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.