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Joburg Art Fair: Selling 'Africa' to Africans

With its East African focus this year, I had foolishly believed that the FNB Joburg Art Fair had finally been given an African makeover. Since the inception of this fair in 2008 this annual art event has not fully lived up to the organisers (Artlogic) attempts to position it as an African art fair. Ross Douglas, its director, clearly recognised from the outset that a parochial South African platform would never attract international or African visitors. Over the years only a handful of galleries from outside our country have occupied stands and often they have been French or London based art dealers, specialising in art from the continent. This made for an odd, though unfortunately, not uncommon, phenomenon with Europeans selling African art to Africans.

This year was meant to be different. Visitors to the fair at the Sandton Convention Centre, were able to peruse art from the East part of our continent with seven galleries and or platforms from Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. Thing is the featured artists – Wangechi Mutu and Aida Muluneh (who featured on all the posters) have tenuous links to the continent and have already been tipped as stars in West, so we are still wired into the West selling Africa to Africans.

Wangechi Mutu is settled in New York and has been so for a few decades now. I discovered in conversation with a few Kenyan artists that Mutu has never exhibited in her native Kenya. Given her studio is based in the US too, can her art offer insight into concerns, or creative expression in her native Kenya? The geographical slant to the art fair created an expectation of this. The Wangechi Mutu videowork, The end of eating everything, has been live on Youttube for years and is also not an apt reflection of her work, which is largely collage, paper based. Disappointing all round - she had no time for interviews with local press.

In celebrating an artist that has already been feted in the west Artlogic undermines its own significance as promoters of African art and the art power relations between the west and Africa are sustained rather than challenged. It is not to say that artists from the diaspora are not African or should be excluded from an art fair with an African slant, but it is disappointing that the big African stars were educated and based in the west for the majority of their lives. Is there really no talent on the ground? Are these artists are easier to ‘sell’ given they have a foot in the west. Muluneh’s work sometimes reminds me of the generic African costume you would see waitresses wear at tourist restaurants like Moyo’s. I find little in her aesthetic that is interesting, if anything it exposes a cultural disconnect. These diaspora artists may to some degree be exploring and performing Africanness self-consciously and in such a way that might not reflect what is occurring on the continent. In itself this isn’t troubling, but in the context of an ‘African’ art fair on the continent, we find ourselves in that peculiar place of looking at ‘Africa’ from the outside rather than from within.

In order to have achieved this in an authentic way, Artlogic would have had to have undertaken in-depth research of their own rather than relying on other people who might have their own agenda and tastes.

“I worked closely with a network of partners and galleries on the ground who have a deep and intimate grasp of contemporary production in each of the participating countries,” said Lucy MacGarry, curator of the JAF.

Artlogic consistently slap on a sexy angle to the fair without any real and long-term investment. They did so with their performance programme last year. I have seen little evidence of long-term commitment to isolating and raising artists from the continent. No doubt next year they will move onto another ‘angle’, undertake superficial ‘research’ and use it as marketing ploy.

The East Africa focus did not live up to hype. In fact much of the work was of a very low standard. Is this due to a lack of access to formal education and materials? Maybe it is too early to present an East Africa focus and perhaps Artlogic ought to put their money where their mouth is and invest in supporting some artists in those regions, pair them with South African artists, allow them access to good materials and facilitate local residencies. Monitor their art and show the results, which should be vetted by someone.

The Zimbabwean artists were strong. Zimbabwean textile-driven artists such as Georgina Maxim and Tawanda Takura impressed at the Village Unhu stand. The Nest Collective from Kenya presented some slick videowork at the Goethe-Institut stand, though one work was so clearly a fashion film. Not that a fashion film is not art – but it felt like a haphazard choice, rather than part of campaign to bridge the gap between fashion film and art videowork.

To Artlogic’s credit, the regional focus at the JAF does counter the kind of blanket ‘African’ art fair or platform label that Artlogic first touted and has become so popular internationally with the 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair in London and New York and the upcoming African Art Fair in Paris in October.

“I’m a little wary of this word ‘African’ as a descriptive prefix for an event - be it a festival, fair or function - because it propagates the ever-problematic lumping together of 54 distinct countries spread out over 30 million square kilometers,” observes Jim Chuchu, a member of the Nest – he also showed work independently at the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.

Are Artlogic simply packaging what is naturally occurring in the visual arts or among galleries in SA, who in the wake of a heightend appetite for African art at art fairs elsewhere in the world are keen to be more ‘African’?

Largely, despite all the immigrant populations settled in the country, South Africans tend to be ignorant about the events, art and conditions on the continent. This culture has fortunately, been gradually overturned in art circles, via exhibitions staged by !Kauru, such as Being and Becoming, Being and Becoming: complexities of the African Identity, which showed at the Unisa Art Gallery, in Pretoria – they occupied a stand at the fair.

The Goethe-Institut’s African Futures festival held in Joburg last year, relied on participants from across the continent. The Absa L’atelier Award now invites entries from destinations around the continent with an Egyptian artist, Refaat Nourhan taking the main prize. You could go so far as to say that it has become unthinkable, if not trendy, to mount an exhibition in SA without including an artist from elsewhere in the continent. This kind of inclusivity is worth celebrating, though this constant need to draw attention to an artist’s origins (usually in parenthesis in all the invitations and promotional material) veers on the pathological. Should art and artists be geographically defined? Is this a way of holding onto ‘locality’ or identity in this globalized art world or is it part of a weird fetish for the new/international/African?

