Sunday, December 12, 2010

Roger Ballen's 'house of horrors' is a delight for critics

Roger Ballen’s work really is the gift that keeps on giving. Every time I write about his art I find something new to say. This doesn’t always happen. Of course, his work is engineered to offer multiple readings.  The Boarding House series is perhaps the best example of this and, in my opinion, is the strongest body of work he has produced thus far. I have reviewed it at length already. His mini-retrospective at SANG forced me to revisit work I had already seen, even the late sixties work, which was on exhibit at the Rooke Gallery some time ago. Because of this, I didn’t get caught up in any of the details of the work. I looked beyond the identity of his subjects  - he does after all silence their presence (an interesting device) quite purposively, which is why I have always been perplexed by the unnecessary attention writers have paid to their status.
The most important subject in Ballen’s work is perhaps himself. I have always been so caught up in the conceptual underpinnings of the work that I have overlooked Ballen. There is a reason that he keeps returning to this dark aesthetic. It is not his subjects that are trapped within these barren, dilapidated spaces but Ballen himself.

Here is my review: 

It is tempting to ask Roger Ballen to pinpoint the exact moment or image where his social documentary photography collapsed into conceptual photography that some have termed as constructed, because of its contrived appearance. The titles of the photographs seem to provide a clue: factual titles such as Diamond Digger and Son Standing on Bed, Western Transvaal (1987) should clearly demarcate the documentary work, whereas as abstract titles such as The Chamber of Enigma (2003)|imply that these works hail from Ballen’s extraordinary imagination.

But it simply isn’t as clear-cut as that because the former image bears many of the visual motifs and characteristics that mark Ballen’s abstract photography. Clearly, like most photographers, he consciously created his distinctive aesthetic from the moment he picked up a camera. 

Superficially, there is little difference between his early body of work dating back to the 1970s – commonly pegged as his documentary phase – and his more recent ones which include the Boarding House series and the Shadow Chamber series, which are both contained in books bearing those titles. The settings and objects contained within these two discrete bodies of work are always unkempt, dirty, dilapidated and in ruin, creating this sense that he is fixated with the remnants of a culture that once flourished but is now dead.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

JAG: A 100 year old relic or pertinent art institution?

In my opinion JAG is neither. To tie in with the 100 year anniversary of JAG’s collection I wrote a feature on the institution in which I reflected on how its origins largely shaped its life span thus far (see below). Though major shifts in the 1980s accredited to Christopher Till’s  vision really set this public art institution on a new path, this gallery does not set the trends. Commercial galleries in this country determine what is ‘good’ art, and who the up-and-coming artists should be. With an emphasis on retrospectives, JAG comes to the party after the fact: after an artist has secured a reputation. The Nando’s Project Room did serve as a platform for young artists but the quality of the work wasn’t consistent, little was done to promote the exhibitions. Nando’s have pulled sponsorship so that space no longer exists.

I am not comfortable with commercial galleries leading the art scene  – as obviously a commercial agenda informs their choices and many of the gallerists don’t know much about art or even grasp the significance of the work they sell.  But the fact is the commercial galleries adapted to shifts in the country much quicker than JAG and more readily promoted local artists – they democratised art.  JAG has never really caught up and has since 1994 it’s curators have been preoccupied in reclaiming the history of the black artists that had been previously excluded/ignored. This is valuable work, though sometimes the glorification of these artists has left no room for critical engagement with the work and the narratives around these exhibitions tend to centre on the political aspect of the work or the difficulties in making the art rather than on the work itself.  

Antoinette Murdoch is keen to shift the power dynamics between the commercial and public art institutions but during my discussions with her, it seemed she had no clear vision or knew how to re-determine this status quo. Perhaps JAG’s role should be in rewriting history. The City of Joburg is now establishing a new public art space in Sandton near the Gautrain station in that area, according to Steven Sack. It will be a public/private endeavour - most likely this will be the new model for public institutions in this country. The advent of this new gallery is good news – the more public art spaces, the better this will be for artists (and critics) and the discourse on art in this country. But given that the City has been unable to suitably fund and support JAG and Africa Museum, it makes no sense to start up a new space. This new gallery could also perceivably render JAG’s position even more peripheral.

My feature: 
Art has a smell. It’s |a subtle aroma, suggests Antoinette Murdoch, the director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), as we stride along a narrow corridor passing large boxes containing artworks. |When we squeeze past the heavy door where the dated works are stored, I twitch my nose hoping to catch a whiff of the scent that the old masterworks might exude. With many dating from the early 18th century, it’s perceivable that they might give off an odour – time always leaves a trace.

It seems incongruent that all these valuable artworks – which include Irma Sterns, the Dutch Masters and a priceless selection of African headrests – have been consigned to the least noteworthy room at JAG. It’s a cold, barren basement and the noisy reverberation of an air conditioning system in the corner suggests that it is the engine room of this rather imposing ship that has been moored next to Joubert Park for nearly a century. Certainly its grand neoclassical exterior and allusions to high culture now seem out of place in its inner-city setting where bargain goods are displayed on cardboard boxes along the pavement.

Inside the gallery you can’t hear taxis hooting or the distorted music that plays out of the inexpensive speakers at the entrances of shops. The first painting I encounter in the historical vault is John Millais’s Fringe of the Moor (1874). It presents a tranquil rural British idyll. It looks naked without the external armour that a gallery interior engenders. It is propped up against a wall, waiting to be restored. A hundred years ago, when the British curator Hugh Lane bought this work for JAG – or the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art as it was known then – this painting was thought to epitomise the apotheosis of “modern” (not to be confused with modernist) British art. Thus it would aid in bringing the philistines that colonised early Joburg up to date with culture. Or so thought Florence Phillips, the Joburg socialite and philanthropist who first conceived of an art gallery for Joburg.

It is among faded documents, old photos and books that boast Phillips’s curlicue scrawl inside that I trace the history of this public institution and the personality who established it. The institution’s genesis is inseparable from Phillips, who is described by one writer as “opinionated, arrogant and self-important”. These might have been just the right characteristics to get an art institution off the ground, but they also seemed to have had a negative impact on the institution’s relevance and standing.

Some South African Recollections (1899), a book containing Phillips’s musings on life in Joburg, is proof not only of her sense of importance but also, regrettably, her prejudiced outlook. A chapter on “Kaffir miners” is cringeworthy reading – though it gives one a view into Joburg of yesteryear. It also explains the rather contradictory ideas driving the gallery: though Phillips wanted it to play a role in “nation building” – this phrase was not just exclusive to the post-apartheid era – her focus was on collecting and displaying almost exclusively European art, with an emphasis on British, French and Dutch expression. Undoubtedly her emphasis was in unifying a segmented white population largely consisting of French, British and Dutch origins, but it is telling that, aside from a few Anton van Wouw bronzes, no South African schools of painting were included.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Between Chaos and Order: Marcus Neustetter at AOP

Marcus Neustetter is an explorer. Not quite in the old-fashioned maritime sense, which saw men setting sail to discover and map unknown lands, but in the sense that he is fixated with mapping territory and the chasm between experience and objective reality. This obsession has seen him attempt to map the familiar (Joburg), the foreign (Banff, Canada), the historical (Vela Spila, Croatia), and the intangible (the Northern Lights).

Unlike the explorers of yesteryear, Neustetter isn’t interested in trying to accurately chart the places he visits.
When he began this artistic adventure over four years ago, he looked to technology, specifically Google earth maps, in an attempt to identify an objective rendering of space. When he juxtaposed these digital readings with photographs of places, it was clear the maps were out of sync with the realities on the ground. This led him to develop a novel form of map-making that could be best described as detached abstraction. Here is how it works; Neustetter makes marks on paper that relate to a space, without describing its physical characteristics. In fact he pays no attention to the drawing he makes – hence they are cluttered with random forms, mostly lines.

They are drawings but also maps – more like deconstructed maps where the lines have been pulled apart, atomised and randomly placed on the page in a chaotic manner. These map-drawings follow no logic and are meaningless as they are meaningful, for they do chart something significant: Neustetter’s experience of being in a space. He never views his drawings until they are complete. He does this by drawing in a book with the cover closed. In this way he maintains the supposed objectivity that is meant to define map making. It also ensures that he is not distracted from the experience of travelling through a particular space. Consequently Neustetter is an explorer interested in the sensory act of exploring.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Is Pieter Hugo's work maturing?

It’s like the tide of a highly polluted sea has fallen back, leaving behind the detritus of a defunct technological civilisation. The empty shells of computer monitors are positioned face-down and like entwined threads of seaweed are piles of tangled webs of wire cabling. The assortment of broken, chipped and weather-beaten motherboards and hard drives that are strewn haphazardly around the landscape look like they have been damaged by a violent sea that has pounded them against rocks. A broken keyboard lies half-buried in the soil, like the skeleton of a dead fish. The people who wander along this uninhabitable locale wear dirty, threadbare clothing. They are like victims of a shipwreck who, deposited on some foreign land, must learn to adapt if they are to |survive.

