Curating the Future

Khwezi Gule, Brett Kebble Awards Curatorial Fellow

As the first Brett Kebble Art Awards (BKAA) Curatorial Fellow, my participation in the selection process was very enlightening.

As opposed to other similar initiatives, the BKAA aims to recognise all forms of artistic production in South Africa. This prompts the question: what makes an artwork effective? Over the course of the selection process I discovered that coming to some form of consensus about what makes an artwork effective is a lot more contested than I had initially imagined, and highlights an issue of particular relevance to the country’s cultural industry, which is attempting to redefine itself and its objectives.

At the outset, it is important to stress that deliberating over works of art for a large exhibition is not only a political act, but it has the potential of canonising particular modes of art making and highlighting new forms of expression. Therefore, the selection process was not just about coming to some kind of consensus on what these things are, but also acknowledging our aesthetic, ideological and cultural biases — and exposing these to scrutiny. In short, the selection panel, which comprised Churchill Madikida, Julia Charlton and BKAA curator Clive van den Berg, assisted by Claire Breukel (co-curator) and myself, had to ask many difficult questions.

One such question, for example, concerned the manner one encourages emerging artists without being patronising or responding in an exclusively sentimental fashion. Also, how does one apply one’s understanding, training or expertise without being dogmatic or simply gravitating towards the kind of art that one finds most familiar? The differences between the selection panel members — in terms of age, training, work experience and cultural history — required the process be governed by a spirit of openness and willingness to learn.

In a short but instructive pre-selection talk given by van den Berg the selectors were encouraged to acknowledge and give voice to the varied kinds of artistic practices, even if that meant disrupting certain “regional or established hierarchies”. We were also asked to give consideration to how each artwork could contribute to the overall look and feel of an exhibition that selected only a small fraction of the 2050 submissions.

A doctrinaire observer might here ask whether a universally applicable standard was followed. Having been witness to the variety of the submissions entered, I would argue that such an approach would not only have been impractical but also unjust. Though there were no pre-determined ideological or aesthetic criteria, there were, however, issues and concerns that unified the selection team. I would be willing to defend the choices that were made because of the many spirited disagreements from which they derived.

To my mind, the strength of the selection team assembled by van den Berg emerged from the depth of each member’s understanding of the various disciplines and traditions that define South African art. Personally, I was impressed by my colleagues’ sensitivity to the artistic vision and language of each entrant. No artist was unduly prejudiced because their mode of speech fell outside of accepted conventions.

Although I cannot mention names, the judging process did sometimes confront us with established and very competent artists presenting rather predictable work. On occasion, though, these artists did surprise us. Generally speaking, many artists tended to over aestheticise their work. They simply overloaded their works with too many visual elements. It also appeared that some artists were overwhelmed by their medium, especially those working in new media, often allowing themselves to get carried away with the technological side of the work.

The judging process acquainted us with works that could be described as provocative, either because of their use of materials, or due to the interesting manner in which the artist chose to deal with contemporary issues. Looking at these issues, certain themes emerged as a constant, with numerous submissions addressing subjects such as our democracy, the HIV/ AIDS pandemic as well as the 2010 Soccer World Cup. As selectors, we were often faced with deciding how well each individual artist articulated these thematic concerns. Often this meant finding the best representatives of a particular theme.

There were of course gratifying instances where the selectors were instantly and unanimously in agreement. Predictably, these were few and far between. On certain occasions the selectors were also confounded by artworks that seemed to defy all conceptions of good taste and artistic convention, which resulted in a lot of debate. In such instances artistic statements were either useful or completely off-putting. Quite often works had to be put aside to be viewed again later.

Of the many entries, some works relied heavily on formulae. Common examples included works depicting landscape scenes and still lives, or scenes showing informal settlements. Despite unanimous flinching, the selectors ensured that such reactions were interrogated rather than blindly accepted. Progressing from centre to centre it also became evident that the skilful handling of a medium cannot always rescue an artwork from an unconvincing idea or insincere affectation. In this regard, work that showed sincerity, thoughtfulness and commitment always impressed, irrespective of the chosen medium.

During our deliberations, the issue was seldom whether an artwork was good per se. Debate focused instead on whether a work stood out from other works. There was also no deliberate pecking order imposed in terms of privileging technical proficiency and execution over issues such as content or concept. In my opinion, the best work was work that forced selectors to question their tastes and expectations, work that was succinct, exciting and fresh.

As a final disclaimer, I want to emphasise that artists should not interpret being left out of the final selection to mean that the selectors reflected negatively on their competence as artists. There were many established and accomplished artists who were not selected. Even though artistic proficiency was an important consideration, the selectors also felt that it was necessary to recognise new ideas, even if, at times, these seemed unrefined. Very often this unrefined quality was what made the work exciting.

Curatorial work, like other forms of public speech, must be understood in the context of a larger narrative, a narrative that connects the producer, the curator and the audience to the broader cultural matrix. Though it is understood that the curator’s contribution should not overwhelm the artwork, it is nonetheless an influential component of any exhibition. All honest curators would acknowledge this, as well as the fact that no matter how believable a story may be, no matter how earnest the narrator, theirs is not the only story. By accepting that there are many different stories to tell we may begin to understand the limits of our perceptions — and dream of the spaces beyond them.Khwezi Gule is an artist and curator based in Durban. He writes here in his capacity as The Brett Kebble Art Award Curatorial Fellow