Open Letter to the Trustees of Black Umbrella (Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton, René Gimpel, Paul Goodwin, Joanna Mackle, Lord Bhikhu Parekh and Ziauddin Sardar)

Third Text Advisory Council Members, 5 December 2012

With this letter we announce our collective resignation from the Third Text Advisory Council.

With the full sadness of a long look back, we take our leave from a journal that has occupied a vital place in our critical lives and, for many of us, our artistic and intellectual formation. We do not leave gladly, but we are bound to accept that Third Text, under its current Trusteeship and editorial leadership, is no longer the journal we knew and loved.

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Trustees of Black Umbrella/Third Text Reply to Open Letter

Trustees of Black Umbrella, 30 August 2012

Trustees welcome your support for Third Text. We hope to allay your concerns through reaffirming that we have no intention of undermining the collective vision of Third Text and that our priority is to sustain its future. The Trustees are long supporters of both Rasheed Araeen and of the journal and have the highest regard for his achievements. Rasheed has not been ‘ousted’ from Third Text. Our decision that he should pursue his international role was made with full regard to Rasheed’s status as Founding Editor and to the current and long term needs of the journal and Black Umbrella Trust. The current dispute is perhaps a disproportionate response to a decision made with the best intentions for all concerned.

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Second Supplement to Open Letter to Black Umbrella Board of Trustees, Taylor & Francis Group & Arts Council England

Third Text Advisory Council Members & Third Text Contributors and Supporters, 22 August 2012

To Black Umbrella Board of Trustees, Taylor & Francis Group and Arts Council England:
Please note that the following people have added their signatures to our Open Letter of 13 August 2012:

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Supplement to Open Letter to Black Umbrella Board of Trustees, Taylor & Francis Group & Arts Council England

Third Text Advisory Council Members, Third Text Associates & Third Text Contributors and Supporters, 22 August 2012

To Black Umbrella Board of Trustees, Taylor & Francis Group and Arts Council England:

This is to let you know that the following people have added their signatures to our Open Letter of 13 August 2012:

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Open Letter to Black Umbrella Board of Trustees, Taylor & Francis Group & Arts Council England

Third Text Advisory Council Members, Third Text Associates & Third Text Contributors and Supporters, 13 August 2012

It is with growing alarm and concern that we, members of the Third Text Advisory Council and close supporters ofThird Text, have watched the Board of Trustees take unilateral actions that are hurtful to Founding Editor Rasheed Araeen and damaging to the shared artistic, intellectual and political vision of this journal.

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Second Open Letter to the Board of Trustees of Black Umbrella/Third Text from ASAI/Third Text Africa

Mario Pissarra & Lize van Robbroeck, 10 August 2012

As a matter of public interest and record

We acknowledge receipt of your response of 19 July to our open letter of 2 July 2012, and that it was marked ‘in confidence’, and that you have since distributed the letter more widely, although you have not yet made any public statement.

We trust that the counter allegations levelled at Rasheed Araeen are being communicated directly so that he can respond to them himself.

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Members of Third Text Editorial Board Resign & Call for Independent Review of Journal

Third Text Editorial Board, 8 August 2012

Open Letter to the Board of Trustees of Third Text from members of the Editorial Board

The Editorial Board wishes to make public its position, as set out in letters sent to the Board of Trustees since Rasheed was removed from the day to day running of Third Text in the summer of  2011 (see below 24/11/2011 & 8/3/2012). These letters express our concerns over the situation.

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Open Letter to the Board of Trustees of Black Umbrella Concerning the Dismissal of Rasheed Araeen

Mario Pissarra & Lize van Robbroeck, 2 June 2012

Open letter to the Board of Trustees of Black Umbrella, concerning the dismissal of Rasheed Araeen as executive director, and the consequences of this action for the future of Third Text, as well as for Third Text Africa.

On the 25th June 2012 Rasheed Araeen, founding editor of Third Text, sent an email to a number of persons associated with Third Text. The letter detailed his dismissal as executive director of Black Umbrella, the non-profit organisation founded by Araeen which established Third Text as its flagship project.

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Why Post- Apartheid UCT Needs the Centre for African Studies

Concerned CAS Students, 15 March 2011

As Concerned CAS Students and CAS supporters we respond here to the Faculty Forum held on Friday 25 February 2011. We reiterate and explain our opposition to any closure, disestablishment or downgrading of the University of Cape Town’s Centre for African Studies (CAS) either as an interim measure, or as the first step in a two-stage process towards establishing a new Centre.

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Does Post-Apartheid UCT Need a Centre for African Studies?

Concerned CAS Students, 14 February 2011

As students and indeed clients of the University of Cape Town (UCT), we have chosen UCT for its reputation as a world-class African university.  Prior to and during our time at this world-class institution of higher learning, we invest our time, energy, financial resources and intellect, not only to our own work and careers, but to enriching the faculties, departments, clubs and organisations to which we belong. Of course, this is how educational institutions function, which is why were are baffled, appalled, angered, enraged and deeply disappointed by the university’s administrative decision to disestablish the Centre for African Studies without our input or consultation.

