it was resolved, should be used as a weapon of the struggle, and the phrase, "cultural worker", began to replace "artist", "musician" or "writer". The musician Abdullah Ibrahim - who was at the time living in exile - summed up the mood of the festival when he castigated South Africans for living amid oppression but appar­ently not feeling the need to commit themselves to political issues: "After all the killings and everything...it's 1982 and we still have to tell the culture to resist!" ( Staffrider , 19­82: 11). The very limited commit­ment on the part of local artists to socio-political issues had been noted two years earlier by Joyce Ozynski and Andy Mason in a brief article, "Committed Art - Where is it?, published in Staffrider (1980: 14).

What a recovery and re-interpretation of the proceedings on, and impressionistic articles about, the Botswana festival could offer are illuminating pointers to the shift from the Black Consciousness Seventies to the assumptions and perceptions that came to dominate the 1980s concerning art as a weapon of liber­ation in the years of the state of emergency. It seems impossible, however, to do full justice to this festival without understanding the works of protest that had characterised the period I have discussed in the present study. For much of the activity at the festival had already become repetitive of "protest" as articulated in the earlier Seventies. At the same time, there were indications that the pre-1976 years had run their course. A difficult "lag" describes the turn of the decade (a further reason for my use of 1976 rather than, say, 1982 as a symbolic "cut-off" date). Only after the United Democratic Front (made up of loosely-affiliated and extra-parliamentary oppositional groups) had defined its own stance in relation to transition, change and political commitment, did hints of a new discourse at the Botswana festival - "cultural worker", "weapon of the struggle" - begin to signal a widescale return to politicisation in literature and art.

The 1985 BMW exhibition Tributaries, curated by Ricky Burnett, for example, attempted to broaden the range of "African" possibilities. Rural carvings, beadwork, pottery and (photographs of) wall paintings were exhibited alongside urban "fine art" equivalents, and the work of black artists occupied almost half of the exhibition. The selectors of the 1985 Cape Triennial , by contrast, faced fierce criticism for the continuing "high art" ethos that had informed the exhibition. Obviously this ethos did not, at the height of the State of Emergency, feel secure, and the following year, in July 1986, the theme of the second conference of the South African Association of Art Historians was "Art and Social Change". Almost half of the papers focused on developments in South Africa, and a few, like those of Franco Frescura, Rob McLeod and Ivor Powell, looked at the consequences of the political crisis for art and architecture in this country. Powell examined the phenomenon of graffiti in South Africa, most of it political, and he questioned its status in terms of art and oppositional culture (Proceedings: 90-96). Mcleod based his findings on a survey he had conducted of art education in black communities in the Transvaal (136-142). Frescura discussed the impact of Apartheid on research dealing with South Africa's black rural "built environment" and culture, and deconstructed the assumptions of white researchers on this subject (97-104). In debate Esme Berman described such approaches as "dull ethnography". Nevertheless, such approaches have obviously influenced the types of work included in exhibitions and books such as The Neglected Tradition, African Art in Southern Africa and Art and Ambiguity (Johannesburg Art Gallery, 1991).

A conference held in Amsterdam in the same year (1986), Culture in Another South Africa, served as a reminder that, once again, academic debate on art and politics was in danger of being overtaken by political events. In Amsterdam discussion involved mostly black conference-goers on the subject of black cultural resistance. The gap between the concerns of the art establishment in this country and currents of thought and experience amongst black intellectuals was also evident at the 1987 SAAAH conference on "The Writing and Re-writing of South African Art History". Surprise was shown, for example, that Manaka's Echoes of African Art was soon to appear. Comments on the book were subsequently dismissive, and focused on errors of attribut­ion and dating while ignoring the importance of the Africanist perspective that had been articulated by the author. More recent reviews, however, have begun to recognise Manaka's fledgling attempts to politicise and rewrite art history in this country. Ironically, the 1987 conference on rewriting local art history spent much time debating post-structuralism and post-modernism, and left questions on "relevance" and "whose art history?" for discussion at an unspecified later date.

