Celebrating a decade abroad

The organisers of a range of contemporary South African exhibitions abroad this year all seem variously determined to break down, challenge, question and/or reappropriate stereotyped and essentialist conceptions about South African people and art — some more successfully than others.

Tremor: Contemporary South African Art opened in April at the Charleroi Palais des Beaux-Arts in Belgium. Emma Bedford and Marilyn Martin co-curated the exhibition with Fabienne Dumont, director of the Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels. The curators foregrounded the work of 12 established and emerging South African artists whose work engages the tenuous space between the self and society. Their intention: to revisit familiar themes like memory, desire and guilt from a fresh perspective.

Towards this goal, they focused on artwork that grapples with uncertain ground, ambiguity, precariousness; an approach that would give anxiety a positive spin, affirm psychological dissonance and bear witness to the private battles that individuals choose to fight with themselves and their contemporary surroundings. Bedford explains: “We looked for work that would illustrate the upheavals that South Africa has undergone, the disjunctures in our recent past with which many artists are grappling as well as the passions and pleasures that artists are expressing.”

This exhibition seems to stand out for the way it attempts to dive beneath the surface of colonial history, racism and apartheid; it attempts to use experience to anchor abstract terms, to synthesise those abstractions into the bridge that links the deconstruction of postcolonial experience to intimate personal encounters. The participating artists are Jane Alexander, Willie Bester, William Kentridge, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, Thando Mama, Senzeni Marasela, Johannes Phokela, Jo Ractliffe, Robin Rhode, Tracey Rose, Clive van den Berg and Sandile Zulu.

Also in April, a large exhibition titled Identity opened at the Fortis Circus Theatre in Scheveningen, Holland. Patrons Janine and Joop Van Den Ende purchased works from 57 South African artists, adding 108 new works to their permanent collection. Sharlene Khan compiled the 300-page catalogue and co-wrote the text with David Koloane. The show will run for three years … in conjunction with the musical, The Lion King.

The latter detail raises the question: is this simply a case of Euros being thrown at South African art in an indiscriminate way? Khan and Koloane anticipate the criticism, and admit to the problem presented by European curators with only a vague understanding of South African identity’s complexities. However, they argue, because identity was such a strong theme among the artists’ work that “seduced” them, it became impossible to ignore. Have they managed to approach identity from a fresh perspective? Well, they are making all the right gestures, seeking to move beyond constraining binaries, problematising whiteness, exploring contradictions. Some of their assumptions need further interrogation, for example the contention that artists are now “freed” from using art as a political weapon, which enables them to move onto more sophisticated deconstructive projects. Even if we accept this, deconstructive projects themselves require critical attention. Reading the catalogue it is difficult to remember that there is an artistic project that accompanies the deconstructive one.

Kahn and Koloane explore that which has changed in the last 10 years and discuss how the lines have blurred: it is now tougher to dichotomise black/white, male/female, the good guys and the bad guys. Following this argument, they claim that “binaries don’t seem to work so well in a pluralistic society”. These assumptions are dangerous because they make it too easy to swallow a pre-packaged curatorial agenda — one that gets the rhetoric right, but falls short of a probing analysis. On the other hand, only the exhibition itself can reveal the success of the premise.

Opening in July at the Museum Bochum in Germany, and travelling to the Pretoria Art Museum and Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2005, is New Identities: Contemporary South African Art. The major thematic concerns include an “inquiry into identity, a reflection on urbanity [sic] and multiculturalism as well as the pressing topic of AIDS”. Exploring politeness is certainly a unique curatorial decision, considering the themes with which it’s juxtaposed, but let’s keep our minds open.

Unfortunately, the exhibition concept page contains still more disquieting elements. For example, the curators praise artists who live and work in the townships for their use of found objects, pointing out that these works “convey a strong, unspoilt creative will”. Here, I think, we are meant to ponder the joys of still having a few unspoilt artists among us. This, jokes aside, is patronising nonsense. Furthermore, the practice of using found objects in 2004 is not exactly what we would call “unique”. The participating artists, spoilt and unspoilt, include Jane Alexander, Kay Hassan, William Kentridge, David Koloane, Esther Mahlangu, Santu Mofokeng, Zwelethu Mthethewa, Samson Mudzunga, Sam Nhlengethwa, Berni Searle, Penny Siopis, Andrew Tshabangu, Minnette Vári and Sue Williamson.

September brings Personal Affects: Power and Poetics in Contemporary South African Art, an exhibition running concurrently in two venues in New York — the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine and the Museum for African Art. With funding from the International Marketing Council of South Africa and the Spier Arts Trust, the exhibition features 18 artists, who were flown to New York in February for site visits — according to the press release, “giving [them] the opportunity to respond to the spectacular challenge posed by the contemplative spaces of the Cathedral as well as the white cube aesthetics of the Museum”. Working with a curatorial team, the majority of artists are producing new work for both venues. Here the “common thread” is described as “the highly personal point of departure of their working methods — the use of the body, personal histories, and the construction of personal mythologies. Moving beyond the confines of identity politics towards subtler investigations of agency and affect, this exhibition looks at works of art as the powerful and poetic expressions that artists leave behind”.

Moving from South Africa’s decade celebrations to broader concerns, Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent opens at the Museum Kunst Palast in Düsseldorf on July 24, travelling to the Hayward Gallery in London (coinciding with the broader Africa 2005 festival), the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. The exhibition includes approximately 200 works, with at least one from each country on the continent and parts of the diaspora.

The chief curator, Simon Njami, is working with an impressive curatorial team: Marie-Laure Bernadac (Paris), David Elliott (Tokyo), Roger Malbert (London), and Els van der Plas (The Hague). The curators have organised the exhibition around three clusters: “Soul” (spirit, emotion, belief) and “Body” (individual identity, flesh, gender/sex, the portrait and the gaze); “City and land” (matter, nature, the city, urban and rural space); “Identity and History” (power, tradition, collective identity, time, formative events). Potentially very interesting. The director, Jean-Hubert Martin, curated the groundbreaking although controversial exhibition, Magiciens de la Terre, 15 years ago at the Pompidou.

Appropriately, the show aims to take stock by assessing the recent history of African art in Europe. The curators hope to escape the “traps” of curating art from Africa, and hope to raise new questions. Njami asks, “Is there a viable definition for contemporary African art?” Big question. Is the goal too broad, too general to be useful? Armed with self-awareness, caution and sensitivity, the curators seem well-equipped to avoid many of the traps, but they will also need to avoid stale political correctness. Again, the exhibition will have to speak for itself. Participating South African artists include Jane Alexander, Andries Botha, Wim Botha, Tracey Rose, William Kentridge and Zwelethu Mthethwa.Zachary Yorke is an independent writer and researcher