Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Tropics

The curators of The Tropics have made it incredibly hard to view this exhibition with an open mind. It's their labelling that presents the primary hurdle. The Tropics refers to a cartographical designation, but in the context of an exhibition geared to probe the mythical character attached to this hemisphere or climatic area of the world it is more like a euphemism for the Other.

Of course, the term also groups all the diverse nations and cultures that fall into this geographical area into a single category. Another problematic tag that the curators are advancing is the term "pre modern" to describe the material culture of supposed tribal societies in this geographically defined belt. This term defines these objects according to a Western master narrative of art that positions them as objects preceding modernity. Once again the term almost reads as a euphemism for "primitive".

Needless to say this grand exhibition, which includes almost 50 artworks, was not created in the southern hemisphere but by Alfons Hug, Peter Junge and Viola König, a team of Germans working at the Ethnological Museum at the Staatliche Museen za Berlin (Berlin's State Museum). The exhibition has already shown in Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro and Berlin and, after its South African leg, will move to Bangkok. Considering the breadth of work that the exhibition encompasses - it includes many highly-prized African heritage objects from Nigeria that have not been seen in this country - it should be an exciting prospect for locals. But, regrettably, the curatorial ethos driving the exhibition undermines the art collection. It is not just the labelling employed in this exhibition that is irksome; the premise doesn't sit too well either.

The curators have dubbed their objective as the "re-aesthetisation" of the tropics. In other words, their aim is to reconfigure how the tropics are perceived by unearthing the myths that have thus far defined it and then supplanting this vision with a new more authentic one. But as the majority of the works are derived from the tropics, one can't help feeling that the Germans are repackaging African art for Africans.

Considering that the myths or imagined character of the tropics is a Western construct - which the curators do concede - wouldn't they be better off embracing a more self-reflexive approach by meditating on the elements of Western culture that have given rise to the compulsion to imagine an exotic other? A look at how the myth of the tropics had an impact on the development of German Expressionism with groups such as Die Brücke would have been a suitable alternative. Instead, they try to achieve their aim by juxtaposing "pre modern" works with contemporary pieces.

It's as if the contemporary artworks are expected to challenge entrenched notions that the "pre modern" objects have traditionally elicited. At the same time the curators try to establish a sense of continuity between the old and the new by creating a thematic or visual link. Such as with Guy Tillim's study of the power struggles in the Congo and objects from Benin, Nigeria that denote power.

Humans' proclivity for power is a universal phenomenon and not specific to inhabitants of this geographic belt, so forging such connections between these objects feels slightly contrived if not tenuous, and obviously reinforces negative perceptions about the African continent. That Tillim is complicit in regurgitating the stereotype is also part of their curatorial approach, which seems propelled by a desire to show the manner in which inhabitants of the tropics have bought into European perceptions. While that is an issue worth probing, it divests the West of its responsibility.

As the curators astutely observe, preconceived notions about the tropics isn't just a dated phenomenon. Contemporary tourist promotions emphasise the exoticness of the tropics by parading images of sunny sultry idylls that appear untouched by progress. However, the curators suggest such imagery belies the poverty and poor living conditions that are integral to the personality of these tropical locations. In this way these tropical locales continued to be defined by extremes; absolute wealth and beauty and utter destitution. "Nowhere are humans closer to life, while at the same time nearer to death," posit the curators.

This is a gross oversimplification. Besides, societies that boast extreme wealth and abject poverty are not just confined to tropical locations. It's as if the countries that fall into this climatic zone continue to be defined by the same extremes that characterise their weather. Pallo Jordan, the Minister of Arts and Culture, was eager to rubber-stamp the exhibition on its opening night. But perhaps if Jordan had paid closer attention to the curators' motivations and literature he might not have been so keen to commend them for challenging a visual arts fraternity that has been "for far too long … pale and male".

Nevertheless, the exhibition is said to be the first step towards establishing the "Humboldt-Forum", which will see non-European artists being given an opportunity to engage with products of Western culture. But, of course, this dialogue will be on the Germans terms.

