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.