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Gender DynamiX Speaks Out Against Xingwana’s Bigotry

by Gender DynamiX

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Gender DynamiX is deeply concerned about the policing of bodies by the State.  A very large part of our work is centred on examining the practices of the Department of Health (DoH) and the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and their unethical activities towards Transgender people.  We are now faced with the question whether this is becoming a government trend.

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Statement on the Violence Against Foreign Nationals

Artists for Africa, 28 May 2008

If art were to mirror our society right now, it would reflect the rainbow as a tattered farce, the African Renaissance as a bad stand-up comedy routine, the notion of ubuntu as a horror movie, and our much-admired constitution as a satire on what we have become.

Given where we have come from, with Madiba’s inaugural “never again” speech still ringing in our ears, and with the dream that we would be a beacon of humanity, dignity and tolerance, there can be little excuse for the sheer brutality in the violence wreaked against foreign nationals in the last few weeks.

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ASAI Enters a New Phase

ASAI, 18 March 2008

From its modest inception as a website a little over two years ago, the Africa South Art Initiative (ASAI) has emerged as a bona-fide organisation with a mission to develop critical resources on art in Africa.

The ‘early’ ASAI was a private initiative. However, the project always contained a collaborative element, and it was envisaged that ASAI would grow into a ‘proper’ organisation. That time has come. On the 21st February 2008 ASAI was registered as a Section 21 Company.

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Booing It, Badly: A Response to Sharlene Khan

by Mario Pissarra

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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.

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Modernist Primitivism & Indigenous Modernisms: Transnational Discourse & Local Art Histories

Anitra Nettleton, 28 March 2011

Editor’s note: Anitra Nettleton was discussant for “Modernist Primitivism and Indigenous Modernisms: Transnational Discourse and Local Art Histories”, a panel convened by Ruth B. Phillips (Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada) for “Other Views: Art History in (South) Africa and the Global South” at the University of the Witwatersrand, 12 – 15 January 2011.[i]

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‘Ownership’ of the Community Arts Project (CAP), 1976-1997

by Jacqueline Nolte, 18 February 2011

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This essay was written in 1997 for a publication that was planned to commemorate 21 years of the Community Arts Project. Since none of the publishers approached thought that there was a market for a book on CAP, this essay is published here for the first time.

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Art & Decolonisation: Small Steps Towards a Global Art History

by Mario Pissarra

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On 14 January 2011 I convened two sessions of a panel on “art as an act of decolonisation” for an international colloquium convened by the South African Visual Arts Historians (SAVAH).(1) The panel comprised ten papers selected from 25 abstracts submitted in response to my call.(2)

This report provides an overview of the papers on decolonisation, without engaging in detailed summaries or critique of individual papers.(3)  It does not address the conference as a whole, although some reference is made to presentations on other panels, where these have a bearing on the decolonisation theme. It concludes with a brief reflection on the potential impact of trans-national themes on the development of a global art history.


Most papers focused on art produced after political independence, when art was entangled within the context of newly emerging nation states. This included South Africa, where ‘national liberation’ led not to ‘independence’ but to a new democratic order typically referred to as post-apartheid. Cassandra Barnett’s discussion of the artist Lisa Reihana introduced a different angle to the concept of decolonisation, since contemporary Maori art and identity falls short of most people’s notions of self-determination or liberation, perhaps explaining why the notion of indigeneity featured so strongly in her presentation (as it did in the presentation by the other Maori scholar present, Jonathan Mane Wheoki).

Shannen Hill’s paper also differed from most, since it was the only one to address work from a period of anti-colonial (more precisely anti-apartheid) resistance, although it too was framed by the post-colonial (post-apartheid) context, where hegemonic narratives erase counter narratives (in this case the legacy of black consciousness). Tegan Bristow’s presentation of internet art also stood apart. While it was situated within the post-colonial/apartheid context Bristow’s was the only paper to go beyond the framework of the nation-state, highlighting the possibilities of new global communities that are made possible through the internet.

With most papers focused on art practice, little was said of the institutional infrastructure for art. A notable exception was Kwame Labi’s comparative study of art education in Kenya and Ghana. Labi addressed the consequences of colonial-era education for contemporary art. More specifically, he highlighted how colonial views on the intellectual capacity of Africans had limited the development of art history and theory.

Several papers dealt with the recovery or affirmation of indigenous or pre-colonial identities. This included works that addressed or referenced historical figures and events, as well as others that incorporated oral traditions. It also included examples where artists referenced pre-colonial or popular artistic traditions, and melded these with dominant ‘western’ forms.

While several of the papers dealt with the recovery of the past, these invariably reflected an engagement with the present. This was visible in the appropriation of western forms, as well as the critical engagement with stereotypes. Generally, two tendencies were apparent. The first concerned the use of western forms that were subsequently invested with new or ‘local’ content. The second highlighted the development of new forms, such as the fusion of easel painting and traditional crafts in the work of Farid Belkahia in Morocco, and the use of new technologies, including digital installations and the internet.

New technology aside, the most dramatic departure from the emphasis on the past was provided by Bernadette van Haute. Following Dennis Ekpo, van Haute called for ‘post-Africanism’ arguing for the necessity to unburden the weight of the past. In contrast to Ekpo/van Haute’s critique that post-colonial African countries advocated ‘too much Africanism’, Drew Thompson’s discussion on post-colonial Moçambique highlighted a counter example where nationality was privileged over race and ethnicity.

