|Interior of Moad. pic by Mary Corrigall|
"Museums are where art goes to die," observes artist Christian Nerf a few days before the opening of one of his first commercial gallery shows at Art On Paper. He's reflecting on the growing irrelevance of South Africa's public art institutions, which used to provide a space for artists like himself who have worked outside of the commercial gallery circuit.
This idea appeared to be confirmed by the poor turnout at a recent opening at the Johannesburg Art Gallery for the exhibition Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women and Art, a peripatetic show presenting works by famous artists - Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic - "to promote awareness of the root causes of violence against women". Conspicuously absent at the opening were members of the art community. Politically-correct women themed shows have never held much appeal with this crowd, however, the lack of interest seemed emblematic of a larger issue. Since the vision driving this crumbling institution has come to be dominated by a resolve to fix the edifice's structural problems - a leaking roof - over its function as a cultural institution, it has predictably lost its cachet among the city's intelligentsia.
The loss of support by the art community is a knock this cash-strapped institution can ill afford. Jag has infamously held little appeal for inner city residents. Its colonial architecture, heavily guarded entrance and strong police presence have led many to believe it is a police station, a destination you wouldn't want to visit. Artists with a keen interest in architecture, like Stephen Hobbs, believe that if the gallery's facade changed, inhabitants would have a different relationship to it.
"If an alien spaceship crashed into the side of Jag it would be a good thing; it would force a radical shift," mused Hobbs.
From this perspective, Joburg's inner city needs another museum like it needs another group of marching strikers. Yet, blocks away from Jag, there has been a flurry of activity around a dilapidated building on Commissioner Street that has now officially become the home of Moad, the Museum for African Design. It doesn't look like much of a museum or a design museum for that matter; little visible work has been done to the exterior of the building, which once served as premises for a panel beater.
You would expect a design museum to appear as a design object itself, but these kinds of formalities and traditions, along with many others that define a museum - such as insulation, light and temperature monitors, have been discarded. As anyone who roamed the building two days before the opening can attest, this "museum" has been slapped together. This is the not the culmination of a decade-long plan, such as Fiona Rankin Smith and Julia Charlton's Wits Art Museum. It's a low-cost solution to resolve Jonathan Liebmann's desire to add a cultural centre that celebrates design to his burgeoning Maboneng district.
From the very start, with the Arts on Main centre, the district has always been linked to culture and design. This is what has made it desirable and fashionable. With the aid of Daffoncio and Associates Architects, Maboneng is a product of design, boasting a distinctive industrial minimalist aesthetic that visibly maps the territory of this aggressive regeneration property development owned by Propertuity.
"To call this place a museum is a stretch," observes David Adjaye, the Tanzanian-born London based architect, in the country as a guest of Southern Guild to open Moad. Adjaye is an expert where museums are concerned; not only is this world famous architect currently tasked with building the Smithsonian Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington DC but he has designed spaces for exhibitions, most recently a collection of photographs by Richard Avedon at the Gagosian in New York. In the context of Moad, he views the use of the title "museum" more as a provocation than a statement of fact.
"This is a project site," he says.
In many ways Moad's appearance is an affront to architecture; it's a bare, unadorned skeleton of an industrial building that has gone untouched by the hand of designers.Structurally, its also unsound; as Adjaye points out, there are "badly performing balustrades everywhere".
Yet, Adjaye is excited by the space, its informality and its makeshift nature. "This is the most radical proposition for a design museum I have seen. It proposes an immediate use beyond gentrified loft apartments or artists' studios?"
It also presents an alternative model for cultural space in emerging cities. "You don't need $200 million to get a cultural space, you can just get on with it."
The industrial setting comes as no surprise; while the 20th century was about mass production, the late 20th century has seen an onslaught of artists and artisans taking over spaces of labour, turning these industrial sites into very twee design settings, observes Adjaye. "It's part of a weird nostalgia and the romance continues with this proposition of a museum that is not a pristine box but is part of an the abandoned factory on the urban block with nothing done to it. Whether they know it or not it is genius."
Aaron Kohn, the American director of Moad, is aware the museum is untraditional and plans on exploiting this to encourage visitors.
"We are talking about putting a museum in a place where nobody cares about museums," says Kohn. It's hard hearing this articulated by a foreigner.
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Kohn's plan at shifting this culture seems primarily to rest on establishing this museum as a place where people party - hence the cocktail bar at the entrance, a DJ station on top of the scullery and space to accommodate live music gigs. Moad is not quite a nightclub with culture thrown in; the bar is in service of informalising the space and is expected to generate income to support the cultural programme, which will be dependent on sponsorship deals or funds raised through events. Design tenants will also be added at some point, which will sit easily in this unadorned factory.
The industrial setting also gives context to some of the design pieces on its inaugural show by Southern Guild, observes Julian McGowan, one of the directors of this design broker firm that is presenting its new collection at Moad. "A lot of the work is about industry so it fits into this space. When we did a show at the Everard Read Gallery it was a little rarefied," says McGowan.