This scenario might be the stuff of a sci-fi maritime fictional yarn but it is real:  it is the Agbogbloshie Market in Accra, Ghana, where tons of the West’s digital waste is dumped each year in an effort to bridge the digital divide between the First and Third Worlds. The community that scrounges for a living off this dump site burns these disused objects to extract copper – a process that pollutes and destroys the natural environment. Thus, in quite an obvious way, Hugo’s series of photographs of the Agbogbloshie Market demonstrates not just the skewed relations between the West and Africa but the duplicity of Western benevolence.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Musa Nxumalo and 'Generation Disappointment"

The young photographer Musa Nxumalo (pictured above in a recent self portrait) scooped an ACT Award last week for Visuals Arts. About a month ago I happened to interview him in connection with a story I was writing about the youth – the titular Generation Disappointment. What was most interesting about my encounter with Nxumalo was that I discovered that this young photographer had with his Alternative Kidz series taken the notion of the ‘constructed’ photograph to a new level in the sense that he had played a primary role in creating the social subculture that he would photograph. Thus he wasn’t simply a participant in the alternative Rock scene in Soweto but he had actually had a hand in creating that scene. From his photographs one would not be mistaken for thinking that the subculture which he documents is a growing one, however, it is incredibly small: in fact so limited and fleeting that it is only really given life through Nxumalo’s photographs.

Nxumalo was inspired by documentaries which mapped the rise of rave culture in Manchester. He yearned to be part of a similar youth movement. When he looked around there was nothing like it that he could latch onto so he created a movement with the idea that he could document it at some later stage. In other words he conceived of a society for the purposes of documenting it. In this way Nxumalo’s construction of his photographs extends far beyond the moment he stood behind the camera lens.

In my feature story below,which was published in The Sunday Independent a few weeks back, my interest was in contextualising Nxumalo’s work within the broader sociopolitical context:

With dreads and a tattoo, Thato Woody Khumalo looks a bit out of place in the non-descript rural setting. He seems completely unaware of Musa Nxumalo’s penetrative camera lens as he gazes deeply into a pool of water in front of him. It is not a narcissistic compulsion which has him contemplating his reflection in the water but rather an enquiring stare that one imagines is compelled by the brand of confusion that grips twentysomethings attempting to come to terms with themselves and their place in the world. The barren rural setting succinctly articulates the sense of alienation that Khumalo and his band of punk-rockers experience in Joburg, in Soweto, where they are outsiders.

Nxumalo’s image of Khumalo could function as a poster for this new supposed Generation Disappointment. His contemplative stare could be read as a despondent gaze. Nevertheless his dress, demeanour and the setting suggest that Khumalo is not part of this group of young people pegged as impatient materialists disappointed by the fact that they have been unable to fast-track their way into cushy well-paid jobs.
Khumalo and the photographer Nxumalo are part of one of the counter-cultural youth movements emerging in this country. It is these rebellious voices that are foregrounding the flaws in our society and driving us towards a new status quo. The youth are like a mirror of our society. So certainly if they are despondent it is not a situation of their own making. It is an expression of the environment that has shaped them.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

What happens when the 'pioneers' set up artistic enclaves?

Within the next couple of days Joburg’s trendy art clique will be descending on Braamfontein, which is fast becoming the city’s new cultural centre. Brodie/Stevenson will open their doors tonight with a Pieter Hugo exhibition and on the weekend a cluster of new ‘curated’ designer shops will also start trading.  This is not a replica of the Arts on Main development but it is competition.  Adam Levy, the young property developer who has been driving this new hub, has tried to distinguish this development from Arts on Main by proposing that it is all geared towards fostering interaction with the environment. Nevertheless, as you will note in my feature on the suburb below, which I wrote for the Sunday Indy about a month ago, Levy has gone to quite extraordinary lengths to ensure his artistic enclave is populated by the selfsame people you would find at 44 Stanley or Parkhurst. He is openly resentful of the existing population in the suburb who are predominantly students – as he believes this will detract from the suburb’s upward mobility. Of course, I am excited about the emergence of this new artistic centre and appreciate the sentiment that is driving it but I think that in the arts community we really need to understand the ideas that frame these kinds of developments and be honest about their exclusionary nature.  I find it troubling that the predominantly white people who settle in Joburg’s supposedly urban wilderness are cast as pioneers, particularly when they try to conjure the suburban worlds that they have supposedly eschewed. Thus this move into the city is not really about embracing what the city is but transforming it into what is thought to be more desirable. This is not necessarily a negative compulsion; this is how cities are regenerated. My concern is that we are never honest about our motives. Here is what I wrote:

HOW YOU perceive the world often depends on the vantage point you are viewing it from. From Randlords, a new rooftop bar in Braamfontein, I can’t perceive the everyday details on the ground. My gaze is concentrated on Joburg’s inner-city skyline, across from the Mandela Bridge. Sometimes it can be liberating not to be immersed in the details. It frees you up to absorb the bigger picture. Randlords is only 22 storeys up so it is not quite in the clouds but Joburg’s inner city appears like any in the world. It looks functional, pristine and desirable. It might not be all these things yet but from the rooftop of Randlords I can’t help believing that this could all be possible.

Of course, it’s easy to conceive of the rich possibilities that this city offers when you are ensconced in a sophisticated bar that is reached via its own private lift, has a rooftop lounge with glass balustrades, designer toilets and Afrochic tables embellished with beads from around the continent. But the fact that this is the most-talked-about bar in town – with everyone claiming to have visited it and having paid the R250 entrance fee for the pleasure – is surely a sign that middle-class suburbanites are reconsidering their relationship to the city, or at least to Braamfontein.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

OMG: Who is buying this kind of art?

It is hard for me to decide what is worse: that there are still artists producing romanticised images of Africa or that these images are being sold in Africa? It would be easy to mistake the above painting to have been produced somewhere in the 1800s but, regrettably, this is a present-day rendering by a Danish Artist called Paul Augustinus whose exhibition of paintings will open at the Everard Read Gallery next week. This is not an extraordinary event; I have received number of invitations from this well-established gallery that have evoked a sense of déjà vu of the worst kind. The question that this phenomenon begs is this: how educated are the buyers of South African art in this country and what is the consequence of this for artists? Could this be why Strauss & Co continue to flog Pierneefs instead of MacGarrys or Hlobos?    

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

When Historical Documents become Aesthetic Objects: Ernest Cole at JAG

Given that JAG apparently boasts quite a sizeable collection of Ernest Cole photographs one has to wonder why the gallery hasn’t staged a Cole exhibition until now. This Cole exhibition presented the Hasselblad foundation’s collection. It’s a pity it’s not a retrospective, where one could view all his work including his commercial/journalistic work and his early beginnings – he had a camera from a young age. It would have also been interesting to see the photographs he took in the US too; fixated on mapping social inequality he photographed African Americans and the homeless while living there.

I missed the Cole exhibition in Cape Town awhile ago so this was the first time I saw a large collection of his work. Aside from the content it was the size of the images that initially struck me. They seemed inordinately small. Of course, these were standard dimensions for photographs of that era and conformed to photographers’ notion of their craft as journalistic. According to the curator of this exhibition, Gunille Knape, Cole had a very clear idea that his work belonged to this realm of production. The art historian Michael Fried suggests that photography’s transition from documentary mode to art can on a most basic level be observed through the changing dimensions of photographs. Photographs with an art sensibility are considerably larger, he posits.

Nevertheless it seems that Cole did employ visual devices particular to photography designed for display. Some of his images, particularly one that showed people moving across a barren landscape (I discuss it at some length in my review), are incredibly dark. As any one in the print media will know, dark photographs do not print well. And in fact this one would never have made it into a newspaper – which is why it would have been impossible for me to have run it with my review in the Sunday Indy.
According to Gunwille, it was fashionable in the seventies for photographers of a certain ilk to print dark photographs – it was a way of distinguishing their work from journalistic products. It also added drama to the image too. Certainly it is reminiscent of the use of chiaroscuro in painting.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Why Marilyn Martin is pissed off

I heard that Marilyn Martin was less than enchanted with me following my review of Louis Maqhubela’s retrospective at the Standard Bank Art Gallery. I know that it is politically incorrect not to like Maqhubela’s work or at least to publicly express such a sentiment but I decided awhile ago that if artists didn’t have to play by the rules than art critics shouldn’t have to either. After all I am paid to offer my opinion, not simply to regurgitate that of a curator or society at large. Despite the tight deadlines under which I work I am never careless with my opinion or dismissive of an artist’s work. No matter how much the work might not appeal to me, I consider it quite carefully.  I did agonise over this review. I so wanted to feel differently about Maqhubela’s work that I consulted colleagues and acquaintances, hoping that someone could convince me about the merits of his work. What I discovered in my mission was that many shared my views but were aware that it might not be polite to articulate them. For Martin, Maqhubela’s significance is largely tied to the fact that he was one of the first black artist’s to adopt an abstract vocabulary. From today’s standpoint I think we owe it to Maqhubela to look beyond this fact and actually engage with his work.  I think it is very telling that the catalogue for this exhibition doesn’t really do this.

