The Role of Artists in the Concept of Progress: Perspective of a Namibian Artist

by Joe Madisia

Background

The past one and a half decade of Namibian post independence have witnessed intense discussion, dissent, protests and changes in the artistic and cultural industries across the country. To focus on the concept of progress in Namibian art and cultural development is need to consider the background of past German and South African (apartheid’s regime) colonial affects, and only the recent independence. Namibia is currently experiencing a challenging, process of Nation building that need to be based on a cultural self-understanding of “unity in diversity”.

Read More

Time to stand up for the South African National Gallery: or, why no one cares anymore…

by Mario Pissarra

Download this essay as a PDF

To begin: why is it that we hear criticism of Zeitz MOCAA, and that the Department of Arts and Culture is routinely condemned for its handling of the Venice Biennale, but we hear next-to-nothing about the ongoing crisis at the South African National Gallery (SANG)? Can it be because Zeitz MOCAA and the Venice Biennale represent power and prospects, whereas the National Gallery has already sunk so low that no one really thinks it is worth fighting for?

Read More

Going for a Wrong? Hell, it don’t matter

Mario Pissarra, 31 October 2014

One of the functions traditionally performed by auction houses is the authentification of works of art. Art historians usually stop short of selling themselves as connoisseurs, but in the auction business the sales person claiming the mantle of expert is essential to establish authority, and secure ‘value’. So, along with formal attire we have special protocols and language that includes exotic (French) terms like “provenance”, which translates into something not unlike the pedigree certificate you can expect from the Miniature Doberman Society.

Read More

The Death of OPINION? (OPINION pt 5)

Mario Pissarra, 3 February 2014

Note: This was originally posted on ASAI Connect on 30 January 2014 They burst upon the scene with gusto, launching missiles at Iziko Mausoleums of Excellence, and then they disappeared… What happened to the terrorists calling themselves OPINION (Our Public Institutions Need Intervention Or Not)?

Read More

Deviant Museums Plan Secession (OPINION pt. 4)

Mario Pissarra, 3 February 2014

Note: This was originally posted on ASAI Connect on 10 January 2014.

Following rumours of endemic discontent within the Iziko Consortium of Excellence, the cultural terrorists calling themselves OPINION (Our Public Institutions Need Intervention Or Not) paid a clandestine visit… to the Iziko West Coast Fossil Park. There they were shocked to discover an Iziko site without its sacred logo.

Read More

OPINION Strikes Again! (OPINION pt 3)

Mario Pissarra, 3 February 2014

Note: This was originally posted on ASAI Connect on 19 December 2013

Babel O. Piziko, contemporary spokesperson for OPINION (Our Public Institutions Need Intervention Or Not), has released a third set of multiple-choice questions designed to test public knowledge and perceptions of Iziko Museums of Somewhere or Other.

Read More

OPINION: The Return of (OPINION pt 2)

Mario Pissarra, 3 February 2014

Note: this was originally posted on ASAI connect on 12 December 2013

RESPONSE FROM IZIKO = Azikho (literal translation from isiXhosa: “there is nothing”)

However, a dubious body calling itself the Indifferent Atrocity, apparently the shadowy executive of the Zippo Consortium of Amusement claimed that Iziko (literal translation from isiXhosa “a hearth”) was in mourning for the loss of a brand even greater than itself, and besides, it did not talk to terrorists, even if they were cultural.

Read More

Our Public Institutions Need Intervention or Not (OPINION pt 1)

Mario Pissarra, 3 February 2014

Note: this was originally posted on ASAI Connect on 5 December 2013

Desperate terrorists have hacked their way into ASAI’s facebook page, where they have released a weapon of crass distraction code-named OPINION. According to the Ministry of Counter-Intelligence in the Newly Independent Bantustan of the Mind, OPINION apparently translates “Our Public Institutions Need Intervention Or Not”.

Read More

Booing It, Badly: A Response to Sharlene Khan

by Mario Pissarra

Download this essay as a PDF

In response to Sharlene Khan’s sequel to her earlier “Doing it for daddy” piece, I would like to briefly make a few observations. Firstly, there is much I agree with. I concur that there is “stagnation in transformation”, although I have my doubts whether it was ever really underway. I also concur that race, gender and class and their relationship to power is still critical to consider, not least in the visual arts. I also despair at the lack of engagement of the DAC with transformation, particularly in the visual arts, although I do think we should be wary about their ability to lead on this issue, given their dismal record. Like Khan, I welcome Riason Naidoo’s appointment at Iziko SANG.

Read More

Doing things differently: the promise of Africa. cont

Mario Pissarra, 20 May 2010

When Jose Antonio Fernandes Dias, visual arts advisor to the Gulbenkian Foundation, was asked by the Mayor of Lisbon what he thought of the idea of a museum for contemporary African art in Portugal, an idea that came from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dias said that it was not a good idea. He told the Mayor that museums risk becoming static places and would keep the “ghetto of contemporary African art” alive. Something more dynamic was needed. Dias was asked to come up with a proposal. That was in 2007. Today he is heading the establishment of a new multi-disciplinary organisation, Africa.Cont, which will be housed in a new building, designed by David Adjaye, to be completed in 2012. A mildly edited version of this appeared in Art South Africa vol. 8 no. 2, 2010, p. 76.

