Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Let artists loose on our historical artefacts

Doung Anwar Jahangeer's intervention with
a statue in Grahamstown in 2012

During the National Arts Festival in 2012 a number of statues in Grahamstown were toppled. Figuratively speaking, that is - statues are to some degree immovable. They are built to be so and they function as symbols of power due to this characteristic. Nevertheless, as the students involved in the #rhodesmustfall campaign at University of Cape Town have discovered, there are ways of destabilising their symbolic significance without uprooting them.

It is not really coincidental that two artistic interventions with statues evoking our past took place in Grahamstown in 2012. This small university town is bedevilled with monuments and as such wears its skewed or incomplete, shall we say, history on its sleeve. This is why so much of the site-specific work conceived for the festival centres on disinterring this partiality such as Mikhael Subotsky’s Moses and Griffiths film, through the narratives presented by Sokuyeka and Moses Lamani, or the act of monumentalising itself – something that Donna Kukama tackled last year by burying dozens of small personalised monuments around the town in an effort to 'democratise' the act of remembrance. 

But it is the 2012 performance by artist Athi-Patra Ruga and artist/architect Doung Anwar Jahangeer that I’m particularly interested in, in relation to the #rhodesmustfall phenomenon. These two artists created works which de facto involved ‘de-facing’ two statues that celebrated aspects tied to the colonial and apartheid eras. Ruga’s White Woman of Azania performance, concluded with a solo procession which began in a nearby township and ended in the centre of Grahamstown, in front of a statue of an Angel on the High Street, which was constructed to commemorate “the brave men of Albany who died for the empire during the Anglo Boer War.” It was at this location that he burst his ballooned costume, spraying the statue with black paint, covering parts of its base.

Jahangeer directed his artistic intervention to a statue titled The Settler Family (created in 1969) nearby the 1820 Settler Monument, a brutal architectural structure on top of an imposing mountain overlooking the small town. He ground earth in a bowl in the manner of a Zulu custom and smeared the bright orange dust onto the faces of the three figures - the titular family.

Of course, when artists create a work involving adding to or detracting from a public effigy it is termed an “intervention” not defacement, perhaps because it is the result of a more considered action or because statues in this context become the medium so to speak – the canvas on which they project their statement against the very entity that provides it. Artists are accustomed to working with seemingly immovable histories – they are haunted by their predecessors to such a degree that most art is the result of undoing the legacies that define it. Art is protest against art itself. And given that the offending Cecil Rhodes statue at UCT  is an artwork – though not a very exciting one – it seems that it would be quite suitably cannabalised by artists.

Artists are ideally positioned to tackle history – not only its invisible manifestations that escape the pages of books but its symbolic legacy that lives on in immovable architectural entities such as buildings, public art and statues. And certainly, this week a number of commentators seemed to be calling for an artistic intervention. One such commentator, who identified himself as a coloured man (feeling that his racial identity was significant in terms of his response) suggested that removing the Cecil Rhodes Statue that has been driving the #rhodesmustfall campaign, would not erase this colonial leader’s actions or legacy but would do the reverse – conceal it.
 
Athi-Patra Ruga en route to the High Street in Grahamstown where
he concluded a performance at a statue which he 'defaced'
Of course, you could argue that Rhodes’ heroic stance (the manner in which his likeness has been rendered) and the pride of place the statue enjoys on the university’s campus doesn’t exactly draw attention to his shameful legacy, which the politics around the lack of transformation at UCT appears to imply somehow echoes in the present.

This indirect call for an artistic intervention was echoed by a number of commentators who didn’t support Rhodes but wanted to see the statue preserved. Alterations were required it seemed; either in its placement or the context in which it is displayed. This not only drew attention to the ways in which an artistic intervention is required, but points to how more artists might be able to articulate the silence surrounding these colonial effigies or devise alternative rituals to achieve this.