 I don’t think that Martin did herself or Maqhubela any favours by getting Esmé Berman – who pegged Maqhubela as a “township artist” -  to open the exhibition. How could Martin expect to reposition Maqhubela within the canon if she relied upon the very person who contributed towards typecasting him? I have also grown tired of the way black artist's work is framed by the institution where they studied when this is never the case with white artists. In any case all these views are stated in my review: 

THE ART historian Esmé Berman has a short memory. At the opening of Louis Maqhubela’s retrospective in which she admonished the art intelligentsia for overlooking this artist’s contribution to the history of South African art, she seemed to have forgotten that she was the main culprit. Having penned The Story of South African Painting in 1975 and Painting in South Africa in 1993, Berman had ample opportunities to assign importance to Maqhubela and reposition him within the canon.

Of course, these days no one would dream of writing a definitive history of South African art – linear narratives that logically plot out an entire history of any preoccupation have fallen quite out of fashion. Mostly, this is because historians now accept that such stories almost always flatten out the complexities of history and obviate the often non-linear movements that characterise human activities. Thus Maqhubela will most probably never appear in some grand narrative on South African art. Today history exists in fragments loosely tethered to other stories. Marilyn Martin’s catalogue that has been produced for this retrospective
exhibition is just such a fragment and will form the lasting legacy of her efforts to insert Maqhubela into history.

Friday, September 24, 2010

How Artists Can Still Dream Big in a Commercial Gallery Space

With a penchant for creating ephemeral art Stephen Hobbs has made a habit of avoiding commercial gallery shows. It’s not that he looks upon the commercial circuit with disdain – well, not completely – but rather that his interests in architecture and the politics of public space have prompted a natural inclination towards creating work and interventions that exist outside the gallery. This exhibition, his first  since he entered into a serious relationship with a commercial dealer, was obviously going to generate interest; how would he adapt to the constraints?

With his characteristic sense of cunning and humour,  Hobbs has negotiated this new course with an exhibition centred on presenting small replicas of larger grand-scale works that could not be contained within a gallery space. He also takes this idea one step further. Given that he will never make these works, he has allowed himself to dream not only beyond the gallery space but beyond financial and or other practical constraints.
For example, it is unlikely that Hobbs would be given the chance to alter the facades of the Empire State Building or the Chrysler building. But he does have free rein to enact his projects on miniature versions of these US landmarks.

Hobbs transforms miniature models of these buildings or at least goes through the motions of altering them - one does sense that on some level he acknowledges the futility of this process.In one rendition of the |Empire State building he disrupts the characteristic silhouette of this edifice with a sheath and matchsticks and in the other he fashions a model of the building from Meccano pieces and matchsticks that are meant to evoke the wooden planks used as scaffolding. The “scaffolding” in the latter model, however, is contained within the building rather than outside it as is customary, implying that it is subject to constant internal change. And it’s not just physical change: the title, State of Empire, implies that physical disruptions mirror ideological shifts in national identity.

These models are products where an architect and artist’s projected fantasies intersect and collide - architects construct fantasies and while artists are also preocuppied with building constructions they do so, so as to deconstruct other constructions. The colourful stylised models that Hobbs tampers with are presumably collectors’ items and thus also articulate ordinary people’s desire to control and know these landmark buildings.  Because of their extraordinary dimensions they are only partially tangible – one cannot percieve them from a single vantage point. Hobbs, therefore, unpacks the function of miniatures and the act of miniaturising and how, on an abstract level, it plays a key role in negotiating national identity and visualising an urban utopia.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why Artists Shouldn't Write 'Reviews'

Ed Young’s recent 'review' of Zander Blom’ s latest exhibition, PAINTINGS. DRAWINGS. PHOTOS at Michael Stevenson, which appeared on the Mahala website is a prime example of why artists should not review their contemporaries work. Not that I would classify Young’s perfunctory musings as a ‘review’ – he never actually engages with the art. God forbid that he does; he would risk actually discovering that it has some kind of intellectual substance that would force him to write more than ironic sentences engineered to demonstrate how amusing he is – how detached he is from the art and maybe art in general. Young is so post-postmodern.

This brand of writing is not exactly out of keeping with the Mahala approach, where the writers are often concerned with being quirky, amusing and ironic. Thus form takes precedence over content. I suppose this style is engineered to appeal to the youth, who are more impressed with amusing turns of phrase than whether the phrase is illuminating in any way. This is very egocentric writing; it’s all about turning attention on the skills and persona of the writer than the subject-matter at hand. Hence Young's article/commentry is really about Young.

Very often writers fall back on this position as a way of avoiding engaging with their subject-matter. In the realm of arts writing it is often employed to mask their inability to grasp the work at hand.  Because this kind of writing is entertaining it has its place. As a writer I do value this kind of showmanship, have been known to engage in it frequently myself and thus do actually enjoy perusing the Mahala website and admire the product that Andy Davis has crafted.Sometimes this approach to writing works and at other times it feels terribly awkward and self conscious.

It can also be pretty frustrating when you actually want to find out something substantial about the work/subject that is being written about. Such as Blom’s exhibition. I haven’t seen it and probably won’t visit Cape Town before it closes. I cannot, however, vicariously enjoy Blom’s work through Young’s writing. Young is so dismissive of Blom’s art that you can’t help but feel that professional jealousy is at work. As Young expresses, clearly all the boys in Cape Town are in a tizz that Blom got the call from Michael and they didn’t.  Young wryly observes this fact, but the effort that he goes to, to demonstrate how vacuous Blom’s art is, implies that Young believes that the attention  Blom’s work has received is thoroughly misplaced. Young has every right to feel that way; but I do wish he made a substantial argument to back up his opinion.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Shoddy arts journalism and Riason Naidoo's Pierneef to Gugulective

I chuckled when I read David Smith’s story  in The Guardian  about Riason Naidoo who was said to have produced a “fierce backlash” for removing paintings of “the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds” when he installed his exhibition 1910 - 2010: Pierneef to Gugulective. It was a poor piece of journalism for a number of reasons. Firstly, because the supposed “fierce backlash” occurred somewhere in May so it has taken Smith almost four months to report on the event – not that his editors in the UK would notice but I suppose that is one of the benefits of being stationed in “Africa”.

Secondly, Smith constantly refers to Naidoo’s racial profile, establishing this notion that he is defined by his race. It  also is part of an effort to polarise the South African art scene, defining it as one neatly divided along racial lines. I suppose Smith isn’t aware of the code of ethics that journalists here are beholden too, which states that the racial profile of an interviewee/subject should not be included unless it is absolutely pertinent to the story.

Thirdly, I hardly think that a negative review in the SA Art Times is any reflection of the views in the South African art world. The views expressed in the SA ART Times are those of its editor, Gabriel Clarke-Brown. Had Smith actually bothered to interview anyone else in the art world he might have discovered that not everyone shares Clarke-Brown’s point of view. Of course, it wasn’t just laziness, it was strategic; he wanted to sensationalise the appointment of a ‘black’ director to the museum, positioning him as one who would naturally eschew the old colonial artworks in favour of contemporary works thus painting a stereotypical scene in which the new black appointment “ruffles the feathers” of the old guard.    Has Smith actually seen Pierneef to Gugulective, because there are quite a number of artworks from the colonial era?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Siopis at Brodie Stevenson

I heard a lot about Penny Siopis’s new show before I saw it. That’s always a good sign. Of course, most people who spoke about it described it in vague terms, as if it was an experience that couldn’t be articulated. My interest was piqued. I missed the opening night but apparently it was jam-packed  - “everyone was there” someone quipped. And by “everyone” they meant everyone in the Joburg art scene. As Michael Smith observed in his latest editorial  for Artthrob, Siopis is not only perceived as one of the country’s major painters – I think artist is more appropriate given that she uses different mediums – but was an influential figure in the Joburg art scene. So naturally she drew crowds of admirers. However, as with anyone with a formidable reputation she does also have her detractors; particularly among the young male artist contingent who recoil from her pink canvases as if they are the embodiment of angry feminist retorts. Some of the works that she produced recently, which oozed pink and red paint, did appear like bloody open wounds and probably weren’t for the squeamish. However, her work has undergone some dramatic shifts. I recently got to view Scene: Finale (ca, 1980s), which is part of a collection of art from JAG on display at Villa Arcadia.  I hadn't seen this painting before and though I am not sure it is the best from her era of 'history' painting it was interesting to observe this artwork weeks after viewing Furies at Brodie Stevenson. The female subject might still be at the centre of her work but her aesthetic has shifted dramatically since the eighties. Few artists have been able to reinvent their aesthetic  - one always senses that they are defined by it.