Perhaps it's best to disregard the rhetoric that has accompanied this exhibition and concentrate on how the artworks engage with the theme. Candida Höfer's Zoological Gardens series, for example, shows animals from the tropics on display in Europe. In one photograph, elephants are shown feeding in an enclosed, grey concrete structure. The image refers to this insatiable curiosity about foreign destinations but also suggests that, in attempting to transpose the curiosities of these places, they automatically divest them of their intrinsic wonder.

Mandy Lee Jandrell's Bridge of Time, Palace of the Lost City, Sun City, South Africa (2003), which shows a Japanese tourist posing for a photo at that faux African architectural wonder at the Palace of the Lost City at Sun City, best articulates the manner in which people of the tropics feed the myth that places on this side of the equator are exotic and mysterious locales. On one level there is something empowering about selling this ideal to Europeans but ultimately it is self-defeating.- published in The Sunday Independent, April 19, 2009

The Elusive Dream

Staging a formidable African biennale has become the holy grail of the local art community. Since the country emerged from a cultural wilderness in the mid-90s, art organisations have set their sights on producing large-scale contemporary art events.

Their efforts, to date, have been marked by an inclination to represent the visual expression of the entire continent.

It is all part of a drive to shift not only entrenched views about African art but how the continent is perceived by the world.

Tired of being represented by the West, Africans are keen to assert their own concept of themselves, inscribing their own histories and packaging their own expression.

Ultimately, the wish is to create a large-scale art event to rival Documenta - an exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany - or the Venice Biennales, thus shifting the art world centres to a more southerly geographical position. These impulses may be justified and necessary but, nevertheless, the ambition to stage such an event on the African continent has presented challenges of brobdingnagian proportions.

Cape Africa Platform, now staging the Cape 09 Biennale in Cape Town, entered the fray in 2007 with Cape 07, a watered down version of their initial vision. Financial woes were blamed for their failure to deliver on a promise to stage "South Africa's first ever large-scale exhibition of contemporary African art". Nevertheless, securing funding for large-scale art events is one of many hurdles, especially since the visual arts are marginalised by African governments and its citizens.

There are also ideological challenges to navigate, such as the disadvantage of presenting African expression in a single package and, in the South African context, the assumption that South African art is indicative of art making from the entire continent. In other words, is it justifiable for South Africans to assume the voice of the continent?
Despite all these obstacles, many a South African art organisation has tirelessly pursued the dream of establishing a significant art event, often and, perhaps predictably, with disappointing results.

Cape Africa Platform initially billed their large-scale event the "biennale that is not a biennale" in the hope that they could sidestep the pitfalls that beset previous endeavours - or at least to create a bit of distance between their events and those from the past. The ghosts of past come in the form of the Johannesburg Biennales. Held in 1995 and 1997, the Johannesburg Biennales perhaps brought the dream of establishing grand African art events closest within grasp.

Coming after the country's first democratic elections these gargantuan expos were compelled by a desire to reconnect with an international art community after years of cultural isolation while simultaneously providing a platform to begin exploring a post-apartheid identity.

Though they were progressive and multi-tiered in their approach, they came under criticism from the international community who continue to see art making as an unnecessary indulgence on a continent that has yet to deal with more pressing issues such as poverty, violence and political turmoil.

In an Artnet review of the second Biennale Bisi Silva, a British-based critic, writes: "(the) Biennale was haunted by questions regarding the relevance of contemporary art to the real issues of life in Johannesburg, Cape Town and the surrounding townships.

"Despite the progress of recent years, the majority of South Africans are still disenfranchised, and receive negligible benefit from cultural events like this."

Such responses have had an impact on how South Africans configure not only art events but smaller art initiatives and awards, where an outreach programme has become the norm.

Certainly, Cape Africa Platform, from the beginning, have been adamant about "bringing the art to the people" by selecting venues for their event in townships - thus engaging with a new audience and demonstrating the relevance of art to the man in the street.

Such an approach seems vital in terms of drumming up financial support from non-governmental organisations and government agencies. It is said that a third Johannesburg Biennial never got off the ground because of a lack of support from the Johannesburg City Council and the Department of Arts and Culture.

