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Rory Bester on Africa Remix

It’s difficult not to look favourably upon the arrival of Africa Remix in South Africa. It’s an exhibition that has been showcased at serious venues in Düsseldorf, London, Paris, Tokyo and Stockholm, but has also attracted significant international media attention. As a group show of over 80 artists, it’s on a scale the size of which Johannesburg hasn’t seen since the last Biennale in 1997. The opening night was mayhem and, bucking traditional audience trends, the exhibition has continued to draw an astonishing number and diversity of visitors. The casual informality of the educational guides has brought a refreshing energy to the infrastructure around audience access. A 260-page full-colour catalogue, marking the local edition of the exhibition, has been published by Jacana. And last but not least, Clive Kellner has shown extraordinary depth of vision and total determination, not only in raising the money it took (millions) to bring Africa Remix to Johannesburg, but also more broadly in chaperoning what was a faint possibility in 2005 into a fully installed exhibition two years later.Each of these factors has contributed to the ever-growing symbolic capital of Africa Remix. It’s a form of capital that can be hard to quantify, but at the same time its magnitude should never be underestimated. My first walk through the exhibition left me with a feeling that it is much smaller than I imagined – one of the very real spin-offs of having so much symbolic capital. But it’s actually not that small at all. Even with the culling of some of the artists included in the other venues, Africa Remix is too large for the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG). In an effort to bump up the exhibition area the gallery has been turned into a warren of re-tooled spaces and poorly placed dry walls. Gone is the sensitivity with which Kellner installed the Berni Searle mid-career exhibition, beautifully resolving the demands of the works and the possibilities of the interior architecture.The net result of this exhibition plan is an awkward and cramped venue that’s still far too small for the trimmed exhibition. Tracey Rose’s TKO (2000) is stripped of its dramatic power, cornered in a room with limited access and on a screen that’s too small and too low. All too often dry walling bisects and hides work. But perhaps in the case of David Goldblatt this is not such a bad position to be in. In a confirmation of an exhibition that is a little tired, his prints are grubby, buckled, and pricked with multiple pin marks – the Goodman Gallery has surely slipped up for not insisting on a new set of exhibition prints. The relegation of a few artists to the downstairs section of the gallery forces the perimeter of Africa Remix to awkwardly converge with two other unrelated exhibitions on view: Dungamanzi: Stirring Waters and Happy Dhlame’s work in the Project Room.One of the immediate consequences of this poor organisation of the venue is that it undermines long or sweeping views, limiting opportunities to see works in the context of each other. Such views are critical when showing older work that has had extensive public exposure, primarily because they allow the mining and layering of new visual meanings and in turn refresh familiar work. The resumption of public entry from the north side of the JAG has also proved difficult for exhibition organisation more generally. It’s cramped and cluttered and offers curators little opportunity to produce an opening gambit for whatever exhibition is on view. Africa Remix is forced to fall flat before it’s given a change to stand up and be counted.This predicament prompts an obvious question: If the venue is so desperately struggling to accommodate a large-scale exhibition, why not make use of a second venue in Newtown? And in turn a much bigger question: If the JAG doesn’t have the spatial abilities and capacities to accommodate the kinds of large-scale exhibition that are now a given in contemporary art, how is it going to competitively bid for priority placement in exhibition tours in the future? It’s one thing to be under-funded and under-resourced, but to not have enough proper exhibition space is going to be crippling in the future.But it’s not only the gallery that’s to blame. Africa Remix itself has underpinning flaws. Simon Njami quite rightly dismisses the certainty of a continental identity. It’s never a question asked of European or North American art, so why should it be asked of Africa. But there is an important difference between these continental questions and this has to do with the extent to which public versions of Africa so often collate the continent into a series of conjugated prejudices and stereotypes. During Africa Remix’s run at the Hayward Gallery in London, participating artist Moataz Nasr was not asked to present a workshop on video or installation art – he was asked to run a drumming workshop. What the Nasr example reinforces is that in the context of such perceptions it becomes important and useful to invoke Africa to revoke the patronising ethnography of this kind of publicity. But such an outcome, the curatorial revoke, relies on the careful formulation of the curatorial frame. Unfortunately Africa Remix’s three themes – ‘Identity and History’, ‘City and Land’ and ‘Body and Soul’ – lack the innovation and precision to manifest this revoke, and their elaboration into extended wall texts is far too vague to offer anything that mobilises the works themselves.Africa Remix has the conceptual thinness that you’d expect from a group show in a commercial gallery or art fair. While it might invoke and associate itself with a history of exhibitions with an African frame, it is not underpinned by anything that extends the complexities of this exhibition tradition. It is in Johannesburg on the back of its symbolic capital alone. The knock-on effect is that individual works – especially in these kinds of large-scale exhibitions – begin to flounder. The real loser is the ‘documentary’ in photography and video formats. I left the exhibition feeling that ‘documentary’ and its (admittedly fashionable) place in contemporary art was in crisis. Of course, it’s not, but without an exhibition frame, what these ‘documentary’ works say is too similar, creating an effect that is numbing (in exactly the Sontag sense). In the end the exhibition says very little about art and its relationship to Africa, beyond the fact that so many artists at some point always look to and mimic the west, and that those who don’t are invariably ghettoised in comparisons with their western counterparts. Rory Bester is a doctoral fellow in the Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Research Project at Wits University

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