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.