Several papers introduced questions of censorship and historical revisionism on the part of the state, within the context of emerging nation-states where counter-narratives were seen to undermine the national ‘consensus’ being established by the ruling party. This was most apparent in Pascal Ratovonony’s account of Ousmane Sembene’s cinematic response to Senghor’s historical revisionism, and Senghor’s subsequent banning of Sembene’s Ceddo, but was also a feature of Hill’s reclamation of the influence of black consciousness on the posters of the 1980s. Thompson, like Ratovonony, also referenced the state’s control of language, where naming was sometimes subjected to state sanction, even decree.

The post-colonial state as gatekeeper was also raised in Holiday Powers’ accounts of the official contexts for the display of art in Morocco, and how artists tried to expand the audience for art through exhibiting in public spaces. This theme, of engaging with a popular audience, was also apparent in other papers. These included the narration of popular history in public museums, as in Claudia Hucke’s account of post-independence mural painting in Jamaica, reference to the use of popular art forms such as glass painting in Senegal, and the mining of oral histories and local genres, as evident in Yvonne Winters and Mxolisi Mchunu’s account of a painting by Trevor Makhoba, and potentially participatory interactions provided for by new technology, as discussed by Bristow and Barnett.

Overlap with other panels and presentations

What was striking was the overlap between the issues discussed on the decolonisation panel with other panels. This was particularly so with the “indigenous modernisms” panel (4), where several of the case studies showed artists mediating the particular and the universal, the indigenous and the western. A similar example appeared on the Latin American panel (5), in the presentation by Roberto Conduru on the Brazilian artist Rubem Valentim. Also from this panel, Helena Chávez Mac Gregor referred to the pervasive influence of Catholicism on Latin America, which served as a reminder that none of the papers on the decolonisation panel addressed the cultural dimensions of colonisation, and how these are mediated in the contexts of ‘liberation’ or ‘self-determination’. The presentation by Peju Layawola, on the “Changing museums, changing art histories” panel (6), where she discussed her artistic response to the looting of the Benin bronzes and the refusal of the British to return the spoils of their plunder, would also not have been out of place on the decolonisation panel.


The overlap with other panels highlighted that, with the majority of the world experiencing some form of colonisation, occupation, and exploitation, artists the world-over have had to rise to the challenge of making art that is relevant for their contexts. Frequently this has taken the form of developing a new form of art, one that in part draws upon their unique heritage and on the other reflects their engagement with the culture of the colonising force.

In considering how to develop a global art history it becomes apparent that the exploration of trans-national themes presents opportunities to introduce often disparate and neglected artists and movements into new discursive frameworks. While this often entails a fair amount of de-coding, translating and learning to read new visual dialects and languages, the introduction of relevant, comparative examples will inevitably lead to the emergence of new discourses. This will provide a viable alternative to the ‘peripheral artist as a shadow of a western colossus’ orthodoxy that has been responsible for the misrepresentation and exclusion of far too many artists for far too long.



(1) Held under the aegsis of the Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art (CIHA), the colloquium theme was “Other Views: Art History in (South) Africa and the Global South”. It was held at the University of Witwatersrand, 12-15 January 2011. Thanks to the Getty Foundation for awarding me a grant to attend the conference.

(2) The full title was “Art as an act of decolonisation: perspectives from and on the global south”. The call for papers read: “The struggle for decolonisation is one of the critical themes of the 20th century. Across the globe visual arts practitioners (artists, educators, historians, curators, publishers, administrators, etc) have contributed to and been impacted on by struggles for self-determination. The struggle for decolonisation does not end with national liberation in the political sense but persists in the economic and cultural spheres. Whether visual arts practitioners have been active, passive or even resistant subjects in these struggles, the art, exhibitions, and publications produced in these contexts will inevitably reference issues that can be read as part of the broader struggle for cultural identity.

Decolonisation is both an ongoing historical process and a discourse. The discourse typically invokes contested notions such as cultural imperialism, authenticity, indigeneity, traditionalism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, modernity, assimilation, synthesis, hybridity, and globalisation.

While decolonisation does manifest literally in artists’ choice of themes, images and symbols, it also manifests in quests to generate new visual languages. This includes questions of style, form and materials. Critical assessments of the purposes of art and its public are also important to consider, as is the transformation of existing art institutions, or the establishment of new ones. The relationship to the new nation-state of practitioners who see their work, as Wilfredo Lam put it, as “an act of decolonisation” is also a critical question, particularly when the new state assumes a neo-colonial character. The relationships that are privileged and cultivated with the artists and art events of other nation states are also important, since this calls into question the extent to which the struggle for dignity that led to national liberation is accompanied by a struggle to transform the eurocentrism of the international art world.

This panel discussion aims to explore how decolonisation impacts on the visual arts and how visual arts practitioners contribute as subjects to the ongoing process of decolonisation. Case studies, singular and comparative, from across the world are particularly welcomed. The emphasis will be on periods before and after political independence, as well as those dealing with the incomplete project of decolonisation in more recent times. While most case studies will come from the South, latitude will be extended to case studies from the North where equivalent struggles for self-determination occur. Critical approaches to the value and limits of applying decolonisation as a discursive frame are also welcome.”