More importantly, does the East African slant work at directing our attention away from the lack of transformation in the local art world, where the majority of the galleries in this country remain white owned and the majority of artists are white? Some galleries try to overcompensate for this condition by committing to showing more art by black artists or promoting them over others, but this leaves them in a worse position to some degree, because in this way they simply ‘cash in’ on the identity of black artists without making any structural or management changes. Until ownership of galleries in this country is more balanced these questions won’t be easily resolved.

How did local SA galleries feel about the East African slant – that overshadowed the marketing of the event, given they pay full price for their stands, while many of their East African contemporaries don’t?

“A different cost structure is indeed applied to organisations from across the various regions of the continent. Galleries and art platforms from areas facing economic challenges cannot be excluded from the conversation. So we either source support through sponsorships for galleries to participate at no cost or offer these spaces discounted rates,” says MacGarry.

Gallery Momo were responsible for the most compelling stand; a recreation of George Pemba’s studio, encompassing a collection of works on easels it made for an immersive experience.

This year there were no obvious Instagrammable artworks, though Lucinda Mudge’s irreverent classical looking pottery brandishing rude phrases like “holy shit” at the Everard Read stand must have attracted thousands of likes. Young did deliver a memorable work, in the form of a video work of two little people wearing masks depicting a cry baby and a bully, fighting it out in Cape Town’s manicured Company Gardens. However, he might have taken viewers on a journey far beyond the borders of decency. This is what you want from art. Yet due to market forces it can’t really play out at an art fair, which depends on so much corporate sponsorship and is centred on generating sales and not ‘likes’.

As such the art fair is less a place to gauge what is happening in the visual arts and more of a place to measure what gallerists believe sells. Oddly, the art is regulated by a selection committee, headed by the most powerful galleries, who dictate which artists and works the other galleries are permitted to show. Lucy MacGarry, the fair curator, says this practice “guarantees a level of quality.” MacGarry did not name the individuals on the committee – they may be the same as last year – but suggested that they would only hold onto their position for a two year period. This will be hard to monitor if Artlogic are not transparent about those on the committee.

It will be interesting to see what impact this might have on the fair. All major gatekeeping positions in SA should be rotating – like the National Arts Festival and those that select the Standard Bank Young Artist Award. Just as in our political realm, those in power in the arts like to settle in for life and don’t expect to ever be challenged. Its such a lame situation and so stifling for the arts.

The art at the South African stands was predictable. Blank showed Turiya Magadlela’s stretched stockings and a textile work by Igshaan Adams. Whatiftheworld showed Athi-Patra Ruga tapestries and John Murray abstract works. Smac showed Ed Young and Georgina Gratrix works, though Jake Aikman at least offered an unexpected and compelling series of wood abstract works dominated by a green palette. Stevenson showed Hlobo and Wim Botha busts and Goodman pulled out all the stops with their international artists like Hank Willis Thomas and the South African photography duo Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. You knew what to expect from each stand before you arrived at it. Except for Everard Read, who have upped their street-cred with the likes of Michael MacGarry, Brett Murray, Lucinda Mudge, Bronwyn Lace, Wayne Barker and Liberty Battson all in their stable. With a new gallery in London and another Circa opening in November, the art-power tables are looking to have turned in their favour.

Political art probably isn’t as Instagrammable as all the abstract art, which has dominated previous fairs. A reprieve from easily consumable, pretty art is welcomed and is in line with a conscientised youth rebelling at universities and schools, though it is made by white, male artists. Art has yet to reflect the bold levels of insurgency taking place at grassroots level. Is our art out of sync with our society?

Clive Van den Berg presented easily the most haunting work at the fair – The Unmourned consisted of a tall large black tower (modelled on Palmyra, a classical ruin destroyed by Isis). The block was punctured by openings and ledges, featuring male homosexual subjects, about to be thrown to their death by members of ISIS, or at the point of their death. It was rewarding to see a non-commercial artwork (its size, medium would make it beyond the reach of an average art fair buyer) with political intent.

MacGarry also created a disturbing sculpture - another block, this time of concrete block into which an AK47 was embedded, and bearing an official letter from Lonmin informing an employee’s family of a death. Wayne Barker presented a socio-political work at that stand too in the shape of The New Normal – a work depicting a postcard of Durban beachfront from yesteryear, dominated by white people.

Last year I concluded that the FNB Joburg Art Fair improved each year. Many gallerists (privately) disagreed with me – the Cape Town Art Fair was widely felt to have been a far superior fair – though its director, Matthew Partridge got the chop. Gallerists might judge the success via sales and not by the quality of the solo projects, which was not so hot – aside from Van den Berg’s and Troy Makaza (though the sculptural works did look like they had been slapped together at the last minute) & Io Makandal’s ‘conversation’ facilitated by Kalashnikovv and First Floor Gallery Harare. The general quality of the art at the fair wasn’t great, though oddly, the prices for art seem to have jumped. Are people trying to recoup costs from participating in the fair or has the cost of art increased?

On paper it might have made sense for Nolan Oswald Dennis to have scooped the FNB Art Prize given his links to the continent but honestly what was going on in that stand? Did anyone find out; the pebbled carpet certainly dissuaded anyone from taking a close look at what superficially appeared like a government stand at a convention with flags and copies of the constitution on display?

It is always quaint to see SA’s little art world contained in an exhibition hall at the Sandton Convention Centre – it puts it all into perspective – you can take it in, in an afternoon. It is especially rewarding to see galleries that have been parading as ‘museums’ or as “facilitators between artists and patrons” exposed as traders like everyone else, turning a buck from self-expression, novelty, identity and outright empty squiggles.


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