Tuesday, July 14, 2015

When history is broken

As with all the new works created by the recipients of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award (SBYAA) who make their debut at the National Arts Festival, the visual arts winner’s exhibition is always subjected to intense scrutiny. It is the source of such focus for the visual arts community mostly due to the fact that the festival continues to sideline this sector. The organisers say it is due to a lack of appropriate venues for art and down to the fact that exhibitions don’t fit into their business model: they can’t charge tickets for people to view them – only for walkabouts – and those are limited.

And so it is that the winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist award carries the burden of presenting the ‘highlight’ for the visual arts for the festival. It sucks because they also have to present their work in one of the worst venues for visual arts, the Monument Gallery, which reminds me a bit of my dreary office in Sauer Street. Please god may an artist who wins the prize in the future make some sort of architectonic intervention in this space. In truth the SBYAA winner usually grows the exhibition over time as it moves from venue to venue, finally landing up at the Standard Bank Gallery, where it exists in its optimal state. Unfortunately, by then everyone has stopped writing and analysing their show – the story has gone cold, so to speak.    

The Grahamstown showing presents the moment in which the artist must prove they are worthy of the accolade they have received.  Kemang Wa Lehulere found the ideal solution to this custom; in History Will Break Your Heart he mostly presents the work and life of other artists, thereby cunningly shifting attention away from himself. This was clearly articulated in the publicity material available at the exhibition, where his biography is preceded by that of artists Gladys “Nomfanekiso” Mgudlandlu and Ernest Mancoba.  In this way he sort of also inserts himself into history – joins them.
In presenting the works of Mgudlandlu and dated footage of Mancoba narrating his life story, Wa Lehulere has seemingly found an expedient way to avoid risk and fill a room with art (in a short amount of time) that is above criticism.

Fortunately, this novel solution is clever in other ways too – he appears to have found a way to reinsert (art) history into the present/the now – this exhibition is always viewed as being an expression of what’s hot in contemporary art. In so doing he also poses the question that art perennially asks: what is art? Is curating works, making documentaries, art? Might a curator or art historian get a bash at winning this award in future, stretching the definition of artist a little further?

You could argue that Mikhail Subotzky posed these same questions a few years ago when he took the prize and also ‘curated’ existing work (drawn from his own photo collection) and footage, though he too made a new documentary.
Not that Wa Lehulere limits his talents to curating. Each Mgudlandlu work he presents is pared with angled blackboards bearing crude drawings in white chalk, drawing attention to gaps, absent works. This refers to not only works that are missing from the archive but were never made – the times in which Mgudlandlu made her art limited what it could be. These also function as ‘mirrors’ as alluded to in the title, Does this mirror have a memory, though they do not reflect the image which they face but rather operate as a site of retrieval, where memories of her work, both real or fictional can be re-imagined, reconstructed and erased – it’s a never-ending process, as is the act of remembrance and digging into history, beyond art history.

There is an installation too – Another Homeless Song (for RRR Dhlomo), an arrangement of salvaged school desks at the centre of the gallery, further driving home this school, instructional theme. We are in the process of relearning the narratives about people who were erased from the history books and reclaiming those “firsts” – was R.R.R. Dhlomo’s first novella, An African Tragedy, the first work of fiction by a black South African to appear in book form? Mgulandlu was also supposedly the “first” black woman to stage an exhibition – a fact that Nontobeko Ntombela, the curator of A Fragile Archive, challenged in an exhibition of her work, in which she made clear the gaps in this artist’s ‘narrative’ via blank spaces on the walls of the Joburg Art Gallery, where it was staged in 2012. Wa Lehulere’s exhibition is impossible to imagine without Ntombela’s – in a way it is an extension of it, if not with more expressive interventions. Does Wa Lehulere take it far enough? How does he extend the discourse? We have to ask this because he has entered into the space of art history, where these questions become pertinent in assessing the ‘value’ of the show. He could take it further not only conceptually, but visually too and he probably intends to as the show travels.

Wa Lehulere brings these legendary ‘firsts’ together in a room without challenging those titles – which Ntombela showed in a Fragile Archive to be not only inaccurate but as such they act as a foil for the messier histories they conceal. The blackboards facing Mgulandlu’s works which are angled to face them could be an instructive way to reveal what they conceal, or they function as this blank space upon which anything can be projected. In this way the act of retrieval is as corrupt as the narratives that they are meant to displace and the art object functions as this silent witness to history that appears to ‘reveal’ so much – it is a visual manifestation of a time and place – yet speaks in a vocabulary that is vulnerable to reinterpretation.

Ntombela made this point – the only way Wa Lehulere takes it forward is via inserting his own abstract response to the work – which is his “work”  - in this way he continues in the tradition of western art where he responds to a history that preceded him to take him forwards – except he ends up in this no-mans land, because his ‘anchors’ are seemingly unstable and he appears interested in returning and recouping a place in the past rather than moving forward.  

