AA STORY Becoming African

Becoming African: Sean O’Toole on the All-New ART AFRICA

The first-ever issue of ART AFRICA magazine was officially launched at the 2015 FNB JoburgArtFair last week and was received with enormous excitement and enthusiasm. If you missed us at the Fair, don’t despair! You’ll find us at Exclusive Books and CNA as well as in other niche bookstores and outlets across South Africa. Not in the country? No problem! Send us an email to enquire about international subscriptions.
 
The inaugural edition of ART AFRICA takes its name from this positioning piece by Sean O’Toole – ‘Becoming African.’
 

 
AA STORY Becoming AfricanKaro Akpokiere, from the series ‘Zwischen Lagos und Berlin,’ 2015. Image courtesy of Sean O’Toole.
 
A month after Art South Africa, the precursor to this magazine, was launched in 2002 a series of bomb blasts damaged homes, railway infrastructure and a mosque in the Soweto area of Johannesburg. One woman, Claudia Mokone, died in the terror attacks, planned by a group of white right-wingers. At the same time, in the economically embattled German town of Kassel, curator Okwui Enwezor was focussing the western art world’s attention on, well, the news. “I can’t understand how you can sequester art from politics and social upheaval,” he told the New York Times a few months before the opening of Documenta 11 in June 2002.
 
Enwezor’s term as artistic director of the current Venice Biennale is, for better or worse, an object lesson of his curatorial method: of using visual art to essay the “inequities and inequalities of the world,” to borrow from painter Virginia MacKenny’s engaged review of Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in the launch issue of Art South Africa. That method, which favours documentary and conceptual strategies, and is informed by political theory as much as aesthetic discourse, has buoyed the careers of various South African artists internationally. Indeed, since 1997, when Enwezor directed the ill-fated second Johannesburg Biennale – it closed a month early due to public disinterest – the paired notions of local and international have deeply complicated the production, display and consumption of visual art in South Africa.
 
But back to the bomb blasts. In 2002, when a dissident white minority went from espousing racist vitriol to perpetrating actual racist violence, Jacob Zuma, then deputy president of South Africa, remarked: “Both friends and foe agree that South Africa has a role to play in the world. That presents a big challenge to ourselves, as a collective, to look at our readiness to do so, and what actions we should take.” Issues of internal governance aside, South Africa’s readiness to play a role in Africa, let alone the world, has been sorely tested in the years following the advent of non-racial democratic rule.
 
In 2006, the year Kenyan-born multimedia artist Wangechi Mutu featured on the cover of Art South Africa – the first non-South African artist to receive this billing – Cape Town witnessed a spate of xenophobic attacks on Somali refugees. Locals, it was reported, were jealous of Somali enterprise in establishing small businesses in townships. Two years later, some two months after twenty-four galleries participated in the inaugural Joburg Art Fair, this culture of anti- immigrant violence took on a far darker tone, spreading from impoverished communities on Johannesburg’s eastern edge across the country.
 
The unabated recurrence of xenophobic violence, notably again this year, has tested the terms and scope of South Africa’s self-styled pan-Africanism. “Perhaps some of those perpetuating this crime against humanity have forgotten the role Nigeria played towards their independence,” declared civil rights organisation One Africa Initiative during a peaceful protest in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, in April. “They have forgotten so quickly that South Africans also live in Nigeria and also have huge investments.”
 
Economic motive, or commerce if you prefer, has long been a spur for cross- border engagement within as much as with Africa’s various polities. South African corporations specialising in finance, dry goods, mineral extraction, mobile telephony, marketing and satellite entertainment are doing robust business with other African states. The traffic in visual metaphors by various South African cultural entrepreneurs cannot be abstracted from this far-larger trade, partly because they rehearse the manners (bombast and ignorance) of their wealthier cousins. But this is broad strokes journalism. The African turn by the South African art community, particularly since 2000, bears closer scrutiny.
 
In 2000, Standard Bank, Africa’s largest bank by assets and a longstanding patron of the visual arts in South Africa, hosted a Marc Chagall retrospective, ‘The Light of Origins.’ A survey show devoted to Spanish artist Joan Miró followed two years later. The popularity of both these shows prompted a third, more ambitious exhibition. Jointly curated by Laurence Madeline and Marilyn Martin, ‘Picasso and Africa’ (2006) offered South African audiences a rare opportunity to engage, in the real, with a focussed body of work by Pablo Picasso. The exhibition included classical African works of art presented alongside original works by Picasso, albeit not his decisive work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), produced around the time of his first encounters with sculptural artefacts of African provenance in Paris.
 