Decisions concerning art in this country will increasingly have political implications, and fresh impetus was given to debate early in 1990 by Albie Sachs, constitutional adviser to the ANC. His suggestion that a moratorium of five years be placed on the notion of culture as a weapon of the struggle provoked both delight and outrage. From the perspective of the present study, one of the most effective rebuttals came from Rushdy Siers in a paper delivered at the University of Cape Town's Centre for African Studies (5 March 1990) and recorded in the anthology, Spring is Rebellious (ed. de Kok and Press). Siers says:

In my view the question of whether culture is a weapon of the struggle can only be raised if one does not have a clear understanding of what culture is in the first place. And reading Albie Sachs's paper it becomes clear that he too suffers a misunderstanding ....­ Culture is, and will always be, the expression of people's lived reality; it is the way we live, love, dress, abstract, think, create and certainly how we organise as a collective group. Which in the last instance will always be determined by the economic environment....Are the cultural expressions of our people not based on the simple truism that if there is no food we cannot live? And more, are our cultural manifestations not decorated with vivas, raised fists, dilapidated corrugated shacks, mutilated bodies, AK's and Amandla's? Is Albie becoming ashamed of this culture, this reality? Its militancy and somewhat oppressive nature?... Yet it is that very culture which is contesting the normality of the existing state of affairs. (1990: 60-62)

While protest art in the early Seventies evidenced few vivas, raised fists or Amandla's, it exhibited a directness of expression and strategies of representation that were meant to contest the "normality of the existing state of affairs". That protest art embarrassed, and even irritated, art critics and historians with its "militancy and oppressiveness" was obvious from reviews, but perhaps mainly from the fact that until recently it was allowed to remain largely neglected.

The groundswell of black protest and resistance symbolised strikingly by the events of 1976, nevertheless, had a profound impact on art in this country. As black South Africans began to insist on change and take mass action unless their demands were met, opportunities for the making of art considerably increased. An awareness of the power of music, words and imagery to mobilise people to a common cause had been initiated by the numerous small cultural groups established by the Black Consciousness Movement. The skills for making and printing large numbers of posters, banners and T-shirts were quickly developed in the 1980s with the help of formally-trained artists who made their knowledge and skills available by offering workshops and establishing projects such as the Community Arts Project in Cape Town. (Several books, for example, Younge, 1988, Williamson, 1989 and Potenza, 1991, deal in a general way with this phenomenon that has been labelled "people's art"; a really thorough study, however, is still required.)

The small group of people whose work I have discussed in the course of this study also played roles in this post-1976 expansion of overt political protest in art. I have briefly looked at some of their later work, but I would like quickly to locate their contribution, finally, in the types of protest art that proliferated especially in the early Eighties. There was not only the bold and colourful "protest art of the streets", but also a new form of post-modernist protest that, as I have suggested, had none of the serious, aesthetic austerity of Seventies critical post-modernist protest art in South Africa. (In dubbing the later development "baroque" post-modernism because of its aesthetic of extravagance, I have mentioned Kentridge and Siopis.) Photography also became a major vehicle for protest among people who believed that the best way to convey the textures of South Africa political life was through the ultimate "camera obscura", the modern photolens.

In the course of the Seventies, almost all of the artists whom I have discussed seemed to have undergone crises of confidence about the political efficacy of their work. The black artists appear to have had fewer difficulties in this respect than whites because they tended to align themselves with particular political groupings and took energy and inspiration from adopting the dual roles of the artist and activist. People such as Badsha and Mnyele, consequently, found direction in a sense of "grassroots" involvement and change which, as I have indicated, was reflected in shifts to documentary realism with Badsha turning to photography and Mnyele changing a language of illustration from his earlier psychological expressionism to solid postures of heroic resistance. The increasingly politicised climate in South Africa after about 1983 - when the UDF opposed the tricameral parliament - placed Mnyele's later images in the trauma of the state of emergency. The overwhelming immediacy of oppression was focused in visually striking "documents" of protest rather than in the manipulation of distorted and generalised imagery.

Younge attempted to achieve a more community-based reality for his work by teaching in informal structures such as CAP and assisting black artists in centres such as Nyanga. (He had left Durban for the Cape in 1975.) He also developed his skills as a documentary photographer and made several films on "forced removals" and resettlement camps. Clifford Bestall made this kind of film-making his chief form of political statement. Stopforth, who had left Durban for Johannesburg in 1977, presented an altogether different case. Although he had been responsible for some of the most powerful and memorable protest works of the Seventies, he became increasingly disillusioned with politics in the early Eighties, and a cynicism about direct and overt political statement in art led to works of social commentary in a blandly satirical vein. Possibly pressure of "baroque" post-modernism in art circles especially in Johannesburg gradually undermined the ascetic side of Stopforth's artistic-social commitments. Franco Frescura seems to have escaped the effects of this "artistic" assertion in Johannesburg because of his involve­ment as an architect with black housing projects and his research into black rural architecture and culture. I have already discussed the directions of people such as Norman Catherine, Timo Smuts and Andre van Zyl. But perhaps the real casualities were people such as Harold Strachan and Kanu Sukha. Strachan's political commitments had little opportunity to manifest themselves in art, for he was gaoled and then banned. In the early Seventies he temporarily went into exile, and today is an art restorer. As far as Sukha was concerned, the need to earn a living coupled with a desire to distance himself from the white art world, meant that he continued to be involved in art but as a high-school teacher rather than as an exhibiting artist.