Read More

Decolonising art in Africa: some preliminary thoughts on the relevance of the discourse on decolonization for contemporary African art, with particular reference to post-apartheid South Africa.

by Mario Pissarra

Download this essay as a PDF

This was initially presented at a lunch-time lecture at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in 2006. Some of these ideas have been further developed in subsequent papers. It is published here in its original form.

1. The construction and imposition of “authenticities”

Read More

The stakes of art criticism in Africa

by Yacouba Konate

Download this essay as a PDF

[This article originally appeared in Gallery No. 19, March 1999, pp. 14-15; and appears here with the permission of the author and the publisher. Initial interest in republishing this article stemmed in part from the need to highlight the critical contribution of publications produced in Africa – Gallery was published from 1994 to 2002 by the Delta Gallery, Harare, Zimbabwe. On the occasion of the forthcoming AICA/VANSA seminar (8-10 November 2007) it seemed a good time to make Professor Konate’s article accessible, and to pose the question: have there been any substantive changes since this was written? MP]

In Africa, one may point out a polymorph demand for art criticism. This demand is related to a real deficit of writing about art. Indeed, very few artists in Africa own a personal catalogue. Even when they have attained a certain notoriety, most of them only feature in collective catalogues where, alongside their identity photo and a short CV, one or two photos of their works are reproduced. Bouba Keita from Mali who died in 1997, Malangatana from Mozambique, Ahmadou Sow in Senegal, Lyolo from Democratic Congo – all those artists who have dedicated their life to art – deserve critical reviews and merit a monograph for instance.

Secondly, the demand for art criticism comes from the public. The deregulation of the traditional rules of aesthetics, the proliferation of conceptual art, and the fact that anything can be presented as an artwork lead the public to understand that anybody, including themselves, can pretend to be artists. But the public need to verify their doubts and incertitudes. So they look to the critics, waiting for enlightening argument.

The demand for art criticism proceeds also from the artworks themselves. The dynamism of creativity and power of imagination in Africa have cultivated several areas of high artistic intensity and produced a lot of incisive and cutting works which are both pieces of singular lives and pieces of collective history. Luis Meque’s exploration of the underground life in the cities, Ishmael Wilfred’s fascination for the presence of spirits in our daily modern life, the reinvention of the African sculpture by Mustapha Dime or by Tafuma Gutsa, are not just amazing and exciting for the gaze. They are also basic, suggestive and succulent foods for the aesthetic intelligence of Africans facing their actuality and finding new paths between their present past and their future present.

One may define also a structural demand for art criticism. During this last decade, a culture of biennales has flourished. From the Cairo Biennale of contemporary art in North Africa to the Johannesburg Biennale in Southern Africa, passing through the Dak’Art Dakar biennale in West Africa, the agenda of the visual arts in Africa is not blank. It is busy and each event develops its unique form and content.

Devoted to African artists inside and outside Africa including the African Diaspora, the Dakar biennale nourishes the aim to become pan-Africanist. The treatment of African art is different in the two other biennales with African artists in the minority and the international dimension emphasized. In fact both of these manifestations, Johannesburg and Cairo, want to be international biennales in Africa rather than being African biennales.

The structures and processes of these different art exhibitions in Africa are themselves open to debate. For instance, while the Dakar and Johannesburg biennales work with curators who are more or less responsible for the selection of the artists, the Cairo event gives more power to institutional structures. That is to say, curators of national galleries and ministries of culture inside the countries are implicated in the selection of the artists.

The situation of cinema, dance, photography, music and drama is simpler. Each of these arts has its own festival. The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, the Choreographical Meetings of Luanda, the African Photography Meetings of Bamako and the Market of Live Arts of Abidjan don’t seem to have a problem of identity. It could be highly instructive to put in perspective the aesthetic tendencies in these different artistic disciplines. One of the main concerns across all these various fields is: What are the logics and the aesthetics of these different exhibitions? How is African art invented and why? But these questions must be preceded by another one: How is art criticism to be conceived, formatted and executed regarding these demands?

One may distinguish at least three types of criticism: the journalistic, the academic and, between these two, the critical writing in specialized journals. The first is the most current. Impressionist in its inspiration, journalistic criticism is a kind of immediate reaction, which doesn’t take the time for distancing. Engaged in the invention of the daily pages, this discourse on art avoids the jargon and the superimposition of theoretical references which construct the preciosity of the academic style. In the middle field, the criticism practiced by art magazines can combine the advantages of the two previous methods without assuming their faults. It can master its specific assets: better quality of photographic reproductions, opportunity to take the time to think and write, etc. But the problem is that there are not enough art magazines in Africa. The few that exist are not as rich as they need to be to attract the active collaboration of journalists and scholars. However, the problem of art criticism in Africa is not just a problem of publication, it is also a problem of ability or opportunity to exhibit the works of artists with which the African art critic can and must engage so that they can stimulate a real discussion and communicate the reason for showing such artworks and the need for the public themselves to try to elaborate the meanings of the artworks they like or don’t like.

Since the beginning of the century, the so-called traditional African art has been aestheticised while Negro art was produced. This aestheticisation has fostered a blindness to the art in process. One has to wait until the end of the 1960s before hearing some names of modern African artists. This process can be observed in the domain of photography. What is celebrated under the name of African photography refers to the daily work of the earlier photographers in Africa, before the 1960s, and we find again the same contagious effects between aesthetics, sociology and ethnology. At the same time, the visibility of contemporary African photographers becomes problematic.