(3) Topics and speakers for the first panel were:

  • Modernization and traditionalization: art and decolonization in Morocco – Holiday Powers (Cornell University, New York).
  • The disconnect between contemporary art practice and theory in Ghana and Kenya – Kwame Amoah Labi (Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana).
  • Ousmane Sembene censored by Leopold Sedar Senghor (Ceddo, 1976): a political and aesthetical debate in postcolonial Senegal – Pascale Nirina Ratovonony (École Normale Supérieure de la rue d’Ulm/Université de Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne).
  • ’Regardless, the struggle continues’: black consciousness is a culture of resistance – Shannen Hill (University of Maryland-College Park, USA).
  • The art of Trevor Makhoba: a cultural and historical review of KwaZulu-Natal’s urban African artists’ response to decolonisation – Yvonne Winters (Campbell Collections, University of KwaZulu-Natal) and Mxolisi Mchunu (Voortrekker/ Msunduzi Museum, Pietermaritizburg, RSA).

Topics and speakers for the second panel were:

  • Murals and national identity: issues in postcolonial Jamaican art – Claudia Hucke (Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, Kingston, Jamaica).
  • Renegotiating race and nationality: commercial and press-photography in post-independent Mozambique, 1975-1986 – Drew A. Thompson (Arquivo Histórico de Moçambique/Centro de Documentação e Formação de Fotografia, Maputo, Moçambique).
  • Post-Africanism and contemporary art in South African townships – Bernadette Van Haute (University of South Africa, Pretoria).
  • Rephrasing protocol: internet art in the global south – Tegan Bristow (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg).
  • What You See You Don’t See’: Lisa Reihana’s Digital Marae – Cassandra Barnett (Unitec, New Zealand).

(4) Convened by Ruth Phillips, the full title of the panel was “Modernist Primitivism and indigenous modernisms: Transnational discourse and local art histories”.

(5) Convened by Maria Iñigo Clavo and Jaime Vindel, the panel was titled “About the epistemological and political consequences of the ‘Latin American’ label”. Conduru’s paper was titled “African dimensions of Latin American art”.

(6) Convened by Jillian Carman. Layiwola’s paper was titled “Contesting imperial narratives and display of African art: A counter history from Nigeria”.



Feeding the Hand that Bites: South African Art & the Valparaiso Biennial of 1987

Colin Richards, 20 December 2010

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my people, tell me:
what does, what breaks the chains?
(Mongane Wally Serote ‘Time Has Run Out’)

…with no other law but torture
and the lashing hunger of the people
(Pablo Neruda ‘The Satraps’)

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Art, Censorship & the Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe

by Sokwanele

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This report was issued by Sokwanele on 15 September 2010 and it appears here with their permission.

This article is the first in a series that will look at forms of freedom of expression in Zimbabwe. Politics has so infiltrated our lives that the personal, social and cultural are all political, and as always with Zimbabwe, it is impossible to talk about one without referencing the other. What we hope to do is to encourage people to think beyond the minutiae detail of political immediacies, and to debate who we are as people in this maelstrom, how do we define ourselves, where do we want to be going, how can we get there, and is there space for this richness of identity to be defined and celebrated in Zimbabwe today?

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Art in Tunisia: A Visibility in the Making

by Mohamed Ben Soltane

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[This has been translated from French.]

One of Tunisia’s paradoxes is that it is among the wealthiest African countries economically, and the most socially stable, but is also among the least visible from a cultural point of view. This invisibility is reaching worrying proportions when we speak about contemporary art.

If North African artists  have been recognised  within the African and international scene, such as the Algerians Adel Abdessemed and Zineb Sédira, the Moroccans Mounir Fatmi and Yto Barrada, and the Egyptians Moataz Nasr and Ghada Amer, in Tunisia it is difficult to speak of two artists who have achieved a comparable reputation. Even if North Africa is not very well represented in the catalogued events of ‘contemporary African art’, Tunisia registers a significant absence in comparison with its neighbours.

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De-segregating the Audience: Race & the Politics of Exhibitions

by Mario Pissarra

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This was prepared for a panel discussion with the same title, held at the Centre for the Book, Cape Town, on 19 August 2010. The panel formed part of the “Beyond the Racial Lens” conference, which was itself part of the “Bonani 2010 Festival of Documentary Photography” convened by SAHO. Thembinkosi Goniwe and Khwezi Gule were also part of the panel, which was chaired by Farzanah Badsha.

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The Curator as Culture Broker: A Critique of the Curatorial Regime of Okwui Enwezor in the Discourse of Contemporary African Art

Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, 23 June 2010

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I presented this essay recently at the University of California Santa Cruz, at a conference titled The Task of the Curator. The general audience reception to my presentation showed me that the issue discussed here is being very much debated in the field of African art history. However, few people have written about it. I think formal critical analysis of our work and positions are very important for a field to grow. I am posting it here in the hope that it allows us to start discussing the important issues it touches on.

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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.

