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Goldblatt takes a 'stand'

AT the 2013 Joburg Art Fair David Goldblatt's ingrained sense of ethics and activism saw him take a stand, quite literally. He removed all the images from a stand dedicated to his work and refused to reinstall them until the organisers of the fair, ArtLogic, agreed to rescind their decision to censor an artist's work. It was an old-school move - that proved powerful. Here is the feature I wrote about the role he played in showing up how censorship, silence and complicity had come to define the prevailing culture in the SA art world.

An empty stand is an eyesore at an art fair – it communicates some level of dysfunctionality; organisational issues. At the FNB Joburg Art Fair (JAF) it had to do with the politics of business and a political artwork that didn’t go down too well with the organisers, Artlogic, headed by Ross Douglas. Three waiters stood at the entrance of the vacant stand while Douglas, his creative director Cobi Labuschagne, Liza Essers, owner of the Goodman Gallery and David Goldblatt discussed Goldblatt reinstalling his exhibition Frock and Other Pictures in the vacant stand. Goldblatt stood firm; he wouldn’t do so until Douglas was willing to allow Ayanda Mabulu’s Yakhali’inkomo (Black Man’s Cry), featuring President Jacob Zuma crushing the head of a miner under his foot, to hang on the outer wall of Commune1’s stand. As the featured artist of this year’s JAF and one of the most recognised artists here and abroad, Goldblatt was playing with a strong hand. Yet he was full of regret. He was dismayed that he had to force Douglas’s hand, that the self-censorship he knew from the apartheid era had raised its ugly head again and that he felt he was standing virtually alone in this act of protest. It also pained him that it recalled a similar experience. “It was just me and Bongi Dhlomo who stood at the gates of the Goodman Gallery when the ANC supporters marched outside,” recalls Goldblatt of the day hundreds gathered in Parkwood to protest against the display of The Spear (of the nation), Brett Murray’s contentious image of Zuma. Confirming the negative impact of The Spear debacle on the consciousness of the art world, this time censorship and bullying had been perpetrated by an insider, Douglas, who had done so out of fear that Mabulu’s unambiguous comment on the Marikana tragedy might jeopardise Artlogic’s relationship with various government institutions – the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Gauteng Provincial Government and the City of Joburg. To justify his decision Douglas kept reiterating that “he had to balance the interests of all the parities at the fair”, as if overlooking the rights of artists and gallerists wasn’t in contradiction with this. Nelisiwe Xaba and Mocke J Van Vuuren, the joint winners of the FNB JAF Art Award, made this point when they released a statement to the press during the debacle. Barend de Wet was the first artist to be censored at the JAF, when he knitted in the buff at the Blank Projects stand a number of years ago. Artlogic stopped his performance. Presumably in reference to that event and his protest against what had occurred with Mabulu, the artist floated through the fair underneath a garish striped knitted blanket-cum garment – a signature of his work. No one tried to lift it to see if De Wet was in fact concealed beneath and possibly naked, yet it was quietly subversive. Nevertheless, Goldblatt wasn’t backed by a large contingent willing to put their heads on the line, proving that the brand of self-censorship that informed Douglas’s decision about Mabulu’s work ran quite deeply; though, of course, some were silent because they feared being reproached by Douglas. Essers, whose gallery represents Goldblatt and Murray, is therefore no stranger to dealing with a censorship battle. She was of the opinion that apathy, too, might have contributed towards the glaring absence of solidarity around The Spear debacle and the censorship of Mabulu’s artwork. Privately, artists and gallerists at the fair expressed their support to Greg Dale and Leigh-Anne Niehaus, the gallerists of Commune1, who represent Mabulu. At some stands, such as Rooke & Van Wyk, opinion was split quite sharply down the middle, with Gavin Rooke dismissing the debacle as an attention-seeking act by Mabulu, and his business partner and artist Roelof Van Wyk praising the Cape Town artist for being brave enough within the current climate to make such strong political commentary. “Art is the only area where you can make political statements like this,” observed Van Wyk. By midday on the Saturday, after the terse tête-à-tête with Douglas and Labuschagne, which resulted in them agreeing to allow Mabulu’s work to go on display and Goldblatt agreeing to reinstall his exhibition of photographs, crowds had gathered around the expansive life-like Yakhali’inkomo (Black Man’s Cry) to see what all the fuss had been about. Harmony should have returned to the JAF, everything was now back as it should have been from the opening night, but a number of nagging questions or realities persisted.


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