Nevertheless, as much as Cape Africa Platform have endeavoured to make their art event relevant to "the people on the ground'' they have faced an upward struggle in terms of securing financial support for their ambitious endeavour.

Though they made appeals to a number of private donors, the organisation primarily relied on the National Lottery Distribution Fund (NLDF) for the bulk of their funding. When the NLDF failed to pay out money promised to the organisation, their dream for a large-scale art event started to slip beyond their grasp.

Many believe that Cape Africa Platform's vision was far too ambitious. Not only did the organisation hope to display the works of 48 artists from South Africa and the rest of the continent - many of whom were residing abroad - but they planned on showing the artworks at more than 20 venues around Cape Town.

This grand-scale art fiesta, dubbed TRANS CAPE, was expected to start in September 2006. But, a month prior to the event, the organisers announced it would be delayed until March 2007. Financial woes were blamed for the delay but soon after there was some reshuffling within the upper echelons of the organisation with Susan Glanville-Zini and Zane Ibrahim stepping down as CEO and director respectively. The implication was that the organisation's inability to stage the event on time could also be attributed to erroneous planning.

Mirjam Asmal-Dik was appointed the organisation's new chief executive officer but, even with her at the helm, the first biennale failed to live up to the expectations the organisation had set. When Cape 07 was eventually staged it was significantly smaller, showing at only seven venues around the city - instead of at 24 venues as originally envisaged.

Concerned that his integrity might be compromised, the biennale's curator, Gavin Jantjes, jumped ship. Unable to afford the shipping costs necessary to transport the bulk of the artworks from the 48 artists who were due to participate, Cape Africa Platform appealed to artists to attend the exhibition in person instead.

"We have asked them to try to bring their artworks with them in their suitcases and to keep an open mind,"said Asmal-Dik in an interview with The Sunday Independent at the time of the show.

The situation was desperate and, with participating artists eventually left to foot the bills for their flights and costs, many felt that the biennale should not have gone ahead.

It seemed as if the organisation was living up to its slogan - "the biennale that is not a biennale". Asmal-Dik was adamant that the event should be staged, in whatever form.

"We have to push it through. Private sponsors are watching us; they have made it clear to us that they want to see it happen if they are going to invest in it in the future," she told The Sunday Independent.

More recently, Artlogic's Ross Douglas has, too, been chasing this holy grail of art exhibitions, implying that the Joburg Art Fair could in some way function as an alternative to a biennale.

Like his predecessors Douglas, too, has hoped to create "a world-class" African event that will capture the attention of the international art community. Believing the art fairs to be a more economically sustainable event, Douglas implied they would have better staying power.

But with their commercial slant and superficial intellectual framing, Douglas's fairs don't measure up to the concept of a biennale. So while his ventures may be financially sustainable, they provide little intellectual nourishment, rendering the dream of a grand-scale art event ever more illusive.

Cape 09 could herald a new era. Cape Africa Platform have significantly reconsidered not only their initial vision but the form a biennale in South Africa should take. Though they have initiated discussions with other African art communities across the border in Maputo and Luanda through their Sessions programme, they are no longer looking to position the biennale as an affair that embraces expression from the entire continent.

"We are going to let our relationship with artists from other countries develop naturally and slowly," said Asmal-Dik.

This ideological shift has had positive practical spin-offs: instead of spending the bulk of their budget on flying in art from around the world and continent, they are able to channel it into initiatives that will have a tangible and sustained impact on South African society.

The Young Curators Programme is one such scheme, which aims to develop young curators. These young talents will also be involved in curating exhibitions for the biennale, thus creating events that will directly address the youth.

With the funding in place this time round - mostly from international donors - the organisation might well have a chance of succeeding.

Their victory might also be down to a shift in Cape Africa Platform's priorities: no longer are they looking to tailor-make an event designed to appeal to an international audience or to make a statement about Africa to the world - their emphasis is on the youth.

"Our objective now is to create a new generation of artists and curators. It's all about the youth, showing them that art can be a part of their lives," said Asmal-Dik. - published in The Sunday Independent, May 24, 2009