Prominence is given to neo-primitivist artists in the internationalisation of African contemporary painting and sculpture. What has been promoted as authentic African art is, most of the time, that which appears to rupture Western standards. But at the same time, the ambiguity of the norm of authenticity has generated negative criteria. The short list of the items of this exigency are (i.e. to be an ‘authentic’ African artist is): not to be influenced by Western art, not to have been a scholar of a school of fine arts, not to be young, not to be expert in artistic rights, not to be already known, etc. Meanwhile, an artist dealing with popular imagination or offering the spectacle of a laughing Africa, is welcome. Such a policy digs a deep gap between the external point of view presented as an international one, and the internal status of the artwork. The risk is that, as airport art has increased its empire, neo-primitivist trends encapsulate creativity and direct it.

As long as the script of African art continues to be conceived from outside, African art will appear as the ‘other’ of Western art. If we accept that the process of African contemporary art criticism consists, first, in gaining distance from the sociological and ethnological codes, and then second, in assuming a personal observation and imagination, we may recognize that African artistic production can no longer be seen as the other of someone else. As long as African art continues to be seen as the other of western art, it can never be itself.

Alienated from itself and from the other, how can African art avoid remaining on the borderline of the international art system? How can it prevent itself from being the external border of African culture? We must find out an alternate way, which must not prohibit the first view point but which will overcome and dialecticise it. The professionals and the amateurs of African art criticism must not just speak about African artists and exhibitions. They must also orchestrate, from their internal African points of view, their personal syntax of African material cultures. This will begin to put an end to the monolithic externally-driven discourse on Africa and start to explore the heterogeneity of African cultures in the light of their internal histories.

Yacouba Konate is Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics at the University of Abidjan-Cocody, Ivory Coast.

 

For enquiries about Gallery magazine email thedelta@mweb.co.zw

Comments


Stakes of Art Criticism

While I find Konate’s comments timely and agree on filling a void that exists in the art world, what I find intriguing is the fact that the hidden powers driving this social dilemma is not adressed both on the continent and internationally. What it creates is a kind of virtual reality for those who are “sleep walking” . A critic is caught up in a vocabulary that those of the other have been made to believe is the sole preserve of Western “Enlightenment” . When he reads he says here is someone trying to mimic my voice (a stolen voice) classified and renamed. This deception is what keeps the “power” in place. Can we dribble past that?

Michael Adashie, 21 March 2008

The JAG is the SANG

by Mario Pissarra

Download this essay as a PDF

I have long argued that transformation of the South African National Gallery has been badly managed. Thirteen years into democracy it has failed to produce a demographically representative pool of curators. Perhaps more importantly, it has failed to re-orientate its Eurocentric origins by neglecting to prioritise developing relationships with other African countries. Instead, in the name of transformation, the SANG has been absorbed into a seemingly dysfunctional, costly bureacracy called Iziko Museums, a top heavy administration that has few admirers, even amongst its own ranks.

Read More

“Made in Africa” Biennale: Afrika Heritage and the Politics of Representation

by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi

Download this essay as a PDF

The baggage of post-coloniality continues to weigh-in strongly in the discourse of contemporary African art, moreso when this discourse is coloured by the politics and economics of representation. In the 1990s, the contest that ensued in the global art space with regards to African art was one of representation and authorial spokesmanship that was engendered as a result of the seminal but hugely controversial Les Magiciens de la Terre exhibition of 1989 curated by Frenchman Jean-Hubert Martin. The blockbuster show undoubtedly reconfigured the reception of modern African art in the West. But beyond that, it helped to facilitate the emergence and acceptance of contemporary African art on a large scale in major cultural institutions of the West. This to borrow from Olu Oguibe, set the tone for reclamation of author-ity and reversal of imposed anonymity on the native, perpetrated by ethnography that effectively bars claims to subjectivity and normativity.

Read More

Dirty Laundry: Can we think beyond Venice?

by Mario Pissarra

Download this essay as a PDF

I have previously argued that Africa’s representation in Venice is irrelevant when compared to the need to develop alternatives at ‘home’. In essence my argument is that we should not judge the success of South African art (or African or ‘non-western’ art for that matter) by its presence or absence in the prime venues of the ‘international’ arena, of which the Venice Biennale is both a leading example and symbol. The health of a country’s art should not be judged by the number of international ‘stars’ it generates, since this may provide a false picture of the state of art in that country or region. Rather it should be evaluated on the quality and extent of its art practice, galleries and museums, art education, publishing, patronage, and all the critical components of art infrastructure that are essential for the development of art.

Read More

Curating as a transformative practice [Targeted Candidate III]

Emma Bedford, 5 December 2006

[Discussion document presented at ‘Institutions, Publics and Beyond: Curatorial Practices Moving On’, keynote panel at the first South Africa Curators Workshop presented by The Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA) and Robben Island Museum, 20 November 2006]

Read More

Beyond current debates on representation: a few thoughts on the need to develop infrastructure for art in Africa

by Mario Pissarra

Download this essay as a PDF

The discourse on contemporary African art is a comparatively recent one, and has to a large extent been dominated by issues of representation: what image of Africa is or has been communicated to the world, and to itself? Who is or who should be representing Africa? And who and what is Africa? Much of the discourse has been led by Africans in the diaspora. This generation of intellectuals has taken on the critical need to address negative, sometimes racist constructions of Africa that have been dominant, particularly but not exclusively in the West. This need to address negative perceptions of Africa, coupled with the present location of a critical mass of African artists, academics and curators in the USA and Europe goes some way in explaining why there has been an emphasis on interrogating ‘Africa’ as a concept, and why issues of representation have been foregrounded.

