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The Joburg Art Fair: fair or foul?

A few weeks ago the unthinkable dawned on me; I was looking forward to the Joburg Art Fair.(JAF) It was an uncomfortable but new sensation, which I was tempted to tuck away into that same place where I conceal my obsession for cooking reality TV shows and tattooed biceps. Had I finally bought into this whole art-fair malarkey, or had the art fair model evolved into something a little more palatable?

The source of my immediate excitement was pretty clear; it had been building via a series of emails from JAF that started to make me feel as if the whole event was tailored for me and the organisers had been thoughtfully digesting everything I had written for the last couple of years (as if). Candice Breitz as the featured artist was a big tick. I was OBSESSED with the video work Treatment that showed at the group exhibition, Other People’s Memories (which is probably the best group show I have seen all year) at the Goodman Gallery and while I know the work Him + Her I can’t recall having experienced it first-hand.

What really made my toes curl in delight was the introduction of the gallery solo projects. Stevenson have taken this approach at previous fairs - devoting entire stands to an artist - but to have this expanded on was a good development; the best way for the public to come to grips with an artist’s work is through exposure to a number of works in one setting. The artists selected for these projects also made my little art heart sing; Jared Ginsberg deserves a spot in the limelight – his work always makes me smile. It’s simple, clever and totally unpretentious. It’s art, art. I have been championing Stephen Hobbs’s art for a long time and was pleased to finally see him given room and space to play beyond the very limited spatial and print-medium-bound confines of the David Krut Gallery.

In my opinion Stevenson Gallery were short-sighted in dropping Michael MacGarry from their stable. Yes, perhaps he lost his way with the last solo at their gallery and the last film of his I saw with Rodan Kane Hart playing a colonial washed up on the shores of Africa made me wish I could ‘unsee’ something. But MacGarry is a talented artist; he knows how to produce things – to craft them well – and always has a grasp on fashionable topics and how to come at them from unexpected places. It may not be any coincidence that his wife is the curator of the JAF, but it is time for his “return” to the scene and this platform has become the space where careers can be (re)forged. Alet and Wilhelm from Gallery AOP are so psyched about Jonah Sack’s new work that they run out of breath when they talk about his work, so a stand dedicated to this artist is bound to be a highlight in a quiet sort of way, as is the AOP way. Cyrus Kabiru – need I say anything… this poor Kenyan artist has reluctantly become the posterchild for Afrofuturism. His work has been totally overexposed and over-consumed. I am not sure I can look at it anymore, but this could be a chance for him to steer his practice either into the eye of that fashion/art storm or around it. Either way I am interested to see in which direction he turns.

New work! This would all be new work that I wouldn’t have seen before. Yay! Lucy MacGarry, the new curator of the fair – did they have one before?? - certainly appeared to be navigating JAF into a new era. The Joburg Pavillion aspect tied to the fair bothered me – an expedient solution to having a presence at the Venice Biennale - but I assumed it to be the mosquito in the room that wouldn’t linger for long.

That was until the press conference held last night at the Four Seasons Westcliff, when a slick film promoting this year’s fair was centred on the live art at the JAF. I was stunned by the line-up: Kieron Jina? I nearly swallowed my wine glass whole. Have the organisers actually seen his work? He is not ready to make solo work yet and if he does make it, it needs to play out on a stage where it can fail in the way that it needs to, not on a big public platform such as this. Why in our ignorance do we keep setting up young artists to fail? And what exactly is holding this whole live programme together? The fact that it is all live and will take place on the opening night as the de facto “entertainment”. Oh no, someone shoot me now. But there is a theatre… so that must mean that the live art thing now has a proper space at the JAF… oh dear… they do not understand the animal they are dealing with. It is BEYOND frustrating. But worse, why, given this emphasis on the live programme, is there absolutely no mention of any of the artists names or titles of the works in the gorgeous new catalogue (it is very nice), barring a passing mention of the performance programme on a page dedicated to the Johannesburg Pavilion where the only image is that generated by its “curator” Roelof Petrus van Wyk? Is there anything more awks than when a “curator” of a platform advances their own work above everyone else’s?

My heart sank like a ship taken out by one of those sophisticated precision drones the US government dispatch to wipe out their enemies in one clean, detached act. This live art programme at the JAF is a cunning act of warfare to distract us from what the whole damn thing is in the first place: a brutal trade fair that takes place at the Sandton Convention Centre. Kieron Jina is not going to save us from this reality, nor will Mamela Nyamza, or the quirky duo who produced I did not come to hell for the Croissants, which will have a whole other layer of meaning given this context. These artists will find safety in the little black box that has been constructed to house them and it will “make sense” and maintain the spatial and ideological status quo of the fair and everyone will be “entertained” but it will not benefit these artists or performance art and the public’s limited understanding of what that is. Hopefully, the organiser’s fashionable flirtation with performance art, or their limited understanding of what that denotes, will be short-lived. Certainly, it will be a relief to have it all over on the first night, so that we can focus on their actual clients: the galleries and their stands, which despite the impression at the press briefing are not actually peripheral to this event - they produce the meat of it.


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