History hasn’t ‘broken his heart’, history is broken, and the chronology is disrupted because of this desire to recuperate that which is lost.  In the film, The Bird Lady, in nine layers of time, Wa Lehulere documents a process of trying to uncover an artwork Mgudlandlu created in a home in which she had lived. It cannot be reclaimed – there are too many layers concealing it. This is an obvious metaphor for the difficulties entailed in cultural recuperation in the post-apartheid era.
Art historians, curators, theorists and writers have long focused on the incompleteness of archival records, which prevent reconstructing history. Wa Lehulere follows this line, but also seems to direct our attention to the ways in which the narrative is immovable. In the stop-motion footage of recreating a Mancoba work, it seems obvious that every one of Mancoba’s strokes was informed by the moment – his background in South Africa, the racism in France and the inability for anyone to see him and his work beyond his racial identity. This is the tragedy of his existence; he tried to outrun his identity when he moved to France, but was immured to white supremacist societies and no re-reading of history, no act of recuperation can set him free. Even in this exhibition, which is not bound to art historical conventions as such, Wa Lehulere himself is trapped within this well-worn narrative of failed retrieval as the conceptual pivot rather than the art itself. In other words Mancoba isn’t  represented in this show because of his art or contribution towards it but due to his inability to ‘contribute’ – this becomes the marker of his place in history. – an edited version of this was first published in The Star, Cape Argus July 10, 2015.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Breaking the cycle of "national chauvinism"

 Dana Whabira's installation at Museum Africa

African sushi. It sounds like an oxymoron and is more enticing in theory than it is when you are faced with trays of it. Instead of sushi rice, the base is pap, and raw fish is replaced with biltong. It's pap sushi and it is not a very popular snack at the openings of Towards Intersections. Yes, openings for this rambling exhibition curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe is in four locations in Gauteng - the Unisa Gallery in Pretoria, the Museum Africa in Newtown, the Gordon Institute of Business Science, or Gibs as it known to Joburgers, and Point of Order, a Wits-run gallery in Braamfontein. In other words, it is probably one of the most ambitious visual arts programmes to be staged in the country since the last Joburg Biennale - it is hard to think of an event of this nature that has spanned so many venues. 
Africa Remix, held at Jag in 2007, could be considered its forerunner, given the African slant to the show, but it may have encompassed more works and been more representative of contemporary art from the continent - South African artists dominate Goniwe's show.  The other notable aspect is that it is sponsored by the Department of Arts Culture. You don't need to read any of the publicity material to be aware of this; the quality and quantity of the booze and food at each opening are a hallmark of government-funded events. Sad, but true. Not that anyone was complaining as they quaffed Haute Cabriere sparkling wine - it's such a pleasure to sip on something that is not a few hours from turning into vinegar. There is live jazz at several of the openings too - job creation for musicians?

The organisers pulled out all the stops - you could smell the money behind this event - African sushi may not be palatable but it does not come cheap. Yet at the same time, the manner in which the openings functioned as enjoyable "evenings out" may be a step towards encouraging audiences to engage with art and the broader social and political statements it makes. You have to try to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The African sushi isn't an incidental snack. The caterers must have been apprised of the theme or objective of the exhibition: to present art from artists across the continent and its diaspora, forging links with cultures beyond our borders. 

It was planned to tie in with Africa Month, a programme driven by the Department of Arts Culture. In light of the tragic xenophobic attacks that rocked the country and the terse relations between South Africa and other African states following the violence, our president's careless remarks on it, the government's inadequate response, the exhibitions and other events that formed part of the Africa Month - such as Rain, a dance-musical created by the Vuyani Dance Theatre - are quite transparently part of a campaign to address the issue and do a bit of damage control. In other words, art is being used for good and bad ends; to shift perceptions about fellow Africans, but then also to make the government look good, better. 

The questions that lingered like an elephant in the room during the launch of the exhibitions and most certainly during Rain was this: Is art functioning as some kind of plaster (of that transparent kind)?  Plaster was the word that came to mind for two reasons: none of the art engaged with the drivers of xenophobia and the Department of Arts Culture's position on this issue has been muddied by declarations by the department's chief director of social cohesion, Sandile Memela, outlining that the violence that took hold in townships was due to criminal behaviour and not intolerance. 

In other words, as usual, the programme felt slightly at odds with the department's public face.
This may explain why the art didn't address the issues in any nuanced way. This was particularly the case with Rain, a simplistic musical centred on a strange precolonial story around a desperate hunt for water and a struggle to survive that turns ugly and is then magically resolved. An infectious celebratory finale got everyone on their feet clapping and dancing. 

In this way, the complex drivers behind Afrophobia - as it is also been called - and the government's role in exacerbating the levels of intolerance through an institutionalised form of prejudice - such as a change in laws that has rendered legal migrants, illegal - is not addressed. Setting the musical in a bygone era, where Africa was seemingly united and then split through competition for limited natural resources ensured that when the audiences piled out of the Market Theatre, they left feeling upbeat and certain that xenophobia was linked to mob behaviour at the bottom echelons of society.