Read More

Open the Gate

Olu Oguibe, 9 October 2006

Download this essay as a PDF

[This letter was initially written in response to a letter from Salah Hassan and Okwui Enwezor to Robert Storr, Artistic Director of the Venice Biennale. It was copied by the writer to interested parties and is reproduced here with his permission.]

To Dr. Salah Hassan
Forum for African Arts

September 19, 2006

Read More

Targeted Candidate II [Iziko’s response to Goniwe]

Jatti Bredekamp et al, 11 September 2006

[On 1 September 2006 Jatti Bredekamp, CEO of Iziko Museums, responded to Thembinkosi Goniwe’s concerns about the South African National Gallery’s notice for the position of trainee curator. Goniwe’s intervention was initially communicated by email to Emma Bedford of the SANG on 28 July (See “Targeted Candidate”). Bredekamp copied Iziko’s response to 27 persons, most of whom received Goniwe’s original mail. On 4 September I emailed Bredekamp requesting permission to reproduce Iziko’s response online. Later that day Khwezi Gule added his voice to the debate, followed by Mokgabudi Amos Letsoalo, who had been one of the first to comment on the issues raised by Goniwe. Subsequently Mark Hipper joined the debate. The discussion of Iziko’s response went online on 11 September, without Bredekamp’s letter since I had not received a reply to my request. Some of the respondents to the debate were familiar with Iziko’s letter, having been on the initial list of recipients of the email exchange; others were not. Permission to post Iziko’s response online was finally granted on 16 October 2006. MP]

Read More

Targeted Candidate

Thembinkosi Goniwe, 29 July 2006

Dear Emma Bedford,

Please consider my concerns regarding your advertised Trainee Curator at the SANG. I am wondering how many potential candidates “from historically disadvantaged groups” that would apply given the stipulated required “Minimum qualification: BA Degree in Fine Arts or History of Art”? I am thinking of young black art practitioners who have no university or college qualification as required, for example graduates from Community Art Projects (now Arts and Media Access Centre), Ruth Prowse, FUNDA, etc – from community driven initiatives or organisations!

Read More

Veneziano: Ventriloquizing Venice- a response to Malcolm Payne

by Gavin Anderson

Download this essay as a PDF

[Written in response to  “Viva Venice… Viva… Long live!” where “Malcolm Payne takes issue with Mario Pissarra’s objections to an emphasis on the importance of the Venice Biennale”, ArtThrob June 2006]

‘Veneziano’ is the local Venetian dialect, which “does not descend from the Italian language but has its own morphology, syntax and lexicon.” (Wikipedia) Malcolm Payne’s recent extraordinary and irascible contribution to ArtThrob regarding Mario Pissarra’s view of biennales deserves a brief informal response.

“Competitions are for horses, not for artists,” said Bela Bartok, and I agree. Similarly, one might say, as Payne implies in defending participation in biennales: biennales are for curators, not for artists. This much is articulated clearly by Payne when he writes that, “Principal curators…. have chosen artists…. not necessarily for their ethnic or national values, but for their work’s capacity to fulfil a curator’s vision [my emphasis] in representing states of play within global art discourse.”

I think that the above is probably true of most biennales and quite possibly nearly all curators. And, if so, what we really need before proceeding to debate the pros and cons of participating in biennales, I suggest, is a critical evaluation of the phenomenon of the rise of the curator in the mediation of contemporary art: Who are these people? Who appoints and remunerates them? Who peer-reviews them? What precisely qualifies and causes them to identify accurately the “states of play within global art discourse” and move art and artists around at whim like Olympian philosopher-gods upon their exotically-located game boards to illustrate their extraordinary powers of global insight? (Now that I think of it, I wouldn’t mind participating in a global art discourse if I could locate one. Would Professor Payne please furnish me with details regarding where the forum for this exciting discourse may be found, which global language it is conducted in and who its principal actors, publications and contributors are?)

For artists, at the heart of this impolite public expression of disagreement lies the question (which I’ve posed on ArtThrob before) “who, principally, are we [i.e. SA artists] making our art for?”- southern Africans, or the generic audiences held in thrall by the imperatives and concerns of the established order of the ‘international art world’ of the global north? To me, this is the only question of relevance to artists practising in South Africa to emerge from Payne’s impatient dismissal of Pissarra’s fledgling and – to my mind (certainly I share his core concerns) – commendable initiative.

I must add that I find it ironic that Payne swipes at Pissarra for launching his initiative in the form of a sole propriety (I see no problem with this in the context of Pissarra’s initiative as explained on his website), when biennales in the format Payne defends are perhaps one of the most effective vehicles of the commodification and commercialisation of visual culture that exist in the ‘global art world,’ arbitrarily packaging art, as they inevitably tend to do, according to national flavours at each Trade Expo with boring predictability.

