A Green Hill Far Away

Success in London, as opposed to New York, Paris or Berlin, has generally eluded South African artists. Kerryn Greenberg explores some reasons why

John Coplans, Self Portrait, Back and Hands, 1984, silver gelatine print, 128.5 x 98.5cm Courtesy Galerie Nordenhake Berlin/ Stockholm and The John Coplans Trust

It began in the late 1980s when the YBAs, young British artists like Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin, stormed onto the London art scene and were noticed by Charles Saatchi. Then Tate Modern opened in 2000, and the Frieze Art Fair was launched three years later. This combination has had a dramatic knock-on effect, with the established galleries (like White Cube, Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth) opening second spaces, new commercial galleries mushrooming in various parts of the capital, and non-profit spaces, like Whitechapel, undergoing major expansion projects. Over the past decade, the London contemporary art scene has undergone massive growth and still appears to be in overdrive, and yet, London remains a difficult stop for South African artists.

Robert Loder, founder of Gasworks, a contemporary arts organisation in south London, claims, “London seems multicultural, but if you scratch the surface, it is clear that the British are self-obsessed and that London is not as open as New York.” While London’s art scene rivals New York’s, there are some major differences, the first being the number of serious collectors of international contemporary art in the two cities. In London, Saatchi is in a league of his own; there are other collectors, but few willing and able to take the same kind of risks. New York is historically a much more inclusive society, made up of immigrants. It has also, until recently, been the centre of the international contemporary art scene. Despite is formidable reputation as a contemporary art centre, London (much more so than New York) has struggled with its postwar cosmopolitan identity.

“Dominion people are never first-class citizens in England,” remarked John Coplans in a 1975 interview with the Smithsonian Institution’s Paul Cummings. A key figure in mid to late 20th century art, as photographer, publisher and editor of ArtForum magazine, London-born Coplans (1920-2003) was explicitly referring to the “snide sort of attitude” displayed by Englishmen towards descendants from Britain’s former colonies. Asked why, the former scholar of Sea Point and Jeppe High remarked: “It’s some aspects of the psyche — that intellectually one of these people could never be as good as an Englishman. And writers and poets and painters from these areas, the dominions, were never integrated into intellectual aspects.”

London-based, South African photographer, Adam Broomberg however believes that the London art scene “has opened up to outsiders massively in the last few years as the city itself has got more cosmopolitan but it is true that it is still harder here than in New York”. Broomberg, who is represented by New York dealer Bill Charles, argues this has much to do with New York being made up of exiles while England is historically afraid of them. “England’s colonial past, its sense of complicity in apartheid and its inability to really confront the complex, challenging post-colonial Africa is part of that fear,” he states. ” I am not sure the English art market is specifically resistant to South African artists, as opposed to artists from Africa in general — I think we just have very high expectations and a level of arrogance that makes us feel that much more entitled.”

While there are a number of individuals and organisations in London that have worked to raise awareness of African art, in general, over the past 15 years, the fact that London does not have a dedicated Museum for African Art means that attempts to promote art from the African continent have and continue to be dispersed and sporadic. The exhibition Art from South Africa (1991), held at Modern Art Oxford under the auspices of curator David Elliott, presented the diversity of South African art and gave an international platform for debates about the role of art in the political struggle raging in South Africa at the time. The next high profile exhibition was Africa 95, which although immensely popular, was also criticised for being too theatrical and open-ended. Overall, critics did not know how to respond and most floundered in the realm of definitions, ignoring questions of aesthetics.

Since then there has been an ongoing dispute about the usefulness of the term African Art, and yet it continues to be indiscriminately and repeatedly used as the curatorial premise for large-scale exhibitions, most recently the African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year. While some may argue that any publicity is good publicity, lumping South African art together with the artistic production of the entire continent does little to develop an accurate understanding of the diversity of South African artistic practices. In the main, the British public’s experience of South African art is from such exhibitions, including Africa Remix; the show generated mostly negative reviews in the mainstream press when it stopped over at the Hayward Gallery.