It was not Vuyani Dance Theatre's best work, although it ended with a standing ovation. It was a feel-good piece that disabused everyone's consciences of a deep-rooted prejudice, which the public intellectual Achille Mbembe attributes to a form of national chauvinism and an inability to embrace authentically democratic ideals in which "there are no longer settlers or natives. There are only citizens."
This national chauvinism that Mbembe refers to underpinned the African Month programmes in the sense that they were all driven, curated by South Africans. It's as if we want to be in control of the stories about the continent, and how these narratives serve our own political ends.
In the late 1990s we embraced the continent and pan-Africanism in attempt to reconfigure our new African identity. Now, we do it to prove to ourselves that we did not fail so dismally at doing so. Goniwe might have tried to avert our opportunist exploitation of forging this link by creating a series of shows that was not overly curated - in the sense that the uniting thematic was so open, so vague, you could argue, that no meaning was imposed on the works. As he indicates in his curatorial statement he set out to create exhibitions without "collapsing the singularities of each imaginative contributing force". In other words he didn't want to override the latent potential in the works, which could elicit different connections between them. As such the works would function as sort of free-floating objects that could be constantly open to (re) interpretation, which might allow viewers to connect them to some of the other works on show. 

In line with this approach each exhibition more or less presents works by the same artists in each venue - Blessing Ngobeni's distinctive "body within a body" works, in which crowds of people and stories are contained within larger figurative representations of bodies, are shown at least at three venues.
Zimbabwean Dana Whabira presents an installation of mannequins at Unisa and another sartorial-themed one at the Africa Museum.
Anthea Moys's portrait exchange - the artist and participant make portraits of each other - takes place at three of the openings, as does an excerpt of Neliswe Xaba's Fremde Tanza (Foreign Dances).
In this way the exhibitions superficially appear to be replicas of each other, but contain differences that are sometimes nuanced or marked - most prominently in the different performance art pieces by Buhlebezwe Siwani. 

This reinforces this free flow of links, or relationships between works, although it is probably unlikely that the average visitor will visit each venue. On paper, Goniwe's approach sounds great, albeit a little abstract: "a space of influx, entries and exits".
This idea of free flow obviously extends to the notion of migration as universally, personally and politically defined, which allows it to sit quite neatly in an Africa Month cultural programme.Goniwe started out as an artist and clearly that heart still beats within - the sense of ambiguity he embraces and also his clear respect for the art itself. He doesn't want to "instrumentalise" the art - give it a clear social or political function as per its historical role during apartheid and now in line with the government's new resolve to reignite this purpose for its own ends. In this way and most probably unbeknown to the Department of Arts Culture, Goniwe appears to commit an act of subtle resistance, or does this kind of curatorial openness make the art more vulnerable to being (mis)used to serve political ends and operate as that veritable plaster? Is it arrogant for us, given recent events, to assume to continue to fashion narratives about expression on the continent? 

Shouldn't an Africa Month of cultural programmes at least include a platform for African nationals settled here to treat us to their creative expression, take us into their worlds and the societies they left behind? Surely this would have had more impact in terms of healing wounds and fostering a better understanding between South Africans and African immigrants and the continent? Does the department fund art by African migrants? Are its funding policies barriers to "social cohesion" - identified in the draft of a new White Paper on arts and culture as a main function of art? 

The department appears to be more interested in advancing a superficial form of "social cohesion" to direct attention away from the government's inability to deliver and possibly its own role in disrupting the social fabric of the country. So why are artists playing ball? Are they playing ball? Artists, curators, choreographers are vulnerable, due to the fact that funding for the arts remains limited - and is conditional, comes with a price.
Vuyani Dance Theatre's performance was a far cry from those modest ones, with one or two dancers, that would conclude in an appeal to the audience to make donations to sustain the company. Gregory Maqoma's (its director) struggle to grow and build this company without or with sporadic government support is well-documented.  Could he really have created a piece that tackled the government's role in the intolerance and attacks against foreign nationals given the company's growing dependency on the government?
As with the Towards Intersections exhibitions, you can smell the money poured into Rain - the cast is massive, the costumes are lavish, lots of changes, musicians and the like - and that's in front of the stage, what of behind?
On the one hand it is rewarding to see Vuyani Dance Theatre finally working with big budgets, it does not seem to have resulted in good work.  Populist and entertaining - yes, but the conceptual and even choreographic integrity that is Maqoma's hallmark felt absent from Rain. It was literally an empty song and dance, a parade of pseudo Afro motifs, which South Africans love to mobilise when they want to embrace their inner-pan-African.  Like the African sushi that sat untouched on plates until unabated hunger drove people to sample this odd dish, our attempts to discover our connection to the continent remains slightly unpalatable or is too vaguely evoked to have impact. We can't complete the imaginative task that Goniwe sets us because we first need to overcome or confront our ignorance and prejudice. - first published in The Sunday Independent, June 6, 2015. 

Towards Intersections exhibitions ran at the Africa Museum, the Unisa Gallery, Point of Order, Braamfontein and Gibs until the end of the June. For more information, go to www.kauru.co.za