Furies, presents quite a different brand of work, albeit that the tones still evoke wounded, beaten flesh.  Whatever you may feel about Siopis’ art these new paintings are demanding.  The surface details draw you in first; sometimes the object of your gaze is a slightly raised transparent form treated to delicate smears of colour. In other works you are confronted, even assaulted, with a barrage of colour that explodes onto the canvas.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Politics of Images: Bonani Photography conference

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a conference dedicated to photography in Cape Town dubbed the Beyond the Racial Lens: The Politics of South African Documentary Photography, Past and Present. As I was one of the last speakers at the conference I attempted in my talk, titled Circling sights of Trauma: Representations of Abjectness in Contemporary South African Photography, to address some of the issues that had dominated the three-day conference and comment on the photographic works on display in the adjoining Bonani Africa exhibition. 

While judging the 60-odd essays for the competition a number of glaring commonalities became apparent to me. Perhaps the most obvious, and to a certain degree predictable, and one which dominated discussions at this conference was  the photographers inclination to train their lenses on societies or individuals located on the supposed ‘fringes’. During the conference Thembinkosi Goniwe rightfully lamented the fact that the more carefree and ordinary aspects of black life aren’t given expression.

Referencing a photograph taken by Bob Gosani in 1954 which features a pair of untroubled lovers locked in an embrace I suggested that such representations had existed during the most difficult period of our history. However, they weren’t innocent depictions;  in that era they also functioned as  “a political statement; a statement of defiance. By demonstrating that love continued to flourish in spite of oppression made clear that apartheid and the Nationalist government couldn’t control every aspect of life. Thus such images implied that the system could be overridden. Depictions of love in our era carry a different message. I believe that they articulate a kind of erasure, a denial of a hidden truth. Thus it is no longer a visual motif of defiance but one of denial.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Gugulective, Goniwe and the Politics of Race, again.

At the Bonani Africa Photography conference held in Cape Town this past week (ironically) titled, Beyond the Racial Lens The Politics of South African Documentary Photography, Past and Present, Thembinkosi Goniwe took issue with the comments I made in an earlier blog on Gugulective. While I was delighted that a post on my blog might be causing a stir his observations were totally unfounded.  His suggestion that I didn’t believe that artists working on the so-called periphery should be showing in commercial galleries conflicted with the views I had expressed. If he had in fact read my blog post carefully he would have noted that because I had been lobbying for artists who operated outside the commercial gallery circuit to be shown at the Goodman’s Project Space I was disappointed that Gugulective hadn’t delivered. 

He also suggested that this piece of writing was indicative of a tendency in (white) critics and arts writers in this country to foreground black artists’ biographical history rather than in engaging with their work. As I stated in my rebuttal at the conference I agree with this latter point - albeit that I think white artist's are often subject to this kind of reporting - but do not count myself as one of these writers. I do not believe that I paid any attention to the biographies of any of Gugulective members in my blog post. I simply referenced where they had been exhibiting before. The reason I did not discuss Gugulective’s work in my blog post in any depth was because I felt that there was little depth to the work: they had translated their stated intentions in such a literal way that there was no need for me to unpack the image - a fact which pained me given that I had implied in an ART SA article that the likes of Gugulective should be given such a platform. 

Goniwe should have read my blog post with the kind of care that he urges critics to extend to the work which they appraise. Though I believe that he had an axe to grind because I did not give his exhibition "SPace" a favourable review, I think that he also chose to assume that because I am white I assess the work of black artists differently to their white counterparts.  He should not make assumptions about me and my brand of criticism based on my race. By doing so he is enacting precisely what he is accusing me of doing.

Art criticism cannot flourish in this country if every time a white critic gives a black artist’s work a bad review they are accused of being a racist. Why is nothing said when a black artist’s work is received favourably when surely the same prejudice must also inform this reception? As it is I believe that many critics and writers censor themselves when writing about black artists work out of fear of appearing not to be politically correct. In this context white artists work is being subject to a more rigorous form of criticism than their black counterparts.  This is not a healthy situation and it is one that is further perpetuated if every time a white writer or critic is attacked or accused of racism when they make a negative comment about black artists work.

P.S. Just one final point that I want to make about Gugulective. My opinion about their show at Goodman Gallery's Project Space is an opinion about THAT exhibition and does not reflect how I feel about them as people or artists. They are young artists who simply weren't ready for a solo exhibition and I do not discount the fact that they may startle me with their art sometime in the future.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Demystifying Hillbrow: the X-Homes Johannesburg project

Like a devout Catholic visiting St Peter’s for the first time I stood below the Hillbrow Tower transfixed, marvelling at its wide concrete trunk. It was a novelty to be viewing this quintessential feature of the Joburg skyline close up, on foot. For a born and bred Joburger, such an experience is akin to “coming home”.
Like most Joburgers, my more recent forays into Hillbrow have been from the safety of a speeding car. From this vantage point you can’t glean very much – and I never dreamed that this would be a disadvantage.
Hillbrow might once have been a desirable spot, when in the seventies Italian, German and Portuguese immigrants installed European café society culture into the suburb, giving it a distinctly cosmopolitan feel. But in the late eighties it began to undergo a shift when an influx of South Africans looking to escape violent upheavals in the townships settled in the suburb and surrounding areas. By the late nineties Hillbrow had become home to a new set of immigrants; this time from the rest of the continent. Buildings were hijacked by thugs, landlords reneged on their responsibilities, the municipality cut off basic services and the physical appearance of the neighbourhood deteriorated dramatically.

For those who recalled a carefree youth in the area, the deterioration of Hillbrow became emblematic of the social and structural degeneration of the inner city, a consequence of a new political (dis)order. Guy Tillim’s sombre photographic essay, simply titled Joburg, which documented the grimy dilapidated interiors and exteriors of this collapsing urban landscape, encapsulated the degradation, unwittingly confirming that this European foothold had been lost. Submerged in a process of urban entropy it had become a locale for the impoverished, the disenfranchised and the dejected.

While reports about the Johannesburg Development Agency’s Better Buildings project, an initiative to reclaim, restore and reinvigorate dilapidated edifices in the suburb, surfaced, negative perceptions about Hillbrow have remained steadfast. But, of course, just as the rest of Joburg is constantly being reinvented, so too has Hillbrow’s character been steadily shifting over time. It’s just that no one noticed or cared; photographers and journalists have a keener interest in neglect and degradation.

The X-Homes project, an unconventional performance art initiative-cum-tour of the suburb funded by the Goethe Institute and curated by Christoph Gurk, offers us an in-depth and multi-perspectival view of Hillbrow. On foot. We might be observing life in this suburb but we are steeped in the action we encounter, which both confirms and contradicts the stereotypical ideas of the suburb. It’s not a one-dimensional place.
In a dagga smoke-filled flat we encounter a young woman who leads us into her bedroom. She puts us at our ease, addressing us as if we are prospective tenants. We begin to imagine life in this cramped flat that houses five young people. Makeshift bedrooms are created in the lounge area. Heavy fabrics hang from the ceiling, demarcating the different sleeping areas. Two young men are passing a joint. When I ask them what they do for a living they shrug their shoulders and laugh. The young woman’s boyfriend grows angry and starts to beat her. A knife is drawn and we are quickly escorted out of the flat.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Easy Come, Easy Go: Gimberg Nerf leave Facebook

The Dear John letter arrived in my Inbox a couple of days ago: Gimberg Nerf have left Facebook. It was the most sincere insincere Dear John letter I have received.  In the two weeks that Gimberg Nerf – the art collective/unit made up of Douglas Gimberg and Christian Nerf – existed in the virtual realm we know as Facebook they/he burned pretty bright.

For starters they befriended absolutely everyone in the art world in a matter of days, proving that this little community of ours isn’t terribly discerning. Nevertheless for us it was a highly amusing ride full of cheeky and, sometimes, lurid posts, pictures and pranks. Certainly in the past couple of weeks they explored the ‘depths’ – I use this designation with a full sense of irony it entails – of this social media tool and succeeded in some way in solidifying the Gimberg Nerf persona – albeit that ‘his’ visual appearance was slightly unstable, however, given ‘his’ rather awkward and contrived provenance it was to be expected. And in fact I had come to look forward to see exactly how this character might manifest next.

Of course, I do think that given more time, Gimberg Nerf would have felt more and more real to us. But, once they finally secured the prerequisite 666 friends thus achieving their devilish objective their scheme had reached its farcical conclusion.