The debacle around the Rhodes statue might be linked to what it represents about this historical figure and his place in our history but it is also due to the history it obscures – a painful, violent one that led to the annihilation and exploitation of South Africans, our ancestors.  In other words it is not always necessarily what the statue represents that irks, but what it doesn’t. As a result removing it from the public eye might not rectify the error or fault it now represents, or this may only partially achieve this.

If we intend to expand our critical gaze we will find many cultural artefacts that communicate a celebration of exploitation or at least obscures it. For this reason it is worth considering what approach we should take and whether artists would be suitable for the job, renewing the central role they have played in our society’s sociopolitical life.  

The results might be unexpected and cathartic. Ruga and Jahangeer for example embraced quite different approaches.  Ruga referred to his public intervention with a statue as part of a “purge”. Releasing the black liquid inside the balloons over this supposedly triumphant angelic figure, produced a metaphoric release, which fortunately did not carry the stench of faeces. It is a ritual he enacts in different hallowed places – such as in galleries too. Ultimately, Ruga’s artistic rituals are conceived to satisfy his own release from the past, the present even, but in the wake of the #rhodesmustfall it is clear that they resonate with many South Africans who perhaps are itching for this kind of “cleansing” to be publicly enacted.

Jahangeer opted for a what he termed “a more peaceful” gesture – he was not interested in defacement or a seemingly violent rejection of the subjects. Instead  his work was centred on trying to  “welcome the Settler family home,” he said in a video documenting his work. It is significant that the 'defacement' that Jahangeer or Ruga enacted on the statues was supported by a performance. As such it it is not only an intervention with the statue that is powerful but the acts surrounding it that give it importance.  

It is interesting that neither artist opted for erasure or (complete) destruction of the statues – possibly because they wanted to avoid arrest – but also due to a recognition that erasure would not necessarily bring a sense of ‘relief’ or release that their unconventional rituals were designed to achieve. Jahngeer suggested that doing so would “force(s) us to negate where we are coming from.”

It may well be the deafening ‘silence’, the repressed histories, that the Rhodes statue and others like it now symbolise that prompts many to demand their removal. Obliterating statues might not bring these histories, or the legacy they have in the present, fully into view and might rob artists of the opportunity to discover different kinds of rituals to counter the silence they embody.

Of course, in allowing artists to enact a disavowal of the past, we are also clearing a path for them to question and challenge powerful authorities and dominant narratives, even the patrons of art itself, which is possibly a road our current government might not want them to explore. - an edited version of this was first published in The Sunday Independent, March 29, 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

Aspiring to be "international"

Spare change anyone? (not the title) Ed Young's work at the Smac stand at the
Cape Town Art Fair. pic by Mary Corrigall
It appears as if we are in the grip of an age of expositions. Well, at least this is the conclusion you might have drawn if you happened to be in Cape Town last week when the Cape Town Art Fair (CTAF), Design Indaba Expo, That Art Fair and the Guild Design Fair were all being staged simultaneously.It was a veritable cultural traffic jam (or clusterfuck) with journalists and art, design, and fashion people tearing from one end of the Waterfront to the other to snap Instagrams of all the beautiful things. Things and Things. You required an extra set of eyes to take it all in. As Albie Sachs remarked at the opening of That Art Fair, abundance appears to be a defining quality of our artistic expression. From this perspective, this explosion of art and design could be viewed as a form of cultural renewal or part of an awakening that democracy ushered in over 20 years ago.

As such perhaps we should simply celebrate this abundance; attending these fairs shouldn’t be about assessing the objects or even weighing in on each exposition’s ideological framing but embracing this seductive socio-political “moment”, viewing it as a stage in our cultural development where quantity is not only a characteristic but the overriding element worthy of our attention. It’s not about how our artists, designers and the organisers of these fairs are presenting culture, or even what they might or might not be communicating, but that they are communicating, they have the means and the voice.

This, unfortunately, would be a naive and overly romanticised if not blinkered view or at least is only one side of this phenomenon. Surely, our cultural awakening is at a more developed stage, where we are no longer lost in the romanticism of that early post-apartheid era where freedom of expression was a novelty. Certainly, the romance and illusion of that time has been eroded, and these expositions are not political statements. In fact they are bland commercial ones that are making no statements whatsoever. There is a absence of thought all together.

