Surveying South Africa

POSTED ON: January 30, 2014 IN 3rd Text Africa, Mario Pissarra, Word View

Mario Pissarra, 30 January 2014

Note: originally published  as editorial to Third Text Africa vol 1 no. 3, 2009

This third edition of Third Text Africa comprises selected articles on South African themes published in Third Text between 1991 and 2000. Each comprises a survey of sorts – whether a critical account of South African art practice or a review of an exhibition that was panoramic in scope. Since Third Text only covered a small fraction of such material generated during this period, this edition could be seen to be a random sample of a random sample.

However, in other respects this random sample is revealing. Firstly, it indirectly affirms that most surveys take the form of exhibitions. Secondly, it reminds us that most curated surveys are produced for an international audience, more specifically in the USA and a handful of European centres. Thirdly, the fact that Third Text has published more articles on South African topics than on other African or Third World countries highlights the relative dominance of South African art. Are these observations simply the way it is, or cause for concern?

The need to move beyond survey exhibitions has been argued by, among others, Sylvester Ogbechie. Ogbechie has consistently argued that without detailed studies of individual artists African artists will not gain their deserved place within international art. Here again one can observe that South Africans dominate other African countries both in the number of international solo exhibitions held and the number of texts on individual artists. Notably most of these individual studies comprise catalogues , thereby affirming the quantitative dominance of exhibitions in developing intellectual capital.

With interest in South African survey exhibitions being sustained a lot longer than may have been expected, one has to ask why it is that there is apparently less international interest in survey exhibitions of other African countries? Is South African art really more interesting? Why is the art world interested in exhibitions centred on identity in South African art but seemingly less interested in what, for example, Nigeria or Egypt have to say about the subject? Does South Africa really have more or better artists than other African countries? Is it that South Africa has a more developed infrastructure for art? What does history, politics, and resources have to do with the relative prominence of South African art compared to, for example, the relative invisibility of artists in the Southern African Development Community? Does race have anything to do with it?

The irony is that it is critical surveys, both national and transnational, that can assist in answering some of these questions. Yet, it must be said, this will require a paradigm shift. Commercial interests, particularly those of publishers, galleries and artists, determine that many of our exhibitions and publications are little more than glorified marketing. Colin Richards’ essay, which may have been the first to identify identity as a key theme in South African art, was motivated by a genuine desire to make critical sense of practice within the transition from apartheid to democracy. Can the same be said of most writing on South African art?