Of course, the question remains is making art as easy as making so-called friends on FB as Gimberg Nerf suggests? If so it could valorise FB and the “practice” of F-booking thus ensuring that those who spend hours fashioning a status update or faking photos of themselves in some desirable foreign locale wouldn’t feel as if they have been staring into an endless void.  

I think what I like the most about the FB Gimberg & Nerf stunt is that it is to some degree untraceable that their “face” has disappeared and everything they have said and done has been erased. Of course, we have all those fun memories. But they will fade. Fast.

And perhaps that is ultimately what I have enjoyed about the FB Gimberg & Nerf stunt, they have shown all us Fbookers and the flimsy connections we make for what they are; shallow, self-serving and engineered to boost our egos/profiles.

Here I would like to refer to a quote that our long-lost friend Gimberg Nerf left us with upon their sudden departure (Warning: ensure there is a box of tissues nearby) that offers alternative meanings for the words friend, friendless and friendship:

Friend, n. An investigator upon the slide of whose microscope we live, move and have our being.

Friendless, adj. Having no favors to bestow. Destitute of fortune. Addicted to utterances of truth and common sense.

Friendship, n. A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Some questions about Gugulective...

The title of Riason Naidoo’s first major exhibition at SANG, Pierneef to Gugulective implies that while the discourse on South African art ‘begins’ with Pierneef, Gugulective in some way present or encapsulate our artistic trajectory in the present-day, the now. I have yet to see Naidoo’s exhibition – I will be in Cape Town soon and will be reviewing it for the Sunday Indy – so I haven’t a clue what this definitive Gugulective artwork/s might be, but suffice to say Naidoo has conferred this Cape Town-based artistic collective with some kind of import. Certainly it created some level of interest in their show titled Ityala aliboli/Debt don’t rot, at the Goodman Gallery Project Space at Arts and Main, which I had a look at this week.

This exhibition was significant to me for another reason. Earlier this year when I penned a trenchant opinion piece on the Arts on Main phenomenon in a column for Art South Africa, I more or less chided  Liza Essers for setting out to establish a space for cutting-edge new talent and then opting to show bankable names like Kentridge and Goldblatt. To temper this criticism I reminded readers that the space did host a segment of Simon Njami and Bettina Malcomness’ Us – the bulk of the show was staged at the Johannesburg Art Gallery - which I suggested did in fact include rising young talents who were not regulars on the commercial gallery circuit. As an example I cited Gugulective, who showed Amanzi Amdaka at the gallery.

So naturally, when I saw that Gugulective would be enjoying their own solo exhibition at the Goodman’s Project Space at Arts on Main, it crossed my mind that Essers had acted on my observations. Buoyed by the idea that the Project Space was shaping up to meet its original mandate, I arrived at Arts on Main feeling optimistic and with my little notebook in hand was committed to writing an in-depth review of the exhibition for the newspaper.

But my notebook remained empty.  There was nothing that I wanted to say about the work – other than that it was one-dimensional and dull. I did another turn in the gallery, perusing the enlarged prints of old money. On the bottom of the prints were deep etched photographs of people queuing. Yes, the prints did in fact articulate the exhibition’s stated theme, described by the gallery press release as “a postulation on the innocent, the marginalised and poor through the confrontation of the idea that South Africa’s economic crisis predates post-1994”   - but what an unimaginative and obvious expression of that idea. As were works made from “rat traps” embossed with the old government’s insignia. 

What could I possibly write? As I drove through the city back to our offices on Sauer Street I pondered not on the work I had seen but what happens when a group of artists working on the periphery of the art scene find themselves at the centre – does this immediately undercut their arguments – especially when they are said to be concerned with articulating the woes of the marginalised?

Furthermore: does their work lose its edge when it is shown in a conventional gallery space? In other words would this exhibition have had more significance if it had been shown at Kwa-Mlamli’s Shebeen in Gugulethu, where they have shown before? Is Gugulective’s appeal – particularly to the white dominated art world – founded on the environment in which they created and displayed their work rather than the work itself?

Fact is when an art object is displayed in a gallery space, it has to meet quite a different set of criteria - it is beholden to a canon, a history. Certainly a critic has this in mind. Based on the work on show at Goodman Gallery's Project Space I would venture that Gugulective are not ready to do a solo exhibition - even in a supposedly experimental space. If only the work was experimental.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Art and Capitalism

Ross Douglas probably had a stiff drink before he made his way into the Circa gallery Thursday last week. Inside I was waiting to give a talk on art and capitalism where I would be joined by David Brodie, Kobie Labuschagne, Marianne Fassler and Douglas in a panel discussion. It was part of a Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism programme organised by Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall of the Wiser Institute at Wits University. The audience were PHD students drawn from a number of disciplines.

Brodie took on the persona of the unapologetic commercial driven art player, confessing that gallerists were like drug dealers in the sense that they pushed their products on consumers, ensuring them that the brand of art that they were peddling would “make them feel good.”

It was satisfying to see that Douglas was no longer selling the art fair as an educational event  - but, of course, he continues to imply that the art fair is a much better alternative to a biennale. Douglas doesn’t get it and probably never will.  Brodie was quick to remind the audience – and indirectly Douglas too – that biennales and art fairs cannot be uttered in the same breath; they are completely different kinds of events with different objectives. 

Much to everyone’s surprise I didn’t talk about the art fair at all;  the interaction between art and capitalism is too obvious in that context and as an event that only takes place once a year its effect is minimal. We haven’t quite reached the stage where artists are producing art-fair-art - although I dare say we are heading in that direction.   I am more interested in the more nuanced and covert ways in which commercialisation shapes art production – such as corporate sponsored art competitions and corporate patronage. One of the questions that we were asked to address in our talks required us to reflect on the ways capitalism permeated art and how it might corrupt the purity of art – the implication here was that this economic paradigm and art were mutually exclusive.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Gimberg Nerf on Facebook

Douglas Gimberg and Christian Nerf’s project, or should one say objective, towards establishing a unified authorial identity in the world of art has reached its apogee with the entry of this “character” on Facebook. FB is the ideal place to concretise this “persona”; it is a virtual space where an identity can be invented and given credibility at the same time. Granted Gimberg Nerf is a bit of an odd looking bloke with a sort of Amish sensibility but his slightly jarring appearance seems appropriate given that he is made up of two separate people, the friction or slight incompatibility between the two should be palpable. This is such an appealing artistic gesture; it will be interesting to observe how Gimberg Nerf evolves in this social media realm.

Interview with Mary Sibande

IT IS MARY Sibande’s hands that I first study when she sits down. Weeks earlier I had been transfixed by the large hands on her alter ego, Sophie, a fibreglass replica of Sibande, in the artwork I Decline, I Refuse to Recline (2010), on show at the SPace exhibition. I thought that the large hands that reach out, in desperation, towards some invisible object, might have been part of a deliberate ploy: perhaps a way of underscoring Sophie’s avaricious pursuit of material comforts, her determination to survive and her status as a worker. It made sense; for Sibande the figure of the domestic worker isn’t a disempowered character at all, but a strong, powerful figure.
“I wanted to celebrate them (domestic workers). I think that they are heroes. It was so hard to put food on the table,” observes Sibande, looking down at her hands, which don’t look like the oversized appendages that I had seen on her sculpture.
Sophie might be a replica of Sibande’s body and Sibande might parade as this character in photographs, but their personae are nothing alike. Sibande is obviously more animated. She is garrulous, upbeat and her chatter is punctuated with laughter. And every so often she makes a poignant remark about her practice – although she confesses she isn’t good at articulating the ideas that shape her art.
“I am a sculptor, I like to make stuff. I know that I can’t talk about my work. I find it difficult to express what I want to say. Even when I speak in Swazi I have the same difficulties. It probably doesn’t help that I went to an Afrikaans school.”

Sibande was born in 1982 and grew up in Barberton, Mpumalanga, where she attended said Afrikaans school. Though she received a better education than other children in the township where she lived it kept her at a remove, forcing her into solitude.
“People thought that I thought I was better than them because I went to this other
school,” she recalls.
Sibande moved to Joburg in 2001 to study fashion; she only signed up for a degree in fine art at the University of Johannesburg because she missed the application date for the fashion course. But her fascination for fashion and clothing didn’t end; she has channelled it into her art. Sophie’s dress is the most expressive element of Sibande’s art and the fibreglass sculptures resemble mannequins. In this way Sibande is recasting, reinventing and challenging the fashion ideal.