Payne confirms for us that “….the aim of the [Venice] Biennale is to present art in a national context in a global arena.” Basically, for various reasons, this is a silly and misguided aim – okay “for our Olympians, soccer players, cricketers, flower growers and choirs” but not for our art, nor our artists – to turn Payne’s mean-spirited and pointless touch of sarcasm back on its professor. (Being an ex-footballer, I must point out that national teams are now significantly weaker than many of the world’s best club teams, and that many great players, eg. Ryan Giggs, are never showcased at events like the World Cup because their national team is not strong enough to qualify.)

Nevertheless, given the above aim, how on earth will curators concoct and package a ‘South African Art’ for the global market? This could well prove to be a very ill-conceived and, yes, damaging exercise indeed, if it is carried out. In a recent review I wrote that, “South Africa is culturally diverse; consequently, there are as many ‘South African’ realities as there are cultural groupings, each with distinct histories. Given this, it would have been misleading to have attempted to identify an essentially ‘South African’ art. The editor and publishers of 10 years 100 artists: Art in a Democratic South Africa, a title which suggests diversity concisely, are congratulated for having avoided this commonplace failure.” In my view, it is precisely this failure that biennales will continue to fail to avoid: it is tempting, of course, but it remains a sin to essentialise culture (in this relation, put bluntly, many of the esteemed elite of curators and at least one Professor need to re-take Philosophy 1).

To me, the current culture of competitions and biennales is anathema to art. These publicity events – “The Venice Biennale receives more press, television and internet coverage than any other art occasion in the world,” Payne assures us – tellingly, this is the first thing to come to mind when he begins to “tell Pissarra why the Venice Biennale is so important” – purport to privilege art and artists, but instead privilege the interests of sponsors, advertisers, art sales people, mining magnates, governments, certain powerful art institutions of the global north, and the apparently omniscient visions of hypercultural superstar curators: Payne writes, “If, in so doing [i.e. participating in the Venice Biennale], local artists (whose work, we remember, is selected for its capacity to fulfill a curator’s vision) make an impact on the global market [my emphasis again] with their positive (sic) creative production, then the country’s core goals, to showcase excellence, will be realised.”

What rubbish. I’d expect to hear something like this from a spokesperson for the Minister for Arts and Culture, not a Professor of Fine Art. Why? Well, I don’t make art to further my country’s core goals, and I don’t know of any artist who does. I do make art which aims to address the people who live in this region primarily, because I know that to be effective art has to be rooted in a culturally specific time and place. If it is able to speak beyond that, then well and good, remembering, of course – and curators in particular are good at forgetting this – that Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’ long ago helped dispense with silly notions like ‘universality.’

Finally, curators and their sycophants must remember that artists know very well that the connotations of the term ‘globalisation,’ the current buzzword in the hallowed halls of academia and the world’s foremost museums, are very much thinner, flatter and conceptually far less challenging and rewarding than what is connoted by ‘postmodernism,’ which it has, for the moment, superannuated. Artists are not fooled when this very unmagical word is bandied about to make things sound urgent and important.

Last in line, artists must struggle to remember exactly who we need to be addressing and who and what we are – especially with reference to limitations regarding who we may address effectively – as our efforts and our vision of things seem constantly in danger of being deracinated and hijacked by curator-cum-meta-artist-visionaries for commercial and promotional uses in worryingly nationalist ways.

Gavin Anderson is a practising artist resident in Pietermaritzburg-Msunduzi

Venetian Blind: A response to Malcolm Payne

by Mario Pissarra

Download this essay as a PDF

[This is a response to Malcolm Payne’s “Viva Venice… Viva… Long live!” (ArtThrob, June 2006). Payne’s piece was a response to my “Death to Venice” (ASAI, May 2006), which was a response to Marilyn Martin’s companion pieces “Death in Venice” and “Faultlines and Fumblings” (ArtThrob, September 2003), as well as to Sue Williamsons remarks on the Venice Biennale (ArtThrob, July, 2003).] [1]

Read More

Death to Venice! A South African perspective on the irrelevance of representation at the Venice Biennale

by Mario Pissarra

Download this essay as a PDF

 [Note: This previously unpublished piece was originally submitted to the arts editors of leading South African newspapers in October 2003]

In a recent paper (soon to be published in art journals here and in the UK) I raised the questions as to whether South Africans are capable of making a paradigm shift away from a world view centred on the West, and whether we are able to develop an inclusive vision of Africa. [1] Reviews by Marilyn Martin and Sue Williamson on the Venice Biennale amplify the need for these issues to be debated. [2]

In contrast to a recent claim by Martin that “We no longer need to genuflect to Europe” her accounts of the Venice Biennale demonstrate both persistent eurocentricism and a shallow and opportunistic ‘Africanness’ in service of that vision. [3] Williamson also presents an acceptance of Venice as the axis around which we spin, but her review is less provocative than Martin’s and would not in itself have warranted this response. However, given the prominent positions of these two individuals in the visual arts, their views carry more weight than most, and should therefore not go unchallenged.

In “Death in Venice” Martin equates the absence of South African art from the Venice Biennale with death. She describes this international art event as “the oldest and still the most important art biennial”. Williamson appears to concur with this view describing it as “still the queen of the international biennales”. Martin accuses the South African government of having their priorities wrong: “It requires political will and action to participate in the Venice Biennale and this is lacking in South Africa. Those in officialdom who are meant to take responsibility travel throughout the world signing cultural agreements and attending festivals… but visual artists seldom reap the benefits… South Africans alone are guilty for this shameful marginalisation of our visual arts. It is up to artists and arts organisations to exert pressure on government to change this state of affairs.”