They are only centred on the cult of the object and all the baggage that comes attached to that, such as desire and status. The stuff of fantasy; who we wish we were. International. We want to be international. With our own art and design we want a place at that exclusive dinner party that is being hosted by Europe, the US, China perhaps. We are asserting this desire most strongly through these grand shows that bring to mind the rash (not sure what the collective noun is) of exhibitions in Europe at the turn of last century when Britain and France used them to articulate their industrial prowess. Of course, now it is all about the hand-made, the one-off and with regard to the art fairs and Guild a celebration of the non-functional, collectible art object.

For this reason they  do not offer the usual shopping mall fare but they paradoxically are very mall-like in the sense that they are consumerist temples that trade on brands. The CTAF presents the most obvious example of this. Each stand is occupied by a branded gallery which promotes its own distinctive products. You know before you arrive at the fair where you will find which “labels” – Zander Blom and Nandipha Mntambo’s idiosyncratic work will obviously be found at the Stevenson stand. If you fancy a work by Wayne Barker, you should swing by Everard Read’s and there is not a chance that you won’t find a Jody Paulsen work at Brundyn +. Galleries need to be predictable in this way to make sales.

The organisers of each exposition strive to distinguish their temporary temple of lovely things from the others. CTAF were obviously flogging art in a very dry trade show vibe. Fiera Milano, the Italian owners of it, believe selling art is no different to furniture, according to some local gallerists who were grumbling on the sidelines about the apparent lack of inventiveness of how the fair was staged. There were no cool foodstalls (a must these days), and the patchy office carpeting on the floor of the tent and a lack of visual spectacles made it a sombre affair. It didn’t help that the security guards ushered everyone out before 8pm on the opening night just as the wine was starting to take effect.

That Art Fair is more comparable to the Turbine Art Fair in Joburg in that its “accessibility” is advanced as its selling point – of course, this word, along with the much-bandied about term “curating”, has become one of the biggest misnomers in this age of expositions. Accessibility within the context of this fair is meant to be about not only low price tags, but also targeting a younger demographic, which apparently a parking lot setting and the addition of live acts like Brother Moves On, the go-to band for art world people wanting a hip cachet, and art conceived at the periphery of the establishment was expected to guarantee.

Due to the commercialised bent of these fairs and that so many of them are directed at an international audience, most of them are not “accessible” – not only are the entry fees a barrier to, say, a township dweller, but they are located in touristy areas. The location of That Art Fair in Salt River, a semi-industrialised area that attracts both hipsters and a working-class population is perhaps a sort of grey area between different demographics, making it more accessible.

If democracy paved the way for these expositions, allowing for a cultural awakening evinced in the “proudly South African” design ethos and our re-absorption into the international community, then perhaps it is worth asking whether they are relevant or accessible to all South Africans.  No one asks this question for obvious reasons. The people who attend are not concerned about those that can’t. Those that can’t, can’t afford one-off design or art objects and don't want to be browsing goods they can't have. In a museum for example, affordability never burdens gazing.

When Sachs declared That Art Fair open he suggested he had “sold out”, implying that he supported the underlying commercial aspect to the art fairs and perhaps even, ironically, how they supposedly challenge the elitist quality  linked to the visual arts. A quick perusal of That Art Fair revealed some similarities to the CTAF. Aside from the abundance of mostly hanging work some of the artists such as the Zimbabwean-based artist Wycliffe Mundope, whose Wangechi Mutu-like paintings depicting the fusion of Harare’s seedy nightlife and traditional mythology attracted interest at both fairs. Charl Bezuidenhout’s World Art gallery also had a stand at both. However, Bezuidenhout selected artists under the age of 30 to show at That Art Fair.