It may seem incongruous for a young well-educated black woman to want to dress up and pose as a domestic worker; it defeats the aims and ambitious of the generation who fought for equality. Sibande suggests that by portraying a domestic worker she is stripping back the privileges that she has enjoyed and positioning herself in the long line of domestic workers from which she descends: since her great grandmother, all the women in her family have been more or less trapped by servitude.
“I wanted to put myself among these women, these maids. I am making a work out of their work,” she comments.
Sibande’s reverence for domestic workers manifests in her rendering of this figure. By situating Sophie in the realm of fantasy, by dressing her an elaborate pseudo-Victorian costume she does not emerge as a pitiful character but one with a degree of agency. It’s a twist on the conventional manner in which this persona has been cast in the public realm; under-paid and subject to the whims of fussy white madams, the domestic worker is more commonly viewed as a powerless and exploited worker who occupies the bottom echelon of our society. In other words the domestic worker was the ultimate victim of the skewed social and political system that once governed this country.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Thursday Night Art Crawl

In typical Joburg fashion there were three gallery openings all starting at 6pm on the same Thursday evening; the Brait-Everard Read Award show at Circa, a group show, entitled In Other Words at the Goodman and New African Photography at Gallery Momo. Art gluttons such as myself didn’t settle on attending one of the openings but had rather ambitiously set their sights on attending all three within the space of two hours. As I drove towards Parktown North, however, I saw that Eskom, in its usual untimely fashion, had put a spanner in the works. The suburb was in complete darkness and when I passed by Gallery Momo I saw people holding candles up to artworks – so I drove with the hope that Circa might have electricity. They did.

Circa’s exterior is impressive but it is not really a functional piece of architecture; the exhibition spaces feel cramped – particularly the space downstairs - and the space upstairs, which is meant to function as the primary exhibition area, feels like an entrance space that should lead onto something grander. Nevertheless because the venue does offer two disconnected spaces it is ideal for showcasing two bodies of work that are not interrelated, such as the work of the winners of this year’s Brait Everard Read Award: Carmen Sober and Gabrielle Goliath. 

I rarely miss viewing the Brait-Everard Read Award exhibition – the work is usually challenging and fresh. And this year’s winners didn’t disappoint, well, not completely. Both Goliath and Sober are pushing the limits of photography by destabilising the accuracy or veracity of the documentary mode as a purveyor of any fixed truths. Granted, not a new idea but they approached this objective quite differently. Goliath’s exhibition was an extension of her preoccupation with identity politics. Multiple portraits of young coloured women in identical outfits rendered in a sort of Pieter Hugo style (pervasive light illuminating the subject’s face) all functioned as portraits of someone called “Bernice.” Adjacent to this line of portraits was video footage revealing the “real” identities of these women, thus propelling a search for the actual Bernice, a name the artist also assumed. I wasn’t particularly enthralled – mostly because I felt that it was simply a reversal of the modus operandi she employed in Ek is 'n Kimberley Coloured.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The 'Grey Areas' debate 14 years later

No essays were feverishly penned. No impassioned articles or e-mails were quickly dispatched. There were no public declarations of outrage. Nor did groups of art students flock to view the “offending” artworks. It seemed in the days that followed the opening of the In Context exhibition at the Arts on Main complex last month that the display of Candice Breitz’s Ghost series (1994-1996) had gone without much notice.

Had the 14 years that had passed dulled the works’ hard transgressive edges? Certainly it seemed as if the white figures that dominate in this series of artworks had truly become spectral characters, withholding the secrets from South Africa’s vexed past. More than a decade ago the Ghost series and Breitz’s Rainbow series were anything but unobtrusive; not only were they at the centre of an explosive polemic that rocked the citadels of art academia, but when the debate moved into the public domain, it posed the most fundamental questions that plagued post-apartheid identity: could white people identify with black people and did anyone have the right to represent another?

Answers to these questions weren’t easy to identify, causing the debate to rage for years, finally culminating in the publication of Grey Areas, a collection of essays. Does the fact that the Ghost series has not caused any waves a second time indicate that the discourse has become irrelevant? Breitz, who has since been settled in Germany for some time, was keen to find out.
“I have no idea what to expect. I was curious as to what it would be like to insert these works into this context at this moment in time. The recent fiasco at Constitution Hill (with Lulu Xingwana) made me wonder whether this particular dialogue remains relevant. For as long as the history of apartheid and questions of race continue to play a central role in our understanding of who we are, such conversations need to continue,” observes the artist.
So while the dust may have settled on the “Grey Areas” debate, Breitz obviously remains haunted by it. Certainly all spheres of cultural production in South Africa were implicated and affected by the debate; issues of representation are as pertinent to literature as they are to journalism.

Ironically, few involved in the debate had actually seen Breitz’s Ghost series – it was exhibited at the Chicago Project Room in 1998 but has never been shown on South African soil until now. As with her Rainbow series, the Ghost series was created by manipulating existing imagery. Breitz took ethnographic postcards of black women in traditional garb, of the kind one would find in a tourist shop, and with the use of Tipp-Ex she transformed the women’s bodies, turning the black women “white” – hence the ghost alluded to in the title of the series, which also referred to women’s lack of status.
“I wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t already been said at that moment in time. African women have largely been represented in the public sphere through their absence. “What those works did was to very simply make the absence visible and to project the presence of the represented women as an absence. These kinds of images of black women (that I presented) are ultimately less about the women portrayed than they are about the white photographers who sell the imagery to white tourists with their particular ideas about Africa.”

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Reflecting on the Soccer Art Frenzy

GIANT body parts are scattered all over the workroom. A colossal woman’s head is balanced on a stick while an artist bends over her, pushing her plastic eyes into place. Massive sets of hands sit on a tabletop. The fingertips have yet to be covered by tan masking tape, so you can see the plastic bottles that have been used in their construction. Long strands of coarse rope, which will be used as hair, cascade down a spiral staircase in the corner of the workroom. The artists barely look up when we enter. With over 30 giant puppets, or grand personnes as the French participants in the Giant Match project call them, to complete before
the World Cup starts, there isn’t time to indulge curiosity. This room is one of many workrooms that colonise the 20-storey Wits University corner building. Over 100 puppet makers have been toiling in these rooms and in the theatre across the road since mid-April. Their frenzied creative work is emblematic of the heightened artistic activities that have been manifesting all around the city of Joburg in the run-up to the landmark sporting event. Artists, actors, dancers, curators, choreographers and theatre producers have within the last year been focused on creating artistic products to complement or coincide with the event. Never have the two contrasting fields of sport and art shared such synergy. Given the amount and variety of cultural products that have been designed to be staged during this international soccer extravaganza, it would be easy to think that it’s not just a sporting event but a huge cultural festival.

Although the Department of Arts and Culture’s promise of R150 million to fund tournament-related cultural projects didn’t materialise in the way that it should have, the art community forged ahead with the aid of foreign cultural agencies such as the Goethe Institute and the French Institute of South Africa, (Ifas), and other government bodies such as the City of Joburg and the Gauteng Provincial Government. That such a diverse cultural programme will run alongside the World Cup is testament to this robust and determined community, accustomed to fighting tooth and nail to survive without national government support and their keenness to exploit the opportunity the event has presented to showcase cultural products.

Undoubtedly, such efforts evince that the arts are not only relevant, in the sense that this sphere is able to engage with sporting activities, but have an equally important role to play in major events. Almost every sphere of the arts is presenting work during the World Cup: there is the African Film Festival at Africa Museum, musical and theatrical productions such as The Boys in the Photographs, but primarily it is large visual arts displays that dominate, including In Context, a multi-media multi-venue art exhibition, Without Masks, a large Afro-Cuban exhibition at the Joburg Art Gallery, SPace, a Pan-African exhibition
at Africa Museum, the aptly titled This is Our Time, an exhibition spread across Joburg and Cape Town venues (Brodie-Stevenson Gallery and Michael Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town), Halakasha!, a soccer-themed exhibition showing at the Standard Bank Gallery, Harun Farocki’s Deep Play, also at Joburg Art Gallery, and the bi-national Brazilian/South African exhibition called The Eleven Football and Art – Africa 2010 x Brazil 2014.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

SPace at Museum Africa

MINISTER of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwana cast a dark shadow over the art community when she expressed her disapproval and aimed to censor Zanele Muholi’s photographs of lesbians and Nandipha Mntambo’s contentious Rape Of Europa last year at the opening of Bongi Bengu’s Innovative Women: Ten Contemporary Black Women Artists. While her prejudice against homosexuals was troubling, it was the threat of artistic censorship that really rattled this community. Thus her association with this exhibition, SPace, immediately established a sense of unease. Had the curators submitted to a form of self-censorship in an effort to appease Xingwana’s narrow views on art?