In Martin’s companion piece “Faultlines and Fumblings” she extends the same argument to Africa as a whole, with the exception of Egypt. Martin opens melodramatically with “Africa also died in Venice in 2003.” She continues, “African leaders evidently do not understand the power of art in the process of establishing and maintaining the status and influence of a country; after more than 100 years of the Venice Biennale Egypt is the only African country that has a [regular presence].”

Perhaps Martin should tell us why visibility in Venice is so important, apart from it being the “oldest” biennale. Does this exclusive ‘pedigree’ really qualify it for a superior status? According to Williamson, having a “real presence at the Venice Biennale” is “to move [African arts] closer to the centre.” Certainly if we are to measure our success by visibility in the heart of the West then Venice is important. But if the success of our project depends on re-centering the world with a blatant bias towards the exploited Rest then Venice is perhaps not so important.

Our marginalisation as South/African visual/artists will not be addressed by a guest place at “the centre,” it will be addressed by shifting the centre, decentralising it globally so that the fortunes of most are not subjected to the whims of a few. Our marginalisation will be addressed by linking our struggle for visibility with a struggle for relevance, a struggle to engage the critical issues that affect all of us far more profoundly than being on curator Francesco Bonami’s guest list. [4]

I offer two examples that highlight the marginal status of South African visual arts internationally whilst simultaneously offering us an opportunity to redress that marginality. They are not the only examples but I have chosen them because they both represent processes in which South Africa is playing a leading role. The first concerns working towards peace and development in Africa. Where are our artists, art educators, curators, etc, in complementing this process? Why are we not discussing how the visual/arts can contribute towards Africa’s development? Why do we let the debates around an African Renaissance exclude the visual/arts?

The second process concerns globalisation and the battle for a fair economic system. The recent failed Cancun talks heralded the advent of the so called G21 whose most prominent members include countries as diverse as China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Our Trade and Industry Minister Alec Irwin played a significant role in mobilising exploited countries to realise their power to resist. In this context of solidarity against the Greedy Eight (G8) countries a critical engagement with biennales located in the Third World would appear to be infinitely more important now than being seen in Venice.

Why is there no debate coming from within the visual/arts community about how the arts can participate in complementing these critical initiatives? Are the arts, and the visual arts in particular, so impotent that they cannot play a role in these broader processes? If they are, then perhaps the visual arts deserve their marginal status.

In the context of our absence from real international struggles, lobbying for participation in the Venice Biennale is to inadvertently further the perception of the visual arts as marginal. In fact at this point in time we should not be asking our government to support our participation in any of the major showcases in the art capitals in the West. We should be asking it to support us in engaging with artists across Africa and throughout the Third World. We need not do this in a superficial way determined by diplomats but with an agenda set by artists and people working in the arts, and informed by real rather than esoteric concerns. This should be our priority, a project we should adopt for at least ten years.

We could take this further by lobbying artists and governments throughout the Third World to do the same. We do need to turn the tables on the West if we are to realise our full potential. Let us see how long they can sustain their own shows without the ‘exoticism’ that ‘developing’ ’countries bring to their events. Perhaps it would even be good for their own practice to be isolated by the Third World. Perhaps it would encourage them to reflect critically on their role in the way that South African art and art history, contrary to the views of people such as Martin, benefited from international isolation under apartheid. But let us not boycott them completely. Let us invite those who traditionally invite us to participate on terms set by ourselves in our own shows with our own agendas. While ten years may not be enough to make a huge difference, it should be enough to make a start in developing a truly international art community.

We also need to ask what kind of events do we need? Biennales themselves, as presently conceived, may not be the most suitable vehicle for promoting the exchange of skills and ideas. Similarly, high powered conferences have their limitations regarding active participation. On the other hand, participant centred workshops and forums need visibility in order to have impact. There will be no simple satisfactory solution, but we need a proper debate about what it means to be part of the international community beyond fitting into an iniquitous system and creating a few international superstars and holding these individuals up as a sign of progress.

Back in Venice Martin criticises Egyptian born London based Gilane Tawadros who curated the only pan-African exhibit Faultlines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes. Martin takes particular exception to the strong showing of artists from the African diaspora and that the only artists included who are resident on the continent live in Egypt and South Africa. She writes that “Africa was hijacked and killed by the diaspora in Venice at the hands of those who purport to have her interests at heart… Faultlines misleads – it is not about Africa but about the diaspora, it is not contemporary and it does not reveal any shifting landscapes. Tawadros …does not have sufficient knowledge of contemporary African life, experiences, indeed the challenges faced by those living on the continent and the art that is made here.”

I do not know Tawadros nor am I familiar with her show, but there are two things that need to be said here. The first is that is that her exhibition appears to be a radical re-positioning of the assumptions that usually frame Africa. Judging by most surveys of African art, Africa is usually taken to read as Sub-Saharan Africa but stopping short of South Africa. By privileging Egypt and South Africa Tawadros challenges this (usually unwritten) rule. She compounds this re-framing of Africa by foregrounding the diaspora. By doing this she calls into question the very notion of Africa and how it is defined. While I cannot comment how successful she is in doing this, the idea itself is certainly not without curatorial merit as claimed by Martin.

