Breaking the cycle of 'National Chauvinism'
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.