The exhibition was a big hit; lengthy queues in Johannesburg prompted an extension of the show’s run at the Standard Bank Gallery. It also pushed art from the withering reviews pages of national dailies onto the editorial pages as loud argument erupted around “the unfinished debate about African art and Western modernism,” to quote art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu. Lively discussion aside, ‘Picasso and Africa’ also ushered in a short-lived period of blockbuster ‘African’exhibitions.
 
Two exhibitions, both curated by Simon Njami, chart the highs and lows of South Africa’s discovery of its place on the continent. In 2007, while cultural entrepreneur Ross Douglas was moving ahead with plans to produce “the first African contemporary art fair ever,” the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) hosted ‘Africa Remix.’ A travelling exhibition initiated in Europe, ‘Africa Remix’ surveyed – without much lingering insight – a range of post-2000 artistic positions by artists from (or somehow related) to the continent.
 
The exhibition, which arrived at JAG following periods in Düsseldorf, London, Paris and Tokyo, suddenly gave Johannesburg bragging rights. Where two years earlier, South African artists and their patrons (both domestic and institutional) had been accused of “festering under a rock” by Kendell Geers, at the opening of Marina Abramovic and Paolo Canevari’s exhibition at JAG, Johannesburg suddenly emerged as a key staging venue for ideas about ‘Afropolitanism,’ then still an experimental concept being workshopped at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.
 
The alliance of hustle and hype, theory and commerce, is deeply ingrained in the character of the art world. Unsurprisingly then, when Njami guest curated the central exhibition for the inaugural Joburg Art Fair, he drew on French philosopher Gilles Deleuze to fortify his curatorial idea that objects without meaning become marketable works of art as they reach “a surface of contact.” Njami’s unremarkable exhibition, ‘As You Like It’ (2008), remains memorable not for its line-up of 30-odd African artists (amongst them Bili Bidjocka, Mouna Karray and Amal Kenway) but its signature colour: black.
 
In her Art South Africa post-mortem, remarking on the “frankly defiant black edifice” used to house Njami’s conceptual provocation, curator Anthea Buys proffered that Njami’s “black monolith could not look more alien to the art fair’s mise en scène if Stanley Kubrick himself had put it there.” Future iterations of the fair opted to showcase contemporary design, leaving biennale-like positions for others to pursue, notably dealer Joost Bosland, whose three- part re-imagining of the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, at Stevenson in 2012, was a fitting obituary for South Africa’s post-1994 flirtation with cultural internationalism.
 
When he launched the Joburg Art Fair, Ross Douglas spoke of growing his retail exhibition into a post- continental showcase. “We want to expand into an art fair that represents the rest of the world, not the New York or European art scene,” he stated. Strategy is of course a malleable thing. Still, it is worth pausing on the deferred ambitions of the JoburgArtFair, for they say a lot about South Africa’s collective inability to quite lock down this unstable African thing.
 
“It is a very South African art fair,” remarked Bisi Silva following her visit to the second iteration of the fair in 2009. Commenting particularly on the negligible turnout of African buyers from oil-rich countries like Angola and Nigeria, Silva – a prominent Lagosian art entrepreneur and driving force behind the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos – said the fair’s organisers would have to do more to reach out to collectors outside the country if the show was to fulfil its pan-African promises and outgrow its current status as a “very local” event (a criticism also voiced by Claude Simard, co-founder of New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery, in 2008). To their credit, the organisers listened: Silva is a consultant to this year’s programme.
 
Commerce is not the only spur for cross-border engagement; it is also not the only pathway by which culture travels. People learn about and engage with the ephemeral things we call culture in many ways. By visiting a library and reading; or, as is increasingly the norm, by digital networks, which make it possible to shed the carapace of nationalism and vicariously enter a notionally cosmopolitan, haltingly post-national world in real-time. But new digital technologies will not overcome the hard borders that separate here and there, hard borders that reify prejudice and lead to the scenes that made South Africa an embarrassing place to call home in 2015.
 
Becoming African – that hoped for aspiration expressed by Thabo Mbeki on behalf of South Africa in 1996, in a speech studded with sentiment and posturing – remains a hope, a dream… an aspiration, if you will, that is central to this country’s current, work-in-progress art history, an art history increasingly connected to people and places elsewhere.
 
Sean O’Toole is a writer and editor based in Cape Town. He was editor of Art South Africa from 2004 to 2010.
 
Email leigh@artsouthafrica.com to inquire about subscriptions to the all-new ART AFRICA!