Other young but successful artists (with pricey works), such as Namsa Leuba, that have already been championed by Art South Africa – the owners of this fair – were a feature. Some of the young artists were in attendance, jumping  to your side to introduce themselves. This created the sense that there is room at this fair for young “struggling” artists. This slant made for a mixed bag of art from the studenty to some interesting works that would never be picked up by galleries at the CTAF.

The Design Indaba has never been about serving locals. It is intended to be an international design powwow, which would indirectly affirm Cape Town, South Africa’s place globally. The Expo, the only part of the event that for some time local media were permitted to attend, used to be the ugly cousin – South African design hadn’t quite taken off when it was established so stands and products were a little thin on the ground. Now, of course, that has all changed; there were enough makers to fill a cavernous hall at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. All the small and mostly Cape Town creative businesses turning out everything from Ndebele knitwear (by the now-famous MaXhosa label by Laduma) to quirky pottery, hipster jewellery (necklaces with triangles) were represented.

South African design and culture are exploding like never before. Like the expositions in the late 19th century in Britain and France, these grand shows appear to be an overt expression of a nation parading its identity, pride and culture, vying for its rightful place on an international stage. It is not hubris alone that is driving this, but necessity. Given that South Africa’s population is growing poorer rather than richer, the market for these luxury design or art goods is shrinking, not expanding. According to Jonathan Garnham of Blank Projects, who had a stand at the CTAF,  the contemporary art market in South Africa cannot be sufficiently sustained by locals.

This makes the V&A Waterfront and the nearby International Conference Centre ideal venues for these expositions, as this is the most popular tourist hunting ground. Hence the highly anticipated Zeitz Mocca, the institution that is promised to be dedicated to African contemporary art, is gradually taking shape here.
Furniture designed by Kendell Geers at Guild
pic by Mary Corrigall

Unexpectedly, the Guild Design Fair turned out to be the firm favourite of all the expositions in town. Southern Guild, the organisers, upped their game. Some of the works weren’t simply displayed in clinical white stands, they were embedded in artful compositions and structures. Put plainly: they were installations rather than dry displays that enhanced the objects and highlighted the aesthetics of them. The best example of this was Conrad Botes’s stand, which was covered in his distinctive cartoon-pop motifs. It was a little Keith Haring-meets Die Antwoord-meets-Roger Ballen but it had impact – it extended his art beyond being an object-based thing.

If ever you needed proof that art and design worlds have not only collided but melded, then a display of objects designed by Kendell Geers, who was once the so-called enfant terrible of the South African art world, would convince you of this. His objects were Gothic-like. A light stand that boasted the disembodied torso of a man holding lights brought medieval torture chambers to mind. A chair fashioned from tyres that were grouped to appear like a snake evoked a macabre fusion of the “necklacing” phenomenon of the country’s violent past with a sort of design that brought to mind Harry Potter, or at least the haunting Voldemort character from that series of books and films.

He was revelling in the aesthetics of violence in a such a way that was uncomfortable - and pleasing, which made it uncomfortable.  His preoccupations with the political has become aesthetised, commercialised - its a design motif. Does this mean selling out? The question in itself, as perhaps Sachs was intuiting, is no longer relevant given the art fair phenomenon, where “selling-out” and whatever that may mean now is the norm.You are totally out of the loop if you are not selling your art or derivatives of it.

Given the objects at Guild are high-end design objects that are in limited supply, not quite editioned as artworks are, positions them in the same class as art. You can’t really say what they are; some are functional, others, like Sipho Mabona’s glass panes are not quite (I heard they were made out of sugar). And given art museums treat design objects, like the Moma show in New York presenting Bjork’s work and clothing shortly, like art, the tools to measure and present them have to become more sophisticated – something Southern Guild are slowly grasping. The objects at Guild sit in a precarious place; they are so ambiguous that the organisers are still learning how to present them.

