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.