I have focused on a relatively few individuals, but my point has been that there were only a handful of artists who approached protest art in a way that I consider to have been attuned to the radical oppositional consciousness which began to emerge in about 1968. In attempting to offer reasonably extended analyses of a few works I have had to be selective, and have neglected people such as Lefifi Thladi in the Transvaal, who went into exile in about 1976. I have also excluded several artists who produced one-off pieces that might have touched a political awareness, including Giuseppe Cattaneo (1929-), Marianne Podlashuc (1932-), Dumile (c.1942-92), Robert Hodgins (1920-), John Muafangejo (1943-87) and Julian Motau (1948-68). Most of their work, however, belongs to the "allusive" ethos that I have characterised as pre-1968. (In the case of Hodgkins, his social commentary has always had about it something of a "baroque post-modernism".)

What I have not examined is the possibility of a "women's art" for the period 1968 to 1976. On the surface there appear to have been no women artists in the early Seventies who responded in an overt way to political crisis and injustice. There were several, such as Jo Smail (1943-), who are known to have been affected deeply by socio-political circumstances. Their responses, like hers, however, were to produce highly expressive but highly abstract works of agitation and despair. One can "read" a political dimension into these works, but what I have been most concerned with are those which signalled their actual political intervention. In this respect, some­thing that has continued to disturb me are the words uttered in 1972 by an admittedly young Omar Badsha:

There are a vast number of women who paint in South Africa....White women, of course. But very few of them do anything worth­while.You can't be a good artist if you don't face social problems. And most White women can't.... ( The Natal Mercury 16 July 1972)

Since the Eighties a number of women, such as Sue Will­iamson and Penny Siopis, have attempted to address South African socio-political circumstances, but of interest accord­ing to the criteria of the present study are Sana Naidoo and her Asherville Women's Group near Durban. In the work of these women the humble materials of crayon, ball-point pen and scraps of paper provide "ordinary" women with the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings - words contribute to the images - about domestic reality in conditions of economic and political hardship. (Part of the purpose of forming the group was the fact that many of the women had husbands or children who had been detained under the state of emergency regulations. In the case of Fatima Meer, who who lent her moral support to the group, her own imprisonment features in her drawings.) By contrast, the technically sophis­ticated and usually highly aestheticised "protest art" of Penny Siopis and Sue Williamson, in its use of expensive materials and processes, could easily be considered as symptomatic, rather than critical, of the "privileged" status quo in this country. This is, however, a problematic debate in its own right and belongs to developments in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the cru­cial point has been raised: where does the "brilliant" arte­fact end and where does effective (and just) protest in art begin?

This was the central question raised by the exhibition Art from South Africa (Oxford and other counties, from July 1990 to July 1991), as reported by Neville Dubow in the Weekly Mail (10-16 January 1992: 21-22). The exhibition had as a "theme" of its selection the view that when the future histories of South African art are written, it will be the "raw" (Dubow's term) non-Western responses (the definitions are rhetorically useful rather than exact) of the Sana Naidoos and the early Bongiwe Dhlomos that will be recorded and remembered as the valid South African "alternative" to what was seen as the prevailing bourgeois tradition.

Such a view may seem unfair - white South Africans might even see in it a kind of "appeasement". But it should help, at least, to provoke discussion about directions in art and future art histories in this country. Such discussion is unlikely to be able to avoid locating art in the context of a society the human and aesthetic life of which has been profoundly shaped by socio-political and economic circumstances. As Nobel prize-winner Nadine Gordimer said at the National Arts Festival (Grahamstown) in a talk that emphasised not only literature but all of the arts:

Art is not a revelation, even a release, a compensation to people who do not know whether they will survive the night without attack while in their beds. We have to admit that before we can democratise the arts in our country, people have to have space in their consciousness beyond the necessity for total concen- tration on daily survival. The arts are not in some lofty position above political conflict; we are inextricably part of it. Before people can read books, watch our plays and gain a deeper understanding from them, they need shelter, bread and peace. These are the priorities, and part of our human responsibilities, beyond our writings, our music, and our plays and our paintings. ( The New Nation 10-16 July 1992: 14)

As far as the art historian is concerned, the discipline of art history will probably need to incorporate the skills of the social researcher in order to explore the reception of artworks on a democratic and consultative basis. Certainly judgments about the impact and value of art cannot continue to remain solely in the realm of the art-going elite. The chal­lenge to the Marxist historian is to "listen to what all our people think about art". Perhaps this, too, should be the challenge to artists.

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