Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Resistance is Futile

Urban Art inside the Joburg Art Gallery

I MET the graffiti or urban artist (as they like to be called these days) Curio a few blocks down from the Maboneng precinct and he wasn’t that keen to chat to me. Having remained anonymous for so long he was uncomfortable talking about his graffiti, mostly tags of his pseudonym that had become more and more embellished with time. I was struck by his desire for invisibility and the curious way in which he claimed and sought out visibility through his tags. The same contradiction underlies the Tokolos Stencil Collective, the anonymous group of supposed “activists” who recently gained prominence when they defaced Michael Elion’s controversial Madiba-inspired work on the Sea Point Promenade in Cape Town. They, too, conceal their identities, yet make bold stabs at drawing attention to themselves.

Graffiti was institutionalised by the time I encountered Curio. It was during the 2012 Urban Arts Festival and Lazoo, Mak1one and Rasty were working with him on a large work dubbed Mr Vandal, a large man-made graffiti superhero commissioned by the festival and supported by the surrounding businesses at its location.
Like a lot of the work that these artists were spraying all over Joburg’s inner city, it was a wry reference to the way in which graffiti had not only become a mainstream preoccupation (as with superheroes), but to the role it played in gentrification, paving the way for the middle classes and suburbanites to reclaim parts of the city that had fallen into the hands of the destitute.

That the boundaries of Maboneng, or “hipsterville” as Rasty dubbed it, are marked by large graffiti works is proof of the way it has been co-opted by the middle classes and how this medium’s once-subversive thrust has been neutralised.
This fact appeared to be a source of pride because it meant that graffiti no longer had negative connotations. Through its legitimisation, those engaged in it could be elevated to “artists”, show their works in galleries and make a living through public and commercial commissions.
At the same time legitimation seemed to undermine the medium and its characteristics. It was meant to be done under the cloak of anonymity, late at night – not endorsed by any authority.
For this reason, the community of artists who came together for this festival celebrated the medium’s evolution and how this profited the craft, allowing for more creativity, greater exposure and the gaining of celebrity status on social media.
There was an awareness that it had lost its subversive edge.
For those like Curio who were uneasy with this, the only way of clawing back its anarchic vibe was to reject the “artist” label.
“My work means nothing,” he reiterated in an effort to close down our conversation and prevent me from treating it like art.
Interestingly, the Tokolos Stencil Collective have also been forthright in interviews about the fact that they are “not artists”.

This is in line with their desire to cling to the dated values or characteristics of graffiti, which marks their modus operandi – their work is done under the cloak of anonymity and without approval on public sites that carry the status of South Africa’s white colonial history –  such as statues around Cape Town.
In this way, while they claim not to be artists, they have been in conversation with art – this was most obvious during the Elion “intervention”, as they dubbed it.
Some of their other work, which they view as activism, has involved spraying the “Remember Marikana” stencil and motif around the city of Cape Town and shanty towns near Marikana.
“The ones that feel it are the ones that know it (isn’t it?) and they don’t need to be told anything,” suggested Khwezi Gule, Soweto Museums curator, in a Q&A feature on Aryan Kaganof’s blog about the role art could play in relation to Marikana.
In the same feature, Andile Mngxitama, the Economic Freedom Fighters MP and political commentator, was even more disparaging about the forms of visual activism, shall we call them, that have sprung up around Marikana. Not only did he suggest that artists would exploit the tragedy for gain and attention, but he said: “For art to be authentically resistance art, it has to be able to point an accusing finger at those who murdered for profits. Here the halo of power must be stripped naked and the ANC must appear as what it is – a brutal force of neo-colonialism.”
In contradiction with this view, the Tokolos Stencil’s Marikana motif represents one of the famous victims, Mgcineni Noki, the Man in the Green Blanket, and as such does not “strip the power” of the (multitude of) perpetrators responsible for the tragedy.
Justin Davy, one of the young curators at the Brundyn+ Gallery, had noticed the stencils around Cape Town, and when he put together an exhibition centred on capturing the “dissent in the city” by activists and showing these collectives alongside artists who had appropriated the graffiti aesthetic, the Tokolos Stencil Collective was invited to participate.
Urban Art at the Joburg Art Gallery as part of the Two by Two
exhibition Wish you were here

This wasn’t an unsual or radical idea. Not only has the Urban Arts Festival seen graffiti artists show their work in galleries, but in response to this phenomenon, Juliet White opened a gallery called Two by Two in Newtown that was dedicated to this kind of work. The gallery’s closing exhibition was even hosted at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, proving that the “street” had well and truly been institutionalised and legitimised.
Largely, from the images on Brundyn+’s website, it seems the imagery evoked in the Plakkers group show summoned the urban landscape – Chad Rossouw even installed a concrete wall evoking boundaries – rather than dealing with (the erosion of) the role of graffiti as a form of resistance. Rossouw’s concrete wall could not sufficiently prevent the recontextualisation of the urban expression.