Was the absence of Muholi’s works significant? Would Mntambo’s striking Rape of Europa have made another appearance if Xingwana and the government and/or City of Joburg weren’t funding this event?
Fortunately for Thembinkosi Goniwe and Melissa Mboweni, the curators of this large-scale exhibition, Xingwana did not live up to her promise to open the exhibition and thus indirectly her personality and attitudes were distanced from the show. It also gave Goniwe the chance to slip in a disparaging remark about Xingwana on the opening night, which seemed to confirm that her uninformed presumptions about contemporary South African art might not have had any impact on their curatorial vision.

And a grand vision it was: not only is this mega-Pan-African exhibition supposed to give tourists visiting this country within the next month a taste of contemporary African art, but Goniwe suggested that their mandate was to reposition negative, stereotypical attitudes around the continent. In this way ideas underpinning
this exhibition echo the sentiments that were driving Simon Njami’s Africa Remix, which showed at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2007. And as such all the self-same criticisms that Africa Remix attracted. The main one being, of course, that  challenging attitudes about Africa with an exhibition that implies that the continent is a united, single entity is self-defeating as it immediately conforms to western notions that Africa is a single homogeneous destination.

It’s a conundrum for sure: how do you redefine Africa without referencing Africa?
The title of the exhibition, SPace, (the upper-case “P” is meant to draw your attention to the word “pace”, too, which operates as a sort of submotif) directly addresses the complexities of reframing an imaginative and physical position. Given the rather awkward exhibition space at MuseumAfrika, where this exhibition is staged, you can’t help thinking that it also makes reference to the difficulties of actually placing and displaying art in museums and the conventions that underpin this activity. Certainly Goniwe and Mboweni have aimed to challenge some of those traditions by ensuring that the themes and subthemes of the exhibition – pleasure, beauty and intimacy – do not overburden the art, in the sense that the artworks’ connections to these themes are subtle. But the connections are far too subtle; so much so that in some instances even if you stretch the meaning of a work you still struggle to fit it with any of the themes – this also isn’t helped by the fact that there is no signage demarcating which subthemes are in play where.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

So who's the fairest photographer in the land?

On Saturday I joined David Goldblatt, Riason Naidoo, Thembinkosi Goniwe and Omar Badsha in judging the Bonani Africa Photography competition. Desperate to chillax after a heavy week I wasn’t totally looking forward to the task. But I really, really enjoyed the experience; though there were over fifty photographic essays to view on the whole they were mostly of a high standard so it was a pleasure sorting through them. It was interesting to see how some established names in the art/photo world compared with newcomers and photo journalists making the cross-over into art photography. Naturally, it was a pleasure to spend time with Goldblatt and I relished hearing his views on the work as we wrestled over who the three finalists should be. I learnt a lot about the mechanics and poetics of photography listening and arguing with Goldblatt. I do hope that when I am 79 years old that I am as sharp and perceptive. It was also interesting to gage where Goniwe and Naidoo’s heads are at too. It was fascinating to observe the kind of photographic work and the predominant themes that are emerging in this realm of visual production and to see the photographs that don’t make into commercial galleries. Largely the work wasn’t highly conceptual; for art-artists entered the competition -  the bulk of the work was more journalistic in its orientation in terms of social subject-matter with many essays documenting communities on the fringes, the fall-out from the xenophobic attacks and the city of Joburg (I am starting to tire of this theme).
What was interesting was the way in which we reached consensus quite quickly; it seems that a “good” photograph is easy to identify – albeit that it is difficult to verbally articulate the elements that contribute to its success. In other words the tangible qualities that characterise a successful shot are paradoxically at times just as intangible. This was particularly the case with one of the winners, whose name I obviously can’t reveal but whose work is simply sublime and while one can ‘name’ some of the reasons why this is so, it is similarly hard to really nail down that exact element that separates it from the rest. It was a really stimulating day and when we finally sat down to lunch we ended up tackling that old when-is-photography-art chestnut. Yeah, right. 

*The photograph above was not one of the entries; it is a photo taken by Mkhize Khabazela from the Market Photo Workshop. I just picked this one out to tie in the with soccer frenzy that seems to have gripped Joburg

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What Bollocks!

Did anyone read that extract of Gavin Sourgen’s (has anyone heard of him?) essay from the book “Sport versus Art” that was reprinted in the M & G a couple of Fridays ago? The inaccuracies in Sourgen’s essay have really been bugging me; he clearly isn’t really that au fait with the art world or the South African cultural scene. For your amusement and to exorcise some of my annoyance with his illogical and uninformed observations I will share with you some of his flawed 'insights':

Sourgen presents a dichtomised view of the local cultural landscape suggesting that on one end of the spectrum lies the “indelicate and profitable creations that draw on a cache of trite, imperceptive assertions about poverty, race relations and other such social discrepancies”. At the other end of the field are “those more intelligent and penetrating works that are relegated to the shadowy corners of unknown theatres, galleries and bookstores for their unwillingness to concede to the pressures of cultural cliché.” Hardly a nuanced or accurate reading; from this perspective products which engage with race relations and other social discrepancies can only ever be trite and commercial. This is simply untrue. What about John Kani’s Nothing but the Truth, Craig Higginson’s Dream of the Dog (now showing at the West End) or the art of David Goldblatt, Santu Mofokeng, and Michael McGarry?  Aside from the fact that trite schlock rarely engages with issues pertaining to race relations I wonder given that musicals are the most popular form of theatre in the UK and the US whether the same framework applies to the cultural landscape in those respective countries? But I think where he really displays his ignorance is when he states that one has to “ferret through the small print of an independent newspaper to locate the latest Kentridge exhibition in a mysterious region of the urban hinterland.”
Before I address this ridiculous remark about Kentridge; I have to ask; what is an independent newspaper? Is it one that is not aligned to any print monopoly – not even the neighbourhood knock n’ drop papers are “independent” – perhaps he means the SA Art Times but even that paper is aligned with its overseas parent, the Art Times, as the M & G is with Guardian newspapers and The Sunday Independent, which is anything but independent; we are part of the global entity called Independent News & Media Group, which is (mostly) owned by the baked bean Irish kings, the O’Reillys. Or does he mean editorial independence? The chance of a small independent paper, which is even more heavily indebted to its patrons, asserting editorial independence is rare.
Besides Kentridge’s work has been written about extensively for years not only in The Sunday Independent-but-not-independent and The Star, The Times and Sunday Times but internationally, there have been articles on Kentridge in a number of mainstream papers too from the Washington Post to The Financial Times.
His claim that Kentridge exhibitions are shown in “mysterious regions of the hinterland” is also pretty absurd given that his work has in the last couple of decades mostly been shown in mainstream commercial galleries such as the Goodman in its Joburg and Cape Town galleries – the Joburg gallery is located in the heart of northern suburbia and not in some far flung “hinterland” either.  Kentridge’s opera, The Magic Flute, (which also engaged with matters pertaining to race) was staged in a mainstream commercial theatre too, the Joburg Theatre, formerly the Civic Theatre, which is usually home to “a cache of trite” work that Sourgen eschews.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sessions at Africa Museum

On Saturday I was part of a panel discussion centred on “Education on Contemporary African Art in Schools, Universities and the Media”  - it was part of the SPace exhibition programme. Naturally, I was there to speak about the media’s role in educating the public about contemporary African art. I am not sure that the talk I presented was terribly satisfying for the organisers, particularly as I believe that educating the public about art is not art criticism’s primary goal; as the term implies its main function is to critically appraise art. Is there any point to creating art if no one critically engages with it? Even though some might argue that contemporary practice is characterised by a self-reflexive brand of art that has an inbuilt recognition of its ideological flaws, is it not important that those works too are subject to a close reading that is made available within the public realm?
Mostly my paper - which was entitled Speaking in Tongues: Does the language of art criticism enlighten or obfuscate?  - dealt with the constant struggle to settle on a vocabulary that serves the two contradictory audiences of art criticism; the general public and the art community. Given that many writing about art or editing copy about art in the media have never formally studied art, I suggested that the media is not in the ideal position to educate society about art.
But after my fellow panellists, which included people from various spheres of education, with representatives from universities, township schools and private schools, outlined the gargantuan challenges facing art education in this country it became clear to me that failures in our education system are placing an extra burden on art critics who work in the mainstream media; not only do we have to write copy for a visually illiterate audience but we are expected to bridge the gaps in their knowledge of art which should have been addressed at school level. This burden does not make for great art writing, certainly not one that serves the artist and/or the art community, which demand in-depth analysis not just superficial entertaining copy.  I believe that art critics and writers should be driven to create meaningful documents about art that have long-term value.
I detest that kind of art reporting - I use the term reporting here, as I am referring to a brand of writing which I distinguish from criticism – that evinces a marked emphasis on the biographical nature of the artist and anecdotal information. In this kind of writing the biographical or social context is foregrounded. This strategy often detracts from the work and as Candice Breitz observed during an interview I did with her a couple of week’s ago “is almost a scheme to stall or prevent interpreting it.”

