A paradox lies at the heart of 10 Years 100 Artists, a sumptuous new publication listing the biographies of 100 South African artists. The editor outsourced the selection of the artists to 15 writers with different backgrounds, experience and opinion in an attempt to be broadly inclusive. Many of the writers in turn applied a particular selection bias which, though openly declared, resulted in a book skewed towards emerging artists and new media.
Despite this apparent contradiction, the new publication is widely viewed as a long overdue and remarkable book set to become a major reference on South African art. Its shortcomings, moreover, are generally considered a reflection of the disparity and complexity of the contemporary art world rather than an inherent flaw in the book itself. As Michael Stevenson, gallerist and art historian, said: “It sums up, in many respects, the conflicts and lack of consensus of art in South Africa.”
The major bone of contention regarding 10 Years 100 Artists appeared at first to be about the inclusion and exclusion of particular practitioners. Stevenson said any criticism of 10 Years 100 Artists should be tempered by the extraordinary achievement of its publication. With that caveat, he questioned whether about a dozen relatively unknown artists should have nudged out South African greats like Stanley Pinker or Helmut Starcke.
Stevenson also queried the consistency of more marginal choices: “If you are going to tease the boundaries, there are many other artists who are also not an obvious curatorial choice, but are not here.”
Debate on this issue began before the book even hit the shelves. The 15 writers themselves engaged in vigorous discussion about the merits of particular choices and settled on several artists each. A substantial introduction states quite clearly the position and criteria that have influenced each writer’s selection
Khwezi Gule, one of the book’s writers, said: “Clearly, there were many artists excluded whose production deserves recognition. I must reiterate that this project, like any other, carries structural flaws — including those of its participants. The entire book will reflectthose flaws, as well as strengths… What I would hate to see are the usual suspects featured again and again.”
The editor, Sophie Perryer, was less apologetic: “It is difficult for young, emerging artists to get exposure and giving them a break was part of [the intention]. There would be little point if we relied on the tried and tested names.”
She added: “Some people will think I should have had more editorial control but I chose to devolve that control and let people run with it. With any such book, a selection process goes on. It is just that we made ours more apparent.”
Nevertheless, the process still attracted criticism that shifted from the artists to their selectors: the writers themselves. For instance, a number of the writers are also profiled as artists — inone case, two writers pick each other — and various cross-references are evident. Perryer said this reflected the status quo: “Many artists double up as curators, writers and so on because there is not a strong enough critical base… We chose to reflect that, perhaps uncritically. We did not try to make the art world more perfect than it is.”
She acknowledged this approach resulted in a somewhat disparate vision of what constituted ‘good art’ but said it was a trade-off for fresh perspectives: “There is a certain messiness to that [group] vision, which reflects more accurately the state of the art world… than a seamless process would.”
It is perhaps no surprise that a book celebrating “art in a democratic South Africa” would aim to be more inclusive. Patricia Hayes, a lecturer in visual studies at the University of the Western Cape, welcomed the profiles of more marginal artists, which she felt could have important spin-offs. What she lamented was the dominance of race as an issue that repeatedly surfaces.
Hayes said: “I wish there was a way the works represented could tell us more about what the artists think about race, class and gender issues because the book is prefaced by what the curators say about it. We need more marginal voices to shift things because the race debate is so monolithic and unreconstructed. I kept missing more emphasis on class and life experience rather than this dance of death with which we are so familiar.”
Hayes also questioned whether readers had enough visual literacy to make extrapolations from the content. She said: “I sense there are a lot of alternatives to be had from what the artis doing… but does the audience have enough visual literacy to do that? There is a need for saying more about what the works do and how and why we feel and think certain things in reference to particular works of art.”
Despite aiming for fresh perspectives, artist Gabriel Clark-Brown said white artists and western thought still dominated 10 Years 100 Artists. Clark- Brown, who himself publishes an annual art information directory, said he felt the book was as an extension of an aesthetic evident in Art South Africa and ArtThrob. He said neither publication had been able to spread itself through a richly diverse South African landscape.
Clark-Brown said: “It might have been justifiable in the past to have built up walls to create a nucleus of inner liberal thought. But now the struggle is over… [It is time] to integrate withdiverse means of thought and interaction… and make an effort to go out into the new South Africa and integrate within new fields of thought and habitat.”
The format of the book — in particular its “pigeon-holes of brief interludes with artists” — was akin to a record company releasing the best hits of its own artists, he added. “Artists are placed into repetitive rows, each one as important to the viewer as the next, as though the wild arts animal has been put through a regulated sausage machine and packaged forthe consumer… There is no real emphasis to create an overall context of South African art, where it comes from and how exactly these artists relate to the many issues at stake.”
Perryer felt the texts did create a context and she was reluctant to tag artists according to particular groupings that could be problematic in their own right. In the final analysis, the debate stirred up by 10 Years 100 Artists could be interpreted as a compliment. As artist Andrew Verster said: “If something doesn’t cause some surprise, it’s not worth talking about. I am sure that the personal approach will make the publication intriguing. Committees and the’always-correct-everyone-included’ alternative could be anonymous.”
It could also still be contentious — as the recent SABC survey of the 100 greatest South Africans proved. The controversy surrounding that list, determined democratically by the public, showed how choices are inevitably pegged to contemporary perspectives and no selection criteria is faultless.
10 Years 100 Artists is no exception. How to break away from entrenched power relations in the art world to form new ones is an ongoing conversation, according to Gule. “This was just one opportunity,” he says. With explicit reference to the vigorous pre-publication debate that went on among all the selectors, Gule adds: “It was good, though, to get that dirty laundry out.”
Kim Gurney is a freelance journalist and Western Cape Editor of ArtThrob