Except for the Artisan by Watershed display, which was a little weak and overpriced, Guild has improved and delivered on unique visual spectacles. Though, of course, some of the international collaborations are troubling – such as the Dutch-based designer working with or “translating” a Swazi aesthetic, which has echoes of the form of appropriation that defined the primitivist turn in European art and design that propelled the modernist movement. An international flavour permeates everything at this fair. Are these collaborations between Africans and Europeans about real exchange between designers and crafters, or does it affirm  old power relations, with the international artist uplifting the status of the African's work?  The “baboon” effigy used for statues for  prize winners certainly got some hot under the collar. Whatever the truth is, the results are seductive.
Conrad Botes installation at Guild
Pic by Mary Corrigall

As a colleague observed about Guild: “There is so much more here to photograph.” And certainly, Instagram feeds were buzzing with images of the quirky, fantasy animals fashioned from beads that were installed in gardens that appeared to contain real grass. Naturally, it was the work of the Haas Brothers (created with South Africa’s Monkeybiz beading company) who are fixated with melding animals and furniture pieces – truly domesticated pets. It brought to mind the installations at Kemang wa Lehulare’s solo exhibition at the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town, which presented porcelain dogs gathered around antique suitcases full of earth where fresh grass appeared to be growing. The two works are probably superficially related, visually that is: animals, gardens; the animal immortalised and brought to life by the garden setting. Like a zoo.

These various expositions had somewhat of a zoo feeling; in that you pay a fee to enter, you view exotic species (rare art and design objects) in artificial renditions of their natural habitat – art in a makeshift gallery spaces with white walls, once-off design objects in designer environments that complement them –  and these events are all about looking, browsing. As such, social media tools such as Instagram become the indispensable tool in engaging in this activity and whether a work is Instagramable or not becomes the measure of its “success” in this area. In this way the real displays of these expositions are virtual, to some degree.

There was little at the CTAF that was Instagramable, except perhaps for Ed Young’s installation: a large photograph of the artist sitting on a street corner, which was propped up against a wall and surrounded by cardboard boxes and some coins scattered about, as if he was a beggar. It was a cheeky work (isn’t his work always) that wryly referenced the fair, the artist’s position within it. Remarkably, it appeared to be one of the only works at the fair that was intended for the fair.

Art-Fair-art might be a dreadful phenomenon to contemplate but given the Guild displays and their efforts to not only contextualise the works, enhance them and turn stands into immersive visual spectacles, art that responds to and exploits the art fair setting would be interesting – except of course for the fact people might not want to own art that might be meaningless outside a fair context. In the white cube gallery space, art stands on its own ground, at a fair it becomes overshadowed by the context or struggles to assert its own identity – the gallery becomes the signifying identity.

Thing is the CTAF held no surprises. Given the exposition traffic surrounding it, it needs to sell itself harder. As do the That Art Fair, which was also slightly disappointing –  it was promised to be a space where popular culture and art could meet –  a display of Zapiro’s and other comic art might have been an effort in this regard, except for Zapiro being an established voice. Where was the video-art or performance and fashion?

It may take time for That Art Fair and the other expositions to grow into the events they aspire to be. Perhaps the golden age of African art and culture has yet to arrive. The fact that most of these expositions are driven by white people and promote the work of mostly white artists suggests that they are not quite representative of our culture, our “moment”, which might not have such a strong aesthetic quality that can be packaged and sold to the rest of the world.

Nevertheless there were those in town who believe that the contemporary African art race is on. Certainly, this is the opinion of Herman Steyn of the newly established Scheryn Art Collectors Fund. There is still a chance to buy African art cheaply enough to turn a good profit on it, he asserted at an intimate dinner hosted by Elana Brundyn of Brundyn + gallery. The Scheryn Fund is apparently not just out to make a buck – it was announced that they have made a hefty donation to Zeitz Mocca  (according to Mark Coetzee, director at Zeitz Mocca). And, of course, when Zeitz Mocca eventually opens its doors, the exposition scene will have even more competition.These fairs are forerunners of the Zeitz Mocca, which mostly has been devised to cater for an international audience. It may be founded by a German, but it too is intended to prove to the world that African art has arrived.