Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Various Venues | Cape Town

Robin Rhode, Colour Chart (still), 2007, DVD video installation,dimensions variableThe first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of a chameleon is change, in particular, the change of colour that allows this creature to adapt to its surroundings. As a key strategy for survival, adaptability is also central to CAPE 07’s notion of Contemporary African Culture, abbreviated as CAC, itself a play on kak (shit in Afrikaans). While flexibility is often referred to in the context of diasporic art, where African artists adopt a “double consciousness” in order to negotiate multiplicity, the current tendency to fetishise flux outside of Africa overlooks the instabilities and changes on the continent. Without the large institutional and financial support available to off-continent diaspora shows, exhibitions in Africa (even in Cape Town) are left with little choice but to assume a strategy of change.By now most people are familiar with the chameleonesque changes that CAPE 07, formerly Trans Cape, has gone through, and many have turned their backs on this “not-another-biennale” in the fear that they would have to face “yet-another-flop”. CAPE 07, however, was far from a flop, even if the opening events were characterised by some confusion. At the press briefing, attendees where far too polite (and cautious) to bite into the beautifully iced chocolate “CAC” cakes, but after tearing around the peninsular for a couple of days, it felt as if one had sunk one’s teeth into some delectable contemporary (African) art.One of the most powerful pieces in CAPE 07 is Robin Rhode’s Colour Chart video installation, exhibited in South Africa for the first time. Rhode combines his early mischievousness with a mature poeticism to produce a work of complex, enigmatic social commentary and ethereal beauty. Inspired by 1970s European painting, Colour Chart can, on one level, be interpreted as a formal exploration of colour and art. A man dressed in white is bombarded by men wearing bright colours who approach him one by one in slow motion. Donning a surgical mask, the white man attacks these colours by throwing bricks at them, but in the end he senselessly beats himself up with a rusty white pole. At his artist’s talk, Rhode said he was trying to “highlight violence through the subtleties of painting” by creating an “aesthetic bridge” between South Africa and Europe. While Colour Chart refers to apartheid’s contrived notions of colour that resulted in absurd racial classification, according to Rhode the act of throwing bricks also alludes to the French Revolution where cobblestones were dug up from the street and turned into weapons.Such meandering between different cultures is also evident in Godfried Donkor’s striking photographic and video work, Jamestown Masquerade (2006). At his artist’s talk in Khayelitsha, Donkor, whose work revels in an ambiguous, yet enticing theatricality, confessed to being obsessed with the 18th century. A group of Ghanaians, dressed in what appears to be period costume, performs a masked opera in the once grand, but now rundown buildings of Jamestown – the oldest community in Accra, Ghana. The work was originally conceived as a fashion shoot, and Donkor designed the costumes by conceptually stitching together 18th century European dress and contemporary West African styles. Cleverly usurping stereotypes of “African masquerades” and “African masks”, Donkor, like Rhode, allows a slippage of time and place to create an otherworldly space where an imagined Africa and Europe enter into a sublimely equal dialogue.Playing on the often-unequal interactions Africans have with the rest of the world, Senam Okudzeto’s installation Capitalism and Schizophrenia (2002-2007) displays some of the scam emails that are sent to the USA from various African countries by those framed as “corrupt government officials, desperate refugees, widows [and] orphans”. Providing the viewer with the information that West African scam emails defraud Americans of more than $100-million per year, she asks whether one could view this phenomenon as reverse colonial conquest. Displayed at the Centre for the Book, the installation raises questions about the efficacy of the word – even the intangible electronic word that has proven to have enormous economic consequences.While Okudzeto’s installation resonates with its specific location, Sammy Baloji’s photographic installation works against the grain of its designated site. His 50-meter long representation of a Katanga town in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is controversially placed next to a display of “Edible, Poisonous and Strange Animals” at the South African Museum. The detailed body of knowledge afforded the natural sciences and articulated to the public through stuffed birds and bottled insects, seems to contrast starkly with the lack of knowledge that most viewers (largely Capetonians) have about daily life on Katanga streets. This lack of knowledge is worsened by the fact that DRC authorities view cameras with suspicion and one can be penalised for photographing official buildings.One of the intriguing things about an exploration of CAC is that the commonality of “Africanness” is a peculiarly beautiful, yet not-necessarily-existent thing. Presented in this particular context, Baloji’s work seems to urge Cape Town, as a place of Europolitan flair, to be resituated on the continent of Africa, or to borrow from Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu, to become Afropolitan. This desire to re-situate Cape Town within Africa is indeed one of the goals of CAPE 07 itself.In terms of the utilisation of space across the peninsular (something that the old title Trans Cape captured so well), CAPE 07’s greatest feat was the excitement generated by the Look Out Hill venue in Khayelitsha. This beautiful space housed a number of works around Nicholas Hlobo’s central installation, Umthubi (2006), a curatorial gesture that symbolically placed the Xhosa ancestors at the heart of CAPE 07.During the official opening at Khayelitsha, Brett Bailey’s performative reanimation of Jane Alexander’s Butcher Boys (1985) caught the attention of most art critics who were fascinated by the “dissolving” of one of South Africa’s most iconic “anti-apartheid” works. However, far more indicative of positive change in this country were the notable contributions by young South African women, amongst them Dineo Bopape, Zanele Muholi and Nontsikelelo Veleko.Bopape’s whacky video installation, Jimmy and His Fabulous Dildo (2007), consisted of garish kitchen cupboards adorned with fake flowers, balloons, a cross-stitched image of a baby’s bottle and a plastic banana. A TV screen embedded in this display of sexual-psychoanalytical kitsch, reveals Jimmy engaged in a skittish conversation with a Vienna sausage: “Mommy, you’ve been a naughty girl. Daddy, you’ve been a naughty boy.” Jimmy kisses, licks and masturbates the sausage to the cheers and claps of an invisible audience. As the ovation grows louder, Jimmy’s paranoia intensifies, and he begins to draw his sausage from his pocket like a gun from a holster. The continual reference to “Daddy” and “Mommy” (stemming from the performer’s fascination with American songs that use these titles for lovers) moves beyond typical Freudian analysis, and references the complexities of “mother-tongues” and “mother-countries” so pertinent to the experiences of many itinerant African artists.Both Veleko and Muholi use the camera to intimately portray local South Africans. While Veleko’s images exude the fresh confidence of urban funk, Muholi’s portraits debunk, with dignity, the myth that homosexuality is “unAfrican”. In works such as Black Beulah (2006), the calm connection between the photographer and the photographed is palpable. In her documentary film Enraged by a Picture, Muholi states that the people she photographs describe the person that she is and one of her aims as a photographer is to add to a history of struggle that has not yet been written or recorded. These intensely personal, yet provocatively political works serve as a reminder that a post-apartheid South Africa is not necessarily post-struggle.While international exhibitions on CAC are beginning to dabble in the discourse of “post-African art”, and even a “post-continent Africa,” CAPE 07 and future Cape Africa Platform exhibitions have the potential to change the tone of these increasingly popular, yet increasingly problematic mega-exhibitions of African art. Perhaps the biggest problem with these exhibitions is the fact that what constitutes contemporary African art is increasingly being decided in privileged urban centres in the United States and Europe, that is, the places where museums are able to fund large-scale exhibitions and catalogues.In this context, CAPE 07 has manifested itself as the Cape Chameleon. While the changes that beset CAPE 07 could be read as a lack of tenacity, it is interesting to note that in Dahomey the chameleon was viewed as a symbol not of flittering change but of perpetuity. CAPE might well have a long and healthy life of exhibiting, discussing and shaping CAC.

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