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Portugal as a place for Africa.cont

Mario Pissarra, 11 January 2010

This was presented at a meeting of Africa.cont ( held on 5 December 2009 at the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. It was prepared for a panel discussion that was intended to address the possibilities and limitations of Portugal as a location for Africa.cont. Alda Costa, Barthelemy Toguo and Paul Goodwin were also on this panel, which was chaired by Roger Meintjes.
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Decolonisation of art in Africa: a post-apartheid South African perspective

by Mario Pissarra

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[Note: This was presented at the annual conference of the South African Visual Arts Historians at the University of Stellenbosch, 2008.]

This is not a tightly argued paper, but more of a loose mapping of ideas that have preoccupied me for several years, ideas triggered by the implications of the concept of decolonisation, specifically as it has relevance for the visual arts, within but not limited to the contemporary South African context. [1]

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Chalk and cheese, or yam and potatoes? Some thoughts on the need to develop a comparative critical practice

by Mario Pissarra

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[This was prepared for an AICA/VANSA seminar on art criticism in Africa, November 2007.]

Sometime in the very early 90s the Johannesburg based Afrika Cultural Center invited and hosted Ngugi wa Mirrii, the Kenyan born, Zimbabwe based theatre for development practitioner. As the general secretary of the Cultural Workers Congress, Western Cape, I took on the task of organising a day-long itinerary for Ngugi so that he could meet with a range of community arts organisation in Cape Town. One of the most memorable incidents occurred at the Community Arts Project, then located in Chapel Street, Woodstock. Ngugi, having been subjected to a series of presentations highlighting the lack of resources for NGOs said something to the effect that: “You South Africans don’t know how good you have it, in Zimbabwe we do most of our training outdoors under a tree”.

I recalled this incident when I received the programme for this seminar. I wondered if we, i.e. the South African participants, were going to use this opportunity to complain about the poverty of criticism and publishing within the country? And I wondered how many of the South African participants would be able to name a single art critic or publication based in another African country? Certainly it struck me as unfortunate that an international art criticism seminar with an African focus should limit its sole panel discussion on art criticism to South Africa.

Having these concerns, whilst simultaneously feeling obliged to address the brief which this panel was given: i.e. to focus on South Africa and to draw on our own experiences; I decided that I would concentrate on issues concerning art criticism that affect writing on modern and contemporary African art, through the lens of a South African practitioner.

To do this I must first summarise two polar positions in writing on South African art. The first, seen vividly in the books of Esme Berman, once the Helen Gardner of South African art history, was to explain South African art, mostly white, by situating it within the trajectories of western modernism. To understand South African art you must first know something of Impressionism, Expressionism, Surrealism, etc.

Standing in stark contrast to this is the revisionist art historical writing that has dominated since the late 1980s, seen in books such as Steven Sack’s Neglected Tradition, Gavin Younge’s Art of the South African Townships, Sue Williamson’s Resistance Art in South Africa. These books signaled a shift towards defining South African art as uniquely South African, and significantly black. This was a very necessary and welcome shift from the Berman school of eurocentrism, but seen in hindsight it introduced a new problem. The problem I refer to is that we swung from one extreme where knowledge of a western art historical precedent was a prerequisite for interpretation, to the point where no comparative art historical framework was in place, and our art was seen as a purely South African phenomenon.

There are always exceptions to the norm. Matsemela Manaka’s Echoes of African Art and Anitra Nettleton & David Hammond Tooke’s African Art: From Tradition to Township, both of which also appeared in the late 80s, hinted that there was a broader African context to South African art. But by and large, our lens was now determinedly ‘local’. Building on the early revisionist texts South African art historians began to deepen their enquiry beyond the initial thematic surveys. The most prominent new trend was the production of monographs and catalogues on single artists, particularly black pioneers. Another trend was the emergence of studies that focused on specific media. We also saw the advent of detailed case studies on individual art centres, such as Polly Street and Rorke’s Drift. I wish to use these last examples to highlight why I think South African art history could benefit from a comparative framework that draws on African precedents. In doing this I do not want to detract from the value of these publications, which are characterised by detailed research and which hopefully will lead to further studies of centres such as CAP, Fuba, Funda, and the Afrika Cultural Centre, to name a few.

Example one: Cecil Skotnes at Polly Street in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The issue of Cecil Skotnes’ teaching methodology at Polly Street, where he attempted to balance introducing new techniques and ideas with giving his students enough space to tap into a supposedly authentic African consciousness, can be compared with earlier interventions by expatriates in Africa, mostly but not exclusively in the colonial period. I refer to Margaret Trowell in Kampala, Pierre Romain Desfosses in Elizabethville (Lubumbashi), Pierre Lods in Congo Brazzaville and Dakar, Ulli & Georgina Beier in Oshogbo, and Frank McEwen in Salisbury. While all of these pedadogical methodologies represent various degrees of ‘non-directive’ intervention, which have been severely chastised by post-colonial critics for their paternalism, there is no doubt that their legacy has been immense, even finding expression in more recent examples, such as the Triangle Network. Arguably the singularity of Cecil Skotnes would be better appreciated if his methods and legacy were to be evaluated in an appropriate comparative framework; indeed it would be interesting to know which of these initiatives he was familiar with, and possibly influenced by. But this is not only about Skotnes; a critical appreciation of all of these initiatives could be enhanced through such a comparison.