Mngxitama and Gule would probably argue that resistance isn’t only futile within a gallery context, but is immediately nullified by the world of (white) privilege that supports it. In this way it is endorsed by the authority it may seek to undermine.  The Tokolos Stencil Collective was only too aware of this – hence the rather crude and vacuous free-form “Bourgeois Gallery” phrase they spray-painted outside the gallery’s entrance. Unfortunately, it was impossible for them to try to compensate for their complicity. Ironically, Davy was delighted by their response (he might even have expected it) and would have allowed it to remain on the exterior of the building. It was the building’s management who removed it.
Perhaps Mngxitama and Gule are right. Resistance has little meaning in the gallery context, not simply because it is talking to the wrong audience but because it is a setting where it is encouraged, embraced and commodified.  In this context acts of protest or resistance are simply absorbed into the ever expanding vocabularly of contemporary art.
This is probably why Steven Cohen’s most celebrated works tend to be those that take place outside galleries and theatres. In public settings where nudity would be censored, Cohen has been able to perform his rather twisted mode of persecution.

His rejection would be a given in these settings. Just as the Tokolos Stencil Collective could also guarantee that if they placed faeces in the Brundyn+ Gallery, as they did on the opening night of the show, they could rely on its being removed almost immediately – although they had agreed to participate in an art event, they had countered their complicity by ensuring one of their statements would be rejected by the gallery.
Davy removed the faeces not because he rejected the substance of their statement, but because of the “the smell” and the health risk. The collective’s statement wasn’t rejected because it evoked “the poor” – who, they have suggested, are excluded from galleries – but because it smelt bad and threatened the integrity of Tom Cullberg’s solo exhibition, which opened on the same evening.

Of course, by using faeces as a symbol of the exploited underclasses, the Tokolos Stencil Collective unwittingly implied that this was how they were defined or identified – by an appalling and unpalatable smell. For the collective, the removal of their installation (they claim not to make art) achieved a predictable outcome that the graffiti could not. However, if it is the “art” factor that limits their gestures of resistance and protest, one has to wonder what vocabulary they could adopt and where it should be located and targeted: at the public, the government, or the white supremacists they have marked out as their enemy No 1. - first published in The Sunday Independent, December 7, 2014. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Triangulated

It could be a Roman banquet. Huge rounds of exotic cheeses are arranged on wooden boards among breads of different shapes and sizes, grapes, patés, olives, macarons and strawberries. Among the spread are shiny disco balls, and flower arrangements spring from the top of elongated vases.
A discreet rope surrounds this epicurean fantasy. A sign hangs near a gap indicating that this is only accessible to Sanlam's VIP guests, some of whom are seated at small tables dotted along the almost invisible perimeter as if they are ensconced in some exclusive eatery in Paris. In fact they are sitting in a parking lot at the rooftop of the Hyde Park shopping mall in Joburg.

Of course, it doesn't look anything like a parking lot - that would interfere with the experience of the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair, which is a few steps above a pedestrian rooftop market.
This is a deluxe, designer one, which is elevated by the temporary setting - a gargantuan tent with makeshift floors, walls, lights - and the provenance and style of the merchandise that is on offer.
There are no cheap Chinese imports, bargain sunglasses, designer knock-offs, wooden African curio items or second-hand books. As the slightly (new) pretentious title of this annual event implies the goods for sale are "contemporary and handmade", or at least aspire to be.

