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South Africa's cultural disconnect from the African continent

Installation shot of Patrick Bongoy's 2017 exhibition Where are We Going at Ebony/Curated

May is ‘Africa’ month in South Africa and as is the case with Women’s Month, it is only useful if it functions as more than an opportunity to ‘celebrate’ and also serves as a chance to analyse the flawed and limited ways we connect to the continent.

In cultural spheres - from our theatre, art gallery and museum programmes to our festivals, from literary ones to our major annual National Arts Festival - there is hardly much content pertaining to or participation by cultural producers from other African countries. Some might argue that with so few opportunities for our artists, there is no room to include artists from elsewhere, but it could point to a deeper sense of insularity.

South Africans suffer from cultural myopia. Granted we have much historical and political baggage to work through collectively, which artistic platforms and products offer, but what happened to the warm and fuzzy form of Pan-Africanism that defined our democracy in its nascence?

Viewing Tandazani Dhlakama’s magnificent exhibition, Five Bhobh – Painting At the End of an Era, which is on at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (Mocaa) until the end of this month, was a bitter-sweet experience. While it presented a visually and intellectually stimulating collection of contemporary art from Zimbabwe, it was devastating to realise that it had taken 25 years, if not longer (Zimbabwean artists have been living and working in our major art capitals for many decades) for an exhibition of this weight and focus to have been staged in our country. It was also worth noting the conditions that surely allowed it to take place; it was steered by a Zimbabwean curator, may not have manifested without the establishment of a museum explicitly focussed on art from beyond our borders (which was initially driven by the eponymous German art collector) and it possibly also took the abrupt departure of the South African director of Zeitz Mocaa, Mark Coetzee, and the temporary appointment of Azu Nwagbogu, the Nigerian curator.

The publication The Top 50 Artists and the 20 Top African Curators who Validated them, which my art consultancy, Corrigall & Co, released a few months ago, was not designed to challenge what Achille Mbembe, the public intellectual heading the Wiser research centre at Wits, has termed our perpetual “national-chauvinism”. Our mandate to map the contemporary African ecology automatically demanded that our purview extend beyond South Africa.

The list of ‘validated’ African artists this publication contains is an objective one; the names are arrived at through tracking and studying the exhibition practices of Africa’s Top 20 curators and discovering whose art over a decade (from 2007 to 2017) has been consistently included in the high profile exhibitions both on and off the African continent. As only three high-flying South African curators (such as Gabi Ncgobo) are included in the study – 20% are Nigerian - this report automatically suppresses a South African bias, offering a list of artists from Africa and the diaspora.

This was published in the Mail & Guardian on Friday May 17 Read the rest of the opinion piece here


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