Example 2: Rorke’s Drift founded by Swedish Lutheran missionaries in the early 1960s

There is surely something significant in the fact that several of the earliest art education initiatives in Africa were introduced by missionaries. I suspect that a detailed comparative analysis between Rorke’s Drift and other missionary led art initiatives in the colonial periods in Nigeria, the Congo, and Zimbabwe would highlight both similarities and differences between the colonial administration of each of these countries; the respective orientations of the various Christian denominations; issues of emphasis in different historical periods; the personalities and approaches of the missionaries involved, and that this would offer some new insights into the artists and art produced. Certainly, knowing just a little of some of these initiatives enriched my own appreciation of Rorke’s Drift. Like I suspect many others with a superficial knowledge of Rorke’s Drift I assumed that the proliferation of religious imagery was a direct consequence of the missionary orientation of the project. Thanks to Hobbs & Rankin I now know that Peder & Ulla Gowenius, who initiated art training at the Centre were in fact not missionaries – they were ‘disguised’ as such in order to have the space to operate within the restrictive apartheid environment. The Gowenius’, it seems, were more interested in cultivating a sense of pride and self respect through a knowledge of local history and culture, and through the development of income generating skills; than they were in saving souls. Apparently they did not encourage the use of biblical themes. Ironically, these came from the black students themselves, motivated in part by liberation theology, as well as by the adherence of some students to Africanised Christian sects. While these observations highlight the uniqueness of Rorke’s Drift, specifically in its earliest manifestation, I am left wondering whether a comparative study of the art produced at various missionary projects, in South Africa as well as beyond its borders, would introduce information that would deepen understanding and appreciation of all these mission led projects as historic interventions.

In making the above points I have tried to briefly highlight how South African art history could benefit from a comparative analysis with other African examples; but also how African art history would benefit from such an approach. However I would like to use my remaining time to begin to address the question of developing an appropriate framework for the critical interpretation of modern and contemporary art. In doing this I am not trying to introduce a one size fits all approach, but rather to share with you what I personally have found to be useful in my own work.

The view that modern and contemporary art of Africa is a poor copy of western art has been rightly challenged by many post-colonial writers. It seems to me that much of the counter strategy has been to attack western notions of African authenticity, and to place emphasis on the heterogeneity, iconoclasm, and cosmopolitanism of Africa’s art and artists. In doing this artists of African origin living in Europe and the USA, as well as artists based on the continent who work with technologically advanced media, including a number of South Africans, have been given the most space. Personally, I am less interested in many of these artists than I am in the question of how artists living in Africa adapt to the challenging political and economic contexts that many of them find themselves to be, from the colonial period to the present.

Thus I was very intrigued by Okwui Enwezor’s project The Short Century, particularly the proposition it appeared to offer: that the critical interpretation of Africa’s modern art needed to be situated within the contexts of decolonisation and independence. The Short Century, it seemed to me, offered an alternative way of looking at the art of Africa. Some of you may be aware that I wrote a very long review of the catalogue (I never saw the exhibition) which concluded that, the scale of the project aside, The Short Century lacked substance. In retrospect, I think I reached this negative conclusion out of disappointment, since after reading it from cover to cover, twice, I was left with a sense of being cheated by Enwezor, since nowhere did I find an attempt to apply these ideas (decolonisation and independence) to the art on the exhibition. Nonetheless the process of critiquing The Short Century has helped me immensely.

Firstly, I think it is erroneous to attribute an anti-colonial agenda to all of Africa’s modern and contemporary art. Certainly there was a degree of assimilation that took place, that could be interpreted, at least in part, as validating the ‘civilising mission’ of the Europeans. It is true, as Olu Oguibe argued in his article “Appropriation as Nationalism in Modern African Art” that an artist such as Aina Onabolu, widely regarded as Nigeria’s first modern artist, successfully challenged European prejudice of Africans by mastering the white man’s idiom (realistic portraiture in oils on canvas). But is there not a counter argument, that by rejecting indigenous practices and adopting western conventions Onabolu also exemplified the values of the emerging black middle class that saw western civilisation as a form of progress? In a conversation I had with Uche Okeke, Okeke highlighted that Onabolu was a Christian, and that he emerged in that part of the country where missionaries first made their mark. In contrast to the methods of Onabolu, in developing a postcolonial Nigerian art, Okeke and his contemporaries researched indigenous sources that Onabolu ignored. What this highlights is that the internal struggle with colonialism is in part a rejection, but also in part an embrace – how else does one interpret details conveniently ignored by Oguibe in his radical framing of Onabolu as a nationalist – such as that Onabolu accepted an OBE, as well as a tribal chieftanship, other than as evidence of degrees of conservatism?