Secondly it is somewhat obnoxious for Martin to dismiss the right of Africans living in the diaspora to be seen as Africans. Africans in the diaspora may have complex overlapping identities but so do persons born on this continent with ancestry from another. Pretending to be ‘more African’ on the basis of birth and residence, particularly when that ‘right’ is a consequence of a ‘settler’ inheritance is insensitive to the usually deplorable circumstances that caused many Africans to go into ‘exile’ in the first place. Besides, arguing ‘who is more African than who’ is less important than demonstrating a commitment towards Africa’s development, and here Martin is particularly vulnerable. She may well be right in criticising our officials for globetrotting with limited results, but Martin is no desk bound administrator herself. If she purports to be an African voice perhaps she can tell us how many miles she has traveled to international destinations since 1990 and how many of these have been to African countries?

Let us stop mouthing platitudes to ‘promoting’ Africa and commit ourselves to re-centering our world. Until our artists have a visibility on the continent and in the Third World, beyond participation in elitist biennales, we should not be mourning our absence at Francesco Bonami’s table. Until that day our call should rather be: Death to Venice!

 

Notes.

[1] “The Luggage is Still Labelled: But is it Going to the Right Destination?” Art South Africa vol 2 issue 2 2003 [published as “Decolonise the Mind”] & Third Text vol 18 issue 2 2004
[2] http://www.artthrob.co.za July (Williamson) & September (Martin) 2003
[3] “This, that and the ‘other’” Mail & Guardian 3 October 2003, p.III
[4] Bonami is the curator of this years Venice Biennale

 

I Don’t Like Cricket, I Hate It! How the Minister’s Imbizo resurrected suppressed childhood memories and hurled me into the horrors of the present

by Mario Pissarra

Download this essay as a PDF

After five years at the local, whites-only government school I was sent to a private, then boys-only, Catholic boarding school. Sending your children to be educated by strangers with a penchant for corporal punishment was entirely consistent with the child-rearing ethics of the post-slavery/ colonial plantation class. Where the school stood apart was that it was more liberal than most – it was modelled on Thomas More, the English chancellor who chose to lose his head rather than his principles, and the school adopted his motto of “truth conquers all”. In 1977, I attended my first ever political meeting, called by the Black Sash to protest against deaths in detention, dressed in my Sunday Best. One prize-giving ceremony a few years earlier we were treated to the Chief Minister of KwaZulu, Mangosuthu Buthulezi, who arrived with a fleet of black Mercedes’ with number plates one to six.

If anything was more boring than Buthulezi’s speech, it had to be long days spent dressed in white enacting that colonial gift to the colonies: cricket. One of the consequences of being in a small school was that if they threw you the ball and you caught it you were in the first team. This usually meant playing against big schools that had many teams, and for whom sport was dead serious, schools more likely to have mottos such as “We shall conquer”. Bearing in mind that we were also not entirely encouraged to be competitive – the headmaster would always make a point in assembly of congratulating all participants, and lost his job after parents with perceived sports prodigies for children ganged up against him – chances were we would get thrashed. As one of the smallest boys in my age group I inevitably found myself struggling with oversized bat, knee pads and crotch-guard.

Somehow I acquired some dubious merits as a cricketer. One of these qualities was that I learned to defend myself from overzealous bowlers. Meaning that on a good day I could block the ball, no matter what angle it came from or regardless of where it was headed. All I cared was that it didn’t hit me. I don’t think I ever hit the ball to the boundary, not even in a practice match. The value of this was that if there was no way we could reach the opposition’s total, which there usually wasn’t, then we could still draw with them if they failed to get us out. Another dubious asset of mine was that I had a very boring, medium paced style of bowling, remarkable only in that it was occasionally subjected to criticism that I was throwing. Where my bowling was useful was that I was accurate, seldom pitched two consecutive balls in the same place, and had a faint off-spin. Since most coaches trained their boys to only whack balls that were off target I would frustrate the hell out of hungry batsmen. They would be obliged to block, block, and block, very useful when you need to reduce the run rate of the opposition. In retrospect, it seems that my value as a reluctant cricketer was in wasting time. Which brings me, finally, to Minister Pallo Jordan’s Imbizo. [1]

Let me say at the outset that I don’t think the Minister is as dull as my cricket. Nor does the elegant Minister resemble the unsightly gait of an ill-fitted, pale faced youth squinting in the sun. But he really took me back to those years frying slowly in the heat waiting for the whole trying ordeal to be done. It is hard to retain faith in the charade of consultation when the Minister says he is there to listen, and then talks, and talks while you watch the time, your time apparently, whittling away. Now if one was listening to an insightful analysis of the challenges facing the visual arts, I, for one, would not complain. But when you find yourself being subjected to one superfluous example after another, then you cannot help but wonder whether the Minister is really there to bat or to field. For example in advising us what questions were not appropriate he told us not to ask to go to the moon. Then he proceeded to give us reasons (note plural) why he can’t send us to the moon. I do believe the same entirely inappropriate example was used at the last Cape Town Imbizo. Or when a series of questions about what the Minister and his Department are doing for the visual arts is answered with a copious list of examples from the performing arts, or literature, or film, or language… then one begins to wonder if the Minister is testing the field to see if we are still awake.