A solid black steel fireplace and table by Gregor Jenkins that forms part of this Southern Guild collection certainly belongs in this industrial setting. These items are crude and seemingly utilitarian, though they are sleek and desirable. The four pipes that form the basis of the fireplace appear part of the building. The scale of the pieces also makes sense in this capacious museum. As does a wooden chair by Cameron Platter, dubbed Juliette, which is painted and carved so as to appear like one of those ubiquitous cheap white plastic chairs that security guards sit in, or even factory workers. Michael MacGarry's Faro-RLV 3-10, a fictional futurised unmanned field artillery cannon for an imagined Nigerian army, also appears like the product of mass production, though it is a once-off art object. Creating once-off art items that resemble mass produced or everyday products that you wouldn't associate with haute-design or art are fitting for this context and cheekily challenge appearances. Other items in the collection don't fit the environment at all, like the craft items that reveal the work of the human hand, or domestic furniture items.
There seems little logic driving the selection or display of the objects; it doesn't appear as if anyone has given any thought as to the relationship between them - or how this could be exploited. There is no binding narrative that mediates visitors experience of the diverse works. McGowan says he didn't want to adopt a theme during the commissioning phase as "that would have made it too easy for the designers".
This approach might have engendered more creativity, but the showcase doesn't read as an exhibition or one appropriate for a museum, even a makeshift one. South African design might be in its nascence - its birth a corollary to the New South Africa - but given this cultural space is the first to open a discourse on design, the museum should have launched with a tentative statement.
Adjaye describes the factory aesthetic as "not dividing" in the sense that for people who are not educated about art or accustomed to formal spaces, which engenders the notion that such edifices or institutions are not geared for them, "the factory might be familiar, places they have worked in. They will feel encouraged to come in."
This may be a consequence of the setting, but Kohn doesn't seem to have his sights set on attracting the inner city community outside of Maboneng. When I ask him about this aspect, which has haunted Jag for decades, he suggests that as Antoinette Murdoch, Jag's director, has sought advice from Liebmann and himself about attracting people to the city, it is an issue that they have already resolved.
Kohn's focus is on establishing Moad as a platform for African design - and by African, he means design from outside our borders. He has even arrived at a quota for the provenance of the prospective work that will go on display.
"At least 78 percent of the work should be non-South African," he says. This may be at odds with the opening show by Southern Guild, which presents mostly work by South African designers, but "the goal is to showcase design from the rest of the continent. It is happening overseas and those connections don't seem to happen in Africa itself. So little has been done here."
This ethos is partly in response to the parochialism Kohn has observed in the local art market, which largely showcases and collects South African artists, though this is changing. Kohn is keen to break this narrow purview as well as create Afrocentric shows that travel the continent - to places such as the Contemporary Centre for Arts in Lagos.
African design is a murky term that some contemporary African designers have worked hard to challenge, largely because it is predicated on historical stereotypes. Local fashion designers, for example, grew so weary of the African prefix attached to design that followed post-apartheid euphoria that there was a move against producing designs that overtly stated their African provenance.
When Africa Fashion International first introduced Africa Fashion Week to the South African circuit in 2009, many designers from other parts of Africa, or those toiling in Europe, initially presented collections that overstated their ethnic roots, believing this is what guaranteed their place on this platform. The African tag isn't neutral and it's one it seems that designers have worked against or have reinforced.
You can see this at play at the Southern Guild exhibition, which includes a beech chest by Doktor and Misses that is given its African twist via an Ndebele-like pattern hand-painted on its surface. Or a ceramic vase by Ardmore Ceramic Art that boasts an elephant motif in its design. The so-called biography baskets by Gone Rural evince a more self-reflexive approach to craft, allowing the stories of artisans to be embedded in a series of loosely woven baskets via a recording inside.
Since working on his book Urban Africa, a photographic study of cities around the continent, Adjaye has come to believe that African cities can't be read as a singularity; the spectrum of architectural and urban phenomena is too broad and rooted in its geography.
"Each designer has to answer for themselves what is African. History reveals the continent to have been infatuated by representational narratives, the continent was brilliant at creating figuration and abstraction in a profound way. But the continent has also birthed fractalising and tessellating. To me this is what is intrinsically African design. It has exploded again in fashion and mining of African aesthetics but it gets uploaded into a generic because the continent hasn't upheld this aesthetic and we have categorised it within the cocoon of quirky primitivism."
The conflict around African design could be linked to the crisis in African identity. Adjaye agrees with this view but he is of the opinion that this crisis can be resolved through design.
"I think design is one of the great vehicles to create synthesis and new images. When a culture stops modernising its own culture, reinventing its own history and knowing what it is debunking, it can become paralysed." - published in The Sunday Independent, November 3, 2013.