The panel discussion was really illuminating; I had no idea how bad the state of art education was in this country. Once I get through the current features I am working on I intend engaging with this issue more fully in a large-scale feature/expose for the paper. Perhaps the most shocking statistic that emerged on Saturday was the fact that 99 percent of school teachers teaching art in government schools are not qualified to do so. Apparently some have been sent on courses to arm them with knowledge about art but these courses are only THREE DAYS long. This appalling situation affects the size and quality of audiences for art, it affects sponsorship and patronage of the arts.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

In Context: Kentridge at JAG

I know that it has become totally uncouth to enjoy a Kentridge exhibition. But from the moment I stepped into the centre of this exhibition of eight projections, which covered every wall of one room at JAG I was swept up by the imagery. Here is my review:

It seems fitting that artist William Kentridge has become transfixed with Nikolai Gogal's short story, The Nose (1837), a narrative centred on a man whose nose detaches from his face and goes on to lead a more successful existence than its owner. On some level, this metaphoric tale echoes the manner in which Kentridge's artworks and reputation have taken on a life of their own in the wake of his international success.
Kentridge has achieved a level of recognition where the value attached to his art is no longer always determined by the work itself but its association with him. This level of success places him and his work in an ambiguous position within the local art world - although he is revered many look upon his work, his persona, with cynicism. Feeding this contradictory response are efforts by local gallerists to display and celebrate almost any items which have passed through Kentridge's studio or are connected with his talent - an exhibition of dated theatre posters by Kentridge at the now-defunct Warren Siebrits Gallery comes to mind. This is not unusual; it's part of a well-established practice of canonising artistic genius. Thus in many respects within the realm of the media, art history, Kentridge is transforming into someone he has no control over. This idea resonates with the title of his exhibition I am not me, the horse is not mine, an absurd statement alluding to an implausible denial of selfhood. It is not a new work; it was first staged at the Sydney Biennale in 2008 and, like much of his recent artistic output, emerged during the preparation for his production of Dimitri Shostakovich's The Nose, which was shown to great acclaim at New York's Metropolitan Opera this year. This artwork/installation consists of eight projections that are interre-lated and play simultaneously, parading collaged animations and real-life footage relating to Russia's Stalinist era, the visual iconography associated with that period, and amusing drawings relating to the unruly Nose. The eight screens are placed side by side around a room, bombarding one with a cacophony of imagery that is at once confusing and exciting.

Like the nose in Gogal's story, which has legs of its own, this work too has value independent of the opera production. Its worth isn't necessarily based on Kentridge's burgeoning fame either - albeit that it is tricky to isolate his persona from his work. Their importance lies in the manner in which it acutely articulates our current political quagmire as well as local artists' inability or struggle to identify a new vocabulary that addresses/expresses post-apartheid conditions. Kentridge establishes these concepts by summoning the visual iconography of Russian Constructivism, a post-revolutionary language, a sort of East-bloc derivitive of modernism that was designed to serve the needs of an emerging nation with a new political dispensation.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ten reasons why I can't attend another soccer-themed exhibition

1.    I suffer from a peculiar affliction: every time I see a soccer ball my mind immediately goes blank
2.    I have soccer practice on – my version of soccer practice involves practicing at not watching anything that is related to soccer
3.    I have another soccer-themed exhibition to view
4.    My mind still hasn’t kicked back into action since I viewed the last soccer-themed play/dance/exhibition
5.    I am not actually in Joburg – I am in Grahamstown reviewing other soccer cultural products at the National Arts Festival
6.    I have a soccer ball attached to my head and I can’t see anything – absurd but could happen if you did a header and the ball burst
7.    I will be there the moment that a sports event becomes the be all and end all of my life (this is perhaps a bit too truthful)
8.    I was there, didn’t you see me: I was the one with a giant soccer ball on my head (see 6)
9.    I was there among a crowd of German tourists with makarapas on their heads
10.    Sorry, I have to stay home and crotchet  Bafana Bafana scarves for myself and their three other fans

Soccer season certainly hasn’t translated into a go-slow period for cultural producers or institutions; since returning to the office after a three week holiday I have been inundated with invitations to view plays, dance performances and art and photographic exhibitions. Of course, almost all of them are soccer themed: catering for that large group of soccer fans who also happen to be art lovers - NOT.
Ok, they are not all dreadful: my introduction to this peculiar ‘genre’ shall we call it on Friday night at the Market Theatre wasn’t too painful. It was a provocative interdisciplinary piece titled Off-side Rules, which I will be reviewing for the paper next week. It mostly undermined all the hullabaloo around the World Cup, showing it to be nothing but an expedient political sham used to paper over the cracks in our society – that’s the really oversimplified version; in reality it was a challenging piece that  reversed societal conventions or rules.   But frankly my interest in cultural products that engage with soccer is at an all time low: I might be proven wrong but I feel like when you have seen one of them you have seen them all. This is a bit problematic given my Inbox is full of invitations for soccer-themed events. Hence I devised ten reasons why I can’t attend exhibitions during this soccer mad season.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tracy Murinik's A Country Imagined

Recently a prominent academic and writer admonished South African cultural producers for their fixation with the land, implying that this obsession had become clichéd, dull and predictable. He accused artists of either projecting romanticised views on to the African landscape, rendering it as this earthy, barren and unoccupied space that tested the human spirit of endurance, or being confined to narratives that dwelt on the socio-political politics attached to land. Both pursuits could result only in tired, dour and unimaginative forms of expression, he said.

A Country Imagined, which is showing on SABC2 at 9pm on Sundays, focuses on exploring a myriad cultural products that feature or are inspired by the land, so it gives credence to the idea that our artists are preoccupied with this topic. Of course, this subject is not just confined to artistic circles; land reform or redistribution also remains a political hot potato.

But isn't a fixation with the land universal? In 2005 the BBC ran a similar series, A Picture of Britain, which explored the history of pictorial representations of the landscape. Commenting on the series, presenter David Dimbleby noted that "we don't just love landscape in Britain... it is part of our culture and we look at it in a particular way because we have been led to do so by artists".

Dimbleby's observation goes straight to the heart of the importance of such a study, particularly one accessible to a large TV audience, it allows us to see the ways in which our view of our country has been shaped by representations of it. Of course, those who have spent any time studying representations of the African landscape executed during the colonial era will know how influential these portrayals were in perpetuating or justifying the political imperatives of the day. With respected art historian Tracy Murinik behind A Country Imagined, no doubt these issues will come into focus as the series progresses. But it would also be interesting to learn how today's art is propelled by our new political dispensation. This South African series isn't a carbon copy of A Picture of Britain; while it, too, has a non-expert in the form of Johnny Clegg presenting, it hasn't confined its study to rural destinations as the BBC series (and accompanying Tate exhibition) did. It has also embraced urban destinations, which is just as well considering the gazillion artworks and writings on Joburg.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Terry Kurgan's Hotel Yeoville

Yeoville is like another country. This is what artist Terry Kurgan proposes at a press briefing for her latest public art project dubbed Hotel Yeoville. Certainly for liberal whites like her who perhaps squandered parts of their youth in the bohemian cafes and clubs that once flanked Raleigh Street, Yeoville is unrecognisable. Its character and population has shifted considerably since the late nineties when migrants from around the African continent from such places as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ghana, Mozambique and, of course, Zimbabwe, settled in the neighbourhood and reinvented it to suit their needs. Though a few South Africans remain in the suburb, it is estimated that more than 70 percent of the suburb's residents hail from the rest of the continent.

The physical infrastructure of the neighbourhood is dilapidated, but the streets are buzzing with activity and trade is brisk with an abundance of small shops, hair salons and internet cafes attracting locals. The stylised signage that advertises some of these establishments has a distinctly West African vibe; the images recall the personality of the art of Chéri Samba, a painter from the DRC, whose work was exhibited at the Johannesburg Art Gallery during the Africa Remix exhibition. So for all intents and purposes Yeoville perhaps does look like "another country" - albeit an African one.

Kurgan's statement is not only revealing of the physical changes that have taken place in the neighbourhood, but of the disconnect between South Africans and the migrant communities that have settled in Joburg's inner city suburbs. During the xenophobic attacks which saw thousands of African nationals victimised by South Africans in 2008, this unseen community came into focus. Kurgan suggests that the media's gaze directed attention to this community's most vulnerable and disempowered members, creating a slightly false, if not unrepresentative picture of the foreign African population in this country.

Her aim is to counter-balance some of those sensationalist images that ran on the front pages of newspapers depicting migrants as victims of violence by summoning the more everyday details of their lives.
"There is political importance in becoming familiar with the every day life of this community," urges Kurgan.One senses that the Hotel Yeoville project is driven to not only get an authentic grasp on this community which lives on the fringes of our society, but to satiate our curiosity; who are they? Why have they come here?