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A Decade of (Joburg) Art Fairs

For my sins I have been reporting on the FNB Joburg Art Fair for its decade long existence. I shared my insights on its evolution for a number of publications.

Limits and Freedom of Non Free Art - First published in the Mail & Guardian

The Joburg Art Fair sort of prepared us for Instagram. The visual overload of imagery during its inaugural opening in 2008, where Robin Rhode was the featured artist, was a novel sensation. The temporary white cubes demarcating gallery stands in the Sandton Convention Centre were heaving with art. Hanging work salon style was the rage in that first and subsequent years — until gallerists figured that less translates into more sales.

In the decade that this annual art event has existed much has changed: the art, the prices, the galleries and how Artlogic, the founder and organiser of the art fair, have confronted and displaced the event’s commercial function and advanced its “Africanness”. In other respects, such as the ownership of the art industry, the profile of the gatekeepers and how art is valued, nothing has changed.

Most importantly, the fair altered the way we look at art — or don’t look at it, as the case may be. Perhaps not even during the Johannesburg biennales of the late 1990s had so much visual expression been packed into one space. In your first round of the fair on the opening night, you invariably surrender to it being a social event, opting to air kiss instead of scrutinising art.

When visitors leaned in closely to an artwork it was not to study a mark or brushstroke but to see what had seemingly been treated as top secret for so long; the price. It wasn’t quite like the #GuptaLeaks. The truth was sometimes less ugly than you had imagined.

This set a tone that shaped exchanges and formal communication about the fair. Its success or effect was always measured numerically. This was one way of processing all the art — with so much on view it was tricky for commentators, curators and gallerists to extrapolate truths about visual expression. Carry on reading here

How the Joburg Art Fair found its feet...

I was one of its most voracious critics. Back then it was a jumbled art supermarket with galleries flogging old works that had been knocking about in their store-rooms.

The then organiser and director, Ross Douglas of Artlogic, who has since sought out greener pastures in France, where he's pursuing other expos, was like the first gold digger to arrive before the Gold Rush of 1886.

He was blustering his way through unknown territory, knowing sponsorship deals could be lucrative, African art was a veritable goldmine and floor space of the Sandton Convention Centre could be prime art property.

Back in 2008, it was a very South African affair, so the African tag used to generate international attention was a bit of a misnomer. Carry on reading here


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