It is this struggle, much of it seemingly contradictory and conducted at a deeply personal level, that I believe makes Onabolu the complex and intriguing artist that he is. It is also this level of struggle that Enwezor failed to address in his approach to decolonisation, which he appears to have interpreted in quite narrow terms. In a recent article I wrote called “Re-reading Malangatana”, soon to be published in Farafina, a Nigerian magazine, I began by expressing my frustration with what I have found to be a general failure to adequately situate Malangatana within the anti-colonial and post-colonial wars in Mozambique. During the course of my research I came across an insightful comment by Mia Couto, the Mozambican writer. Couto remarked that the natives’ encounter with colonialism was through the process of assimiliation. Assimilation, as outlined by Harun Harun on a previous panel, refers to the implementation of colonial interests through the introduction of elements such as language, Christianity, education, and various social and cultural practices. Assimilation was deliberately used to create a class of citizens that were alienated from their traditions as black Mozambicans, but remained on the periphery of the settler class.

Malangatana, as a mission educated native who received the benevolent patronage of white artists and intellectuals can be seen to be part of this assimilated class; which also includes the so-called mulatto, born of the union of settler and native. In engaging with this concept of assimilation I began to make observations about Malangatana’s work that previously were closed to me: in particular I began to discover how many of his early works contain images of women with skin tones lighter than men, with long flowing hair, again unlike the men, and this made me begin to question whether he was commenting on the process of assimilation or was reflecting values that were based on white notions of feminine beauty. I also began to see how many of these women appeared in close proximity to the Christian cross, and how notions of guilt and retribution featured prominently in these works. I also looked at the frequent references to witchcraft in writing on Malangatana, and how these images of traditional healing were almost invariably violent and negative, although writers regularly claimed that he ‘promoted’ his indigenous culture. I also found that post-independence Malangatana’s women began to have braided hair, and how a guilt free eroticism began to find expression. I concluded by putting forward the proposition that while there are some images that represent the anti-colonial struggle, it is really at the level of personal engagement with the values of the colonial class that decolonisation manifests as a theme in Malangatana’s art.

It is when I approached the idea of decolonisation as an ongoing struggle with the legacies of colonialism that I began to develop new perspectives on artists such as Onabolu and Malangatana. However I have also struggled with applying this understanding of decolonisation publicly, since the term is more commonly used to refer to a historical event, in the way that, it seems to me, has been done by Enwezor. However, until I can come up with an alternative term that lacks historical baggage, I continue to use the notion of decolonisation as a pivotal concept in my quest to interpret much of the art in Africa.

I have, it may seem, deviated from the South African focus requested of me by the seminar organisers. However what I have tried to do is to demonstrate that it was through looking at art in other African contexts that I begin to develop new perspectives that help me re-interpret South African art. I also found that when one looks at the notion of international art through an African prism that one begins to develop new perspectives on western art. For example most students schooled in western art history would associate the 1960s with pop music and pop art. I found that once I educated myself more about African history the pivotal feature of the 1960s became decolonisation, not the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. This in turn led me to reevaluate Pop Art: to what extent does the iconoclasm of the period reflect the end of Empire? To what extent does the emphasis on brand names and packaging herald the advent of multi-national led globalisation? Certainly, it seems to me, there are intellectual benefits in developing comparative frameworks, since these allow for new perspectives to develop.

I could go on by talking about why, if I had the means, I would curate joint exhibitions such as Uche Okeke and Garth Erasmus, or Sokari Douglas Camp and Willie Bester, since I think that organising such encounters would enable us to reevaluate individual contributions. The processes of comparative reflection could facilitate a deeper understanding and fresh perspectives on art and artists, and the issues that arise in discussing them. If we are to develop a legitimate international art history we need credible critical tools, and comparative frameworks are surely part of that.

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

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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”

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Africa’s Interlocutors: Lize van Robbroeck in conversation with Sylvester Ogbechie

Lize van Robbroeck & Sylvester Ogbechie, 13 September 2008

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This is an edited version of an email exchange that took place in July 2006. It formed part of a series of conversations conducted for From the Ground Up, the Reader developed for the Cape Africa Platform’s Trans Cape exhibition. Unfortunately, the publication of the Reader was held back indefinitely, as a consequence of the funding shortfall which saw Trans Cape being replaced by the Cape 07 exhibition. The first and latter part of this conversation have previously been published by Prof Ogbechie on his blog, but has hitherto never been published in its entirety.

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Creating New Conditions for Creativity: Uche Okeke in conversation with Mario Pissarra

by Uche Okeke & Mario Pissarra

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[This is an edited version of a recorded telephone conversation that took place on 10 July 2006. It formed part of a series of conversations conducted for From the Ground Up, the Reader developed for the Cape Africa Platform’s Trans Cape exhibition. Unfortunately, the publication of the Reader was held back indefinitely, as a consequence of the funding shortfall which saw Trans Cape being replaced by the Cape 07 exhibition. This version is identical to that which was prepared for publication. It should also be noted that Okeke has recently relocated to Lagos.]

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Making History: Gavin Jantjes in conversation with Rasheed Araeen

by Gavin Jantjes & Rasheed Araeen, 10 July 2008

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This is an edited version of a recorded telephone conversation and email exchange that took place in July 2006. It formed part of a series of conversations conducted for From the Ground Up, the Reader developed for the Cape Africa Platform’s Trans Cape exhibition. Unfortunately, the publication of the Reader was held back indefinitely, as a consequence of the funding shortfall which saw Trans Cape being replaced by the Cape 07 exhibition. This version is identical to that which was prepared for publication, inclusive of references to the original context.

