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?
As Riason expresses in the article he does feel that his race has been the sticking point in Cape Town. Certainly, from my own experience Cape Town does at times feel like the last outpost. At the Bonani Africa Photography conference recently, Mario Pissaro observed in his presentation that few local black artists have been able to break into the scene. According to him, Cape Town galleries have a preference for more "exotic" Africans from other parts of the continent. There is some truth to this but it also worth noting that Nicholas Hlobo and Nandipha Mntambo among others established a name for themselves in Cape Town. Race is still an issue in this country and perhaps the racial divide manifests more acutely in particular regions and/or echelons in society, but I think that we shouldn’t always offer racial difference as an explanation for every phenomenon or disagreement, when there may be other forces at work.
It is also worth bearing in mind that Capetonians consider anyone who hails from elsewhere as an outsider, whether they be black or white, from Joburg or Durban. Is Smith even aware of the regional differences in this country: or is it too much to expect a British journalist to grasp the nuances of our culture?
In light of this it is worth observing that when Clive Kellner took over at JAG, he also faced a bit of “backlash” for removing the permanent display, also consisting of some old colonial master’s work. Many were critical and surprised (including Kellner himself) by his appointment; that a white male had been selected to head the gallery. Many have also viewed Antoinette Murdoch’s appointment at JAG with some scepticism. Is it because she is female, white or because under her guidance the Joburg Art Bank was a bit of a failure?
Despite the fact that our public galleries aren’t that well patronised, they occupy a special place for most of us in the art community for it is often in these buildings that we first began to identify our passion. As such we are protective of them and those who are trusted with overseeing them will always be subject to vigorous criticism and will always have to prove themselves worthy of the huge responsibility that has been entrusted to them.
I don’t think that Lloyd Pollack’s review of Riason’s exhibition should have been carried on the front page of the SA Art Times – its placement worked at establishing Pollack’s opinion as fact and sensationalised his opinion. Hence Smith treated it as a factual claim. Certainly, Pollack and Clarke-Brown do not represent the art world establishment – a fact I am sure they would not dispute.
Ironically, on the weekend that Smith’s ridiculous story appeared on The Guardian’s website my largely – I had a few criticisms - positive review of the Pierneef to Gugulective appeared in The Sunday Independent. Read it below:
It’s an extravagant visual spectacle. Every bit of wall space of every room at the South African National Gallery is colonised by art. And not just ordinary work, but key pieces that define South African art are in abundance. You could almost declare Riason Naidoo’s 1910-2010: Pierneef to Gugulective exhibition a visual assault, if it weren’t for the negative connotations. In the manner of a blockbuster or mega exhibition, such a glut of art is offered that you are forced to be selective about which of the discreet dialogues to follow.
As the title of this exhibition implies, Naidoo has attempted to chart 100 years of South African art, with works by Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef and Gugulective forming to the two book-ends. The fact that this brobdingnagian narrative begins with Pierneef’s pastel-coloured landscapes and ends with conceptual work by a collective of artists, is some indication of the radical socio-political and art historical shifts that have occurred during the past century.
Most curators or historians would baulk at such a task; particularly one which would force them to make definitive statements about such a huge period. Naidoo’s solution is simply to side-step framing his exhibition with any single over-arching statement. The exhibition is largely chronological and follows historical themes moving from the meeting between the colonial and the African, to meditations on the landscape, to urbanity, the conditions of apartheid, to the struggle movement, democracy or the post-apartheid era.
It’s an expected trajectory but Naidoo has inserted quite a number of surprises by insinuating contemporary artworks into historical periods and layering multiple narratives. In this way he is able to “talk back” to the past. So while he establishes a particular narrative thread he also works at destabilising it. This curatorial strategy is perhaps best demonstrated in the first room of the exhibition, which plots the beginning of the colonial era. Idealised landscape paintings by Pierneef evince a barren environment ripe for imperial domination. These representations of the landscape, however, are thrown off kilter by a contemporary painting by Wayne Barker, Blue Colonies (1995), which mocks Pierneef’s visual and political thrust. In this way the viewer is always aware that the history presented to them is conditional.
Adjacent to these landscapes, Naidoo juxtaposes anthropological images of Africans such as photographs by Alfred Duggan-Cronin with images that show Africans representing themselves, such as artworks by Gerard Bhengu. Of course, Bhengu did sell these to Europeans, so they did in some ways pander to needs of these patrons. But Bengu’s representations differed from those executed by his white contemporaries, and by placing his art side-by-side with that of Duggan-Cronin, Naidoo not only writes Bengu into the canon but, most importantly, establishes multiple viewpoints from which to observe the past.
In the next room, he juxtaposes black urban existence with works – dating from the 1940s to 1950s – by Alexis Preller, Irma Stern and Walter Battiss that evince these painters’ insistence on portraying black subjects enjoying a simple rural existence. Two paintings by George Pemba, The Audience (1960) and The Yellow Pitcher (1946), show contrasting depictions of black life. In the former, two sweethearts sip on their sodas while watching a film. This image shows a happy, carefree existence. In the latter, a black man is shown cleaning in the foreground. Behind him is a white couple, thus evoking the tension between the oppressors and the oppressed. What these two contrasting images establish is not just the manner in which black people wore a mask of servitude in the presence of white folk but the fact that life under a repressive system wasn’t simply one of pain and suffering – that there was room for love and laughter. This notion links up with Jacob Dlamini’s recent novel Native Nostalgia, which in his effort to show all the gradations of life under apartheid destabilised one-dimensional accounts of black existence during oppressive rule.
Certainly with this mega-exhibition Naidoo is seeking to capture all shades of life and a range of philosophical paradigms that have shaped art. Our political history does overshadow art production or is inseparable from it – creating the impression there has been little room for artists to engage with inner dialogues particular to their practice. A large and varied display dedicated to the minimalist aesthetic, however, gives expression to a discourse centred on form. Here Naidoo pairs photographs of troughs in a barren landscape by Nigel Fogg executed in the 1980s with high modernist minimalist paintings by Albert Newell such as Opposition of Related Forms (1957), establishing a common trajectory between photography and painting. Adding to this meditation on form is a display of Ndebele aprons, which is a pleasant surprise as it shifts the focus away from these items’ historical ethnographic significance and turns it on to its design value. It’s a wonderful twist.
At times the “conversations” Naidoo sets up between art works are a little superficial as they are based on the visual synchronicity between images. This obviously works with minimalism because it is all about form, but in other instances it flattens meaning. In places he also risks being embroiled in labyrinthian conversations that create confusion. Tagged on to the end of this exhibition is a small selection of works from the “Us” show that feels like an awkward appendage. Nevertheless these failings do not detract from the value of this grand exhibition, which proves Naidoo to be a ballsy and astute curator.