Contemporary is a term that it is bandied about far too generously in the art world, and by Art Logic, the organisers, who incidentally also run the Joburg Art Fair, believing that this term has cultural currency.
In the context of this fair and probably the art one too, it's a euphemism for fashionable.
The Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair is hipster heaven; it is brimming with leather bags and cases that would look fabulous tied to the back of a bicycle - preferred hipster transport - and there is a frightening abundance of triangle motifs that come in the form of jewellery, prints for throws, blankets and pillows and there is even a coffee table at a furniture stand with triangle cut-outs.
Never before has the triangle enjoyed so much attention.
An outsider, unaccustomed to hipster culture or the design world's vacuous aggregation of high modernist abstraction into its vocabulary, might take this obsession with this symbol to be the not-so-secret emblem of some new cult.
In some regards that is precisely what it is, given that an abundance of triangle motifs tend to predominate in contexts where this whole handmade, artisanal "local is better" malarkey flourishes, such as in urban hipster hangouts in these pop-up markets in Braamfontein, and Maboneng, or in newly gentrified hipster pockets which are growing tentacles not only in the inner city but in the suburbs too, usually near coffee shops where you sit at communal wooden tables.
This is a culture that is more or less a counterculture, one in response to the soullessness, exploitation and banality of mass production and large chains. A cultural manifestation of post-industrialisation that presents consumers with the option to engage in "ethical consumption" and thus challenge the status quo that we are seemingly locked into.
The Sanlam Handmade Contemporary might boast the symbols and products that we associate with this movement but it doesn't squarely conform to it. For starters its location jars. You have to walk through a mall to get to it.

And although the temporary architecture, which is clean, pleasing and designery - lots of wood panels and fashionable fonts everywhere - immediately announcing you have entered another world, it remains tethered to the mall. Ultimately, and ironically, this draws attention to the major flaw in hipster/artisanal/green culture itself, which not only remains and relies on consumerism to announce itself, but in so doing perpetuates a culture where identity and status are largely defined by what you buy or where you shop.
"Ethical shopping" is the new elitism, which sort of undercuts its moralistic thrust. The affluent Hyde Park corner setting drives this home as do the pricey goods.
Even browsing at this fair comes with a price tag - you have to pay an entrance fee unless you are a VIP or have a media pass. Then within the fair itself different levels of status are secured via these VIP areas where waiters with small trays weave among the guests.
In this way Art Logic isn't only setting up new contexts to sell commodities, but is selling a unique shopping experience.

Joburgers are hungry for this commodity because it is an intangible one, the city is replete with malls with identical shops and shopping here isn't a necessity but rather a pastime.
The new hipster markets in Braamfontein and Maboneng have provided an alternative, and in this fair Art Logic offers a more affluent or sophisticated version, with furniture, crockery, leather goods as well as the food and wine complement. It is like a fancy neighbourhood goods market for an older population group.
All of these realities make the fair sound like an abominable self-consciously middle-class pursuit riddled with ethical dilemmas, which it is.

But somehow this doesn't interfere with one's enjoyment of it. It is hard to resist a frisson of delight as you move through the stands, marvelling at all the fantastic homemade South African products. That South Africans can be inventive is a novelty that has not quite worn off yet.
South African designers are making all kinds of brilliant desirable things from plates, linen, face-creams, silk scarves with prints created by artists, to tables, and lamps, shoes, hats and necklaces. This fair titillates anyone interested in décor, fashion or food.
I left with a Pichiluk necklace, a triangle of French goat's cheese (from France - so much for the carbon footprint) from Fromage de France, and an expensive room spray by Malee, a company that has crafted three unique African scents. Your consumption of products at this fair tends to be guided by how much wine you consume.

Almost everyone I know complained how they spent a fortune at the last one because they were tipsy.
There were fewer wine stands this year compared with previous ones, presumably this intended to shift the focus from it being a wine and food event and rather a design-oriented one. They were also probably tired of having to herd the last drunk stragglers at the end of each evening.
The cuisine element remains a feature. Mostly stands run by restaurants and caterers offer sophisticated street food that is a little posher than you would expect to get at a suburban good's fair. We tucked into wild boar tortillas from Coobs and the most magnificent black squid ink paella by Tutto Food Co.
Interestingly, about every stand I visited promoted their online facilities. So perhaps this kind of market is a platform for the virtual shopping world to temporarily make itself "real".

The increase in online shopping has ironically contributed to the excitement and interest in a fair like this? it presents a kind of hyper-consumerist encounter with its temporariness heightening the urgency to shop, although you know where to go and buy the goods online or at other shops.
There is also the social aspect. Art Logic has cunningly turned the opening nights of its events into social ones, ensuring that people patronise them so as to be part of the scene.
In this way you are not only able to pursue quasi-ethical shopping, which will contribute toward job creation in the country, but can also share the experience with friends and acquaintances with similar values. This is incredible, given it all transpires in an empty-parking lot. Like the travelling circuses of yesteryear, part of the attraction of the fair is that it is fleeting and offers a glimpse into a world that doesn't quite exist. In this case it is not one where women and men perform physical feats but where everything is "contemporary". - first published in The Sunday Independent, November 16, 2014.