Give Jantjes a chance: a response to Rory Bester

Mario Pissarra, 02 April 2006

Rory Bester is entitled to his opinion that Gavin Jantjes “has been away far too long and it showed” but owes it to readers to substantiate this claim.[i]

I am on record as arguing that it is time for artists and professionals in Africa to seize the initiative in promoting ‘African art’ away from Africans in the diaspora[ii]. However I also think that one should not fall into a ‘new essentialism’ by boxing ‘us an’ dem’ (to borrow Benjamin Zephaniah’s phrase). One has to look at individual cases on their merits.

I need to state at the outset that I do not know Jantjes well, and I am aware that he does have his critics. Despite this I think there are sufficient reasons why he should be given a chance.

From his early days in exile more than three decades ago and his role as a cultural activist within the anti-apartheid movement through his rise as a multi-faceted professional in the European art world Jantjes has maintained contact with South Africa. Whether this contact has been adequate for the task at hand remains to be seen. However I do think that it is worth noting that a few years back he applied for a job that would effectively have been a demotion- the position of CEO at Iziko. While this is potentially a high profile position in South Africa, a point apparently lost on the present incumbent[iii], Jantjes would certainly have had to shift from having a budget in a wealthy environment to having to fight for one in a country and continent where the visual arts have a very low priority. Consequently his unsuccessful bid for the Iziko CEO post appears to display a commitment to trying to find a space from which he could contribute to the ‘new South Africa’.

I also think that it’s important to recognize that, unlike Okwui Enwezor in the 1990s, Jantjes does not need an African Biennale under his wing in order to enter the international coterie of curators, he’s already a member. Perhaps I am wrong in thinking that, at this point in time, most South Africans who would have considered themselves suitable for the position of artistic director for the Cape Biennale would either have lacked experience on the required scale; or would have a similar agenda to the one Enwezor had 10 years ago, i.e. to join the club. If anything, Jantjes is faced with the converse challenge. The challenge of proving to South Africans, as well to Africans across the continent, that he knows what contemporary African artists need; that he has our interests at heart, and he also has the plan to match.

Personally I found Jantjes’ speech at Sessions Ekapa reflective, open, and challenging. In critically questioning the effectiveness of the large scale exhibition Jantjes spoke from the vantage point of experience, from the ‘been there done that’ perspective that he provocatively articulated. He called for the creation of new paradigms, elevating this as a priority over the conventional plea for more funds. Bester evidently disagrees with Jantjes’ proposition. He argues that South Africa desperately needs a large scale exhibition. So far so good, but where Bester oversteps the mark is by playing the player and not the ball. In the confident, unsubstantiated dismissal of Jantjes as out of touch and the deliberate choice of the word “sermon” to describe his speech (which implies a didacticism that was not evident) Bester applies techniques that are closer to propaganda than to the culture of criticism that is so frequently identified as lacking. Whether Jantjes is up to developing and delivering a new paradigm remains to be seen, but that he knows that an alternative is needed is a promising start.

For the reasons indicated above I welcome Jantjes’ appointment as artistic director of the Cape Africa Platform. Given a short run up time and a hostile ‘community’, a significant portion of which I suspect is probably not motivated by a specifically African agenda but by either self interest and/or an uncritical understanding of ‘internationalism’, few can envy Jantjes in his present role.

From my point of view the main challenges facing Jantjes are the need to establish a high profile event (a given mandate of the project) with a developmental agenda that does not, ala the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale simply privilege a handful of artists with ‘international’ ambitions. A successful outcome will be if the event steers, or even begins to steer, the discourse on South African art and contemporary African art towards the development of art in Africa. Here I am probably out of step with what I suspect would be a popular expectation on the part of our most prominent artists and curators, namely the raising of (South) Africa’s profile in the West. That these objectives are not necessarily opposed should be noted, but usually the concerns of the latter have eroded any serious consideration of the former; and ultimately it will be a question of emphasis.

Jantjes has a daunting task. Interested parties, particularly those who want a successful outcome, should try to frame their criticism in a constructive manner, rather than indulging in that great South African past-time of self-destruction. I have no doubt that, given the mass of expectations, some of them conflicting, the Cape Biennale will inevitably be found wanting by many. Ultimately the critical questions are: what progress will it make in developing an African agenda and an African audience; and can we learn and build on the process? If Jantjes fails to take us forward I for one will not hesitate to criticize him, but let’s give him a chance to prove that he is up to the task.

Mario Pissarra2 April 2006
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[i] See Rory Bester “Revoking the Ethnographic Mode” Art South Africa vol 4 no. 3, 2006, p24 . Note this is not a response to Bester’s article, only to the dismissive remarks he makes about Jantjes.
[ii] For the most recent example of this see “Connecting Africa”, Asai Forum, 2006
[iii] I have previously questioned the suitability of the current CEO and the reasons for Jantjes not even being granted an interview. See “Why was a top South African administrator ignored by Iziko?”, Artthrob, 2004

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