This press, critical in generating public awareness and interest, has generally proven unpredictable in its reception of work by South African artists. William Kentridge, arguably South Africa’s leading artist, has a troubled history showing in London. When he exhibited Stereoscope at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 1999, the exhibition was savaged. Waldemar Januszczak, an art critic with the Sunday Times (London), dismissed Kentridge’s show as a “bloodbath and guiltfest”. Of Kentridge’s fictional alter-ego, Soho Eckstein, he said: “What is that aroma wafting up from the characterisation of the rich and pinstriped Eckstein? I’m damned if it doesn’t smell just like anti-Semitism.” One upshot of the ensuing furore, which involved the Jewish Board of Deputies and Chief Rabbi, is Kentridge’s ongoing disinterest in exhibiting in England.

As it stands, a disconcerting number of people in the art world still believe that South African contemporary art is exclusively political or ethnic, or both. Politics remains a fashionable topic worldwide, but the international community seem to have tired of African politics. For example, when Yinka Shonibare was nominated for the prestigious Turner prize (with Jeremy Deller, Kutlug Ataman, and Langlands and Bell), The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones wrote, “If the Turner prize were awarded for formal achievement, Shonibare would deserve it, at least from this shortlist. But as an artist of ideas, which is what the Turner is truly about, he has just two, and both are derived from postcolonial cultural theory. He has what Ben Elton used to call a bit of politics. But being “political,” as Elton’s work reminds us, doesn’t instantly make art or comedy good.”

Not all, but many of the South African artists currently enjoying international success produce work that is not recognisably African or tied to specific national politics. Artists like Candice Breitz and Robin Rhode, both resident in Berlin, have exhibited extensively internationally and are able to hold their own in any number of contexts, but are not widely known as South African artists. When I asked several curators, all extremely knowledgeable about international contemporary art, whether they knew Breitz’s work and what nationality they thought she was, all were familiar with her work, but none knew her nationality. This is quite common. While nationality might have been important during Apartheid and in the years of its immediate aftermath, both in terms of understanding and also promoting the work, it is becoming less so. Clare Cooper, whose Cork Street gallery ArtFirst represents South Africans Louis Maqhubela, Karel Nel and Georgie Papageorge, finds it difficult to discern any ongoing benefit from emphasising the artists’ nationality.

Indeed, many of the people I spoke with argued that South African art cannot be fully appreciated abroad until there is a strong audience and collector base at home. Although South Africa’s art market is growing, evidence of which is apparent in the increasing professionalisation of the larger commercial galleries and the number of smaller galleries and non-profit spaces opening, especially in Cape Town, the scene remains fledgling in comparison to other developing art markets. It should be that works accrue value and artists achieve success at home before being exported, but South Africa still appears to follow a time-honoured model, whereby artists are often recognised locally only once they have achieved success internationally.

Not surprisingly, many young South African artists (and curators) are looking abroad for opportunities to launch their careers. This is where post-graduate studies and residency programmes have a large role to play: Tracey Rose, for instance, is currently completing a Masters degree at Goldsmith’s College in London. While London may be an easy destination for South Africans in terms of visa requirements, it remains an incredibly competitive and expensive place to subsist until one’s artistic career takes off. Artist residencies in London are surprisingly few and far between, and those that do exist have become prohibitively expensive in recent years. In 2004, a three-month residency at Gasworks (which saw a great number of South African artists pass through its programme in the 1990s) cost approximately £4500 (R65,000), excluding return airfare. As it has become increasingly difficult for South African artists to justify this expense to local funders, fewer South Africans have been coming to London for residencies and since 2000 — Gasworks have shifted their focus to artists from other parts of the developing world.Although the London art market is booming and works by emerging artists are in hot demand, the pickings for unknown artists remain slim. Whether one wants to admit it or not, the art scene today is dominated by the market and many foreign artists are becoming known internationally because they are represented by local galleries who exhibit at Frieze (London), Art Basel (Basel and Miami) and the Armory Show (New York). In this regard, the Goodman Gallery has flown the South African flag solo for a while, exhibiting at both manifestations of Art Basel. Michael Stevenson Gallery’s recent debut at the Armory Show, in New York, was heralded by the New York Times. Opportunities abroad for South African artists exist, but these depend on the creation and sustenance of a dynamic art scene at home that can support international aspirations.Kerryn Greenberg is an Assistant Curator at Tate Modern and regular contributor to Modern Painters