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On the Need to Consume: An interview with Manthia Diawara

by Jessica Levin Martinez & Michael Tymkiw

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[This interview was originally published in the Chicago Art Journal and is reproduced here with permission from Manthia Diawara.]

Manthia Diawara is Professor of Comparative Literature, Film and Africana Studies at New York University, where he also serves as Director of the Institute of African American Affairs. He has written extensively on literature and visual culture, and some of his best-known books include We Won’t Budge: An African Exile in the World (2003), In Search of Africa (1998), and African Cinema: Politics and Culture (1992). Diawara is also an acclaimed documentary filmmaker whose credits include Who is Afraid of Ngugi? (2006), Conakry Kas (2004), Bamako Sigi Kan (2002), Diaspora Conversation (2000), and Rouch in Reverse (1995).

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Re-reading Malangatana

by Mario Pissarra

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[Note: An edited version of this essay appeared in Farafina #11]

For more than 40 years Malangatana has been one of Mozambique’s best known cultural figures, and indisputably her best known visual artist. Since his first appearance in a group exhibition in Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) in 1959, Malangatana’s works have been shown in numerous countries across the globe. His trademark style – dense compositions contained within shallow pictorial space, consisting of simplified shapes, mostly figurative, often with pronounced eyes and teeth, and typically rendered with a bright palette and bold outlines – is instantly recognisable.

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The stakes of art criticism in Africa

by Yacouba Konate

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[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.


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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

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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.

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Imbacu [exhibition review]

Mario Pissarra, 31 August 2007

From the outset I welcomed this exhibition since exile (‘Imbacu’ in isiXhosa) has received scant attention from South African curators and art historians, despite being perhaps the earliest form of resistance practiced by our artists. I was also curious whether Loyiso Qanya’s curatorial debut represented a shift within the SANG, an institution that has done little to create meaningful curatorial opportunities for trainees.

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Shaping Art Education in Africa: Face-to-Face Dialogues on Curriculum, Teaching – Learning and Assessment

Barthosa Nkurumeh, 14 July 2007

Deliberating Access to Quality Art Education in the 21st Century

Greetings! Or ndewo, as it is said in one of the Kwa language groups. The following are the proceedings of the panel, Shaping Art Education in Africa: Face-to-Face Dialogues on Curriculum, Teaching-Learning and Assessment at the14th Triennial Symposium on African Art organized by the Arts Council of African Studies Association (ACASA) and the University of Florida (UFL), Gainesville held at UFL on Friday, March 30, 2007 from 2:00 to 4:00 PM in Room 2 of the Florida Museum of Natural History.

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

by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi

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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.

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Dirty Laundry: Can we think beyond Venice?

by Mario Pissarra

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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.

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Atelier Alexandria International Artists Workshop 2006: A Report

by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nwezi

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The AAW International Artists Workshop 2006 provided me with an important opportunity to visit the historic country of Egypt and the city of Alexandria. Workshops provide an enabling space for artists from diverse ethnic backgrounds to commingle, network and learn from each other, and the AAW workshop was no exception.I arrived in Egypt on November 17, two days before the actual start of the workshop and this afforded me the opportunity to spend two days in Cairo.
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Beyond current debates on representation: a few thoughts on the need to develop infrastructure for art in Africa

by Mario Pissarra

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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.

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Open the Gate

Olu Oguibe, 9 October 2006

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[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

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Targeted Candidate II [Iziko’s response to Goniwe]

by Jatti Bredekamp et al

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[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]

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Targeted Candidate

by Thembinkosi Goniwe

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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!

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Veneziano: Ventriloquizing Venice- a response to Malcolm Payne

by Gavin Anderson

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[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

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[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]

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Partial Revisionism: How the British Museum’s re-framing of Africa reflects its own institutional interests and cultural bias. A review of ‘Africa: Arts and Cultures’, edited by John Mack

by Mario Pissarra

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[An edited version of this review was published as “Defining African Art” on in 2001, but is no longer available. Apart from the title, no changes have been made to the original text]
Published to coincide with the opening of the Sainsbury African Galleries at the British Museum, this book avoids the expensive, coffee table format characteristic of books on African art and culture. Attractively presented with high quality colour photographs, and written with jargon free text, this book appears to be aimed at the ‘general’ reader or visitor to the Museum. [1]

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Picasso and Africa: Are we asking the right questions?

by Mario Pissarra

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[Note: Slightly revised version of a paper presented for a panel discussion at the “Picasso and Africa” seminar, Centre for the Book, Cape Town, 13 May 2006]

There is no doubt that Europe has stolen, and continues to steal from Africa. Thieves by nature do not usually disclose the sources of their wealth and therefore it is at times necessary to challenge and expose them. Personally I suspect that the Picasso and Africa exhibition attracted such high levels of interest and support on the part of our President and Minister of Arts & Culture precisely because here is one example where a case for Europe’s debt to Africa can be made. However I believe that centering the debate on the question of Picasso’s debt to Africa should not be the focus of our intellectual enquiry at this point in time.

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

by Mario Pissarra

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 [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!



[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] 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