Several people expressed to me the opinion that the Minister came over as a typical politician, the sort that does not answer your questions. The one time he enquired if the question had been answered he received a polite, one word reply: “Partially.” One really got the feeling that the Minister was going through the motions, it being official Imbizo week, and hence expected of him to play, when he really didn’t seem inclined to do so.

It also seems that the Minister is limiting his strokes, and either can’t or won’t hit the ball through the covers. Either the Minister of Finance, or Education, or Foreign Affairs, always somebody, is diligently keeping guard. Meaning we shouldn’t really expect him to get past them, or should we? Many of us recognise the constraints of a junior ministry like Arts and Culture, but we do expect a Minister who is a senior figure in the ANC and a leading intellectual to at least test the Ministries that wield more power. Otherwise one can’t help but wonder whether the Minister is simply buying time, waiting to get a real job.

Where I felt well and truly blocked was when I tried to bowl a bumper: does the Minister think that there has been enough transformation in the visual arts? Does he think we need an audit of transformation? I asked the same question at the last Imbizo and apparently the Minister has given it some thought. An audit, he enlightened us, would probably concentrate on who is showing in the galleries, and anecdotal evidence suggests that there is increased visibility of black artists. That seems to be good enough for the Minister. Try a second one: what about institutional transformation, and lingering euro-centrism? Don’t underestimate the importance of increased black visibility in the galleries, young man! [2]Now I have no doubt that my IQ would be dwarfed by that of the Minister, but I don’t get it that he doesn’t seem to get it, so let me try and step up the pace, hopefully hitting close enough to the boundary to at least trouble the sleeping fielders.

Who gives visibility to those artists? Curators. Then does it matter that our premier institution, the South African National Gallery, has employed at least four black trainee curators in the last ten years, and most of them never got the chance to curate anything? Does it matter that most other institutions have made more progress in training black curators than the SANG? Does it mean anything that the current curator in training is getting real opportunities to curate, but outside of the SANG? Does any of this unacceptably slow ‘training’ have to do with the fact that the head of the SANG was an apartheid era appointee, and hence dubiously qualified for the new dispensation? To what extent does she owe her survival to window dressing, misplaced affirmative action (definitely not ‘corrective” in this case!), the absence of an organised visual arts lobby, and poor political leadership on arts and culture? Does it matter that the transformation of state institutions has been a closely guarded, poorly managed process that has created no real space for public participation? Does it matter that transformation has been confused with technocratic amalgamation of previously separate institutions? Why did a man with limited management experience get tasked with the integration of fifteen institutions? Why did a suitable candidate fail to get an interview? What do the top layers of Iziko management add in value to the performance of these institutions? Does it matter that it is still considered vitally important to go to Venice whereas virtually no-one (apart from captive students) showed up to hear the Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe talk about the 2nd Harare Biennale? Does it matter that fear of alienating powerful individuals and jeopardising funding applications or career prospects contributes to an environment where real criticism seldom happens in public? Does any of this matter? No. No. No. [3]

There was only once when the Minister hit the ball to the boundary. Interestingly this was a question that had nothing to do with the visual arts – it had to do with a request for government support in retaining forests for male circumcision rites. The Minister challenged the person asking the question to adapt to changing circumstances. Notably he said that his reply was “an opinion”. It was, in my view the only time he actually answered a question.

The horrors of the present lie in the realisation that, not only has the visual arts, unlike most other areas within arts and culture, been largely left to its own devices to transform itself, but the Minister appears to be satisfied that it has done (or is doing) a good job. The horrors of the present lie in the realisation that the current Minister may well be the best candidate arts and culture practitioners can hope for, and if he doesn’t see the need to stump the current gatekeepers of the visual arts then no other Minister will. Leaving the transformation of the visual arts to people in the sector is not an inspiring thought. I have to express amazement that not a single question for the Minister came from any of the office-bearers of the Visual Arts Network of South Africa. Hopefully this was not the case in other provinces. But then should one expect calls for change from the elite batting order (and those aspiring to become part of this class), or from perceived mavericks and dissidents who can see something more urgent to do than pass time in the sun?

 

Notes.

[1] In terms of current government practice an Imbizo is a public meeting between government representatives and “the people”. In this specific instance it was a meeting between the Minister of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan and visual arts practitioners, and was held at the Goodhope Gallery, The Castle, Cape Town on 10 April 2006.

[2] The irony did not escape me that I was a lone voice in publicly challenging artists interviewed in Julie McGee and Vuyile Voyiya’s video documentary “The Luggage is Still Labelled: Blackness in South African Art” to acknowledge that some changes had taken place, particularly regarding the visibility of black artists. However few people would (or should) accept this increased visibility as evidence of sufficient transformation.

[3] I am aware that a lot can be said on these points, and that many people could contribute to such a process. At the Imbizo I questioned whether the Minister could make space for more substantial contributions than that which is possible in the context of a mass meeting. He dismissed my suggestion stating that the Imbizo was an adequate vehicle for public participation. In fact he questioned whether it had been necessary to hold a specific visual arts meeting, since only 15 people had questions for him. The fact that all the allocated time was used, that some of us had may well have had more questions or input to make, and that the previous years Imbizo at the Baxter Theatre only elicited one question concerning the visual arts (from myself and on the same issue) appear to be of no consequence. I have also tried on several occasions to get papers that I have written on aspects of the transformation of the visual arts to the Minister, and it is evident that he has not seen any reason to read them. But then why should he?