Writing Art History Since 2002

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Instead of retreating into the binary space of violence, it might be time explore the interstices of marginality, says Noëleen Murray

Sessions eKapa was the first public event of the CAPE Project, which “sets out to establish a biennial African art event that is not another biennale”. Attended mainly by interested art practitioners, art historians and some invited academics from related fields such as myself, the three-day event was conceptualised around a series of “jamming sessions” intended as an “open platform” or “space” to begin to explore art practices in South Africa.

What transpired over the three days of debate, held symbolically in (and sometimes between) the binary spaces formed by the apartheid nature of the city’s layout — at the Cape Town International Convention Centre and the Khayelitsha Look Out Venue — was a series of diverse, sometimes heated, interconnected conversations and arguments about the state of the creative disciplines locally. From contestations over the location of power in the disciplines, framed mostly through violent interchanges over questions of race and privilege, to arcane nit picking over what constitutes artistic production, a performance of discipline unfolded.

To the outsider — a position that one was reminded one occupied by art practitioners eager to claim an insider space of knowledge, somehow inaccessible, reified and only available to an elite group — the debate mirrored the kinds of conflicts that characterise similar crises emerging locally in other practice-oriented disciplines such as archaeology, history, architecture and planning and others. In examining these crises of discipline there are a series of patterns that emerge over the inability to articulate and address histories of power relations that lurk beneath the surface of disciplinary formations. The performances of violence that erupted during eKapa perhaps point to the limits of language as an enabling tool for critical practice and the reconceptualising or radicalising of thought within the creative disciplines.

In many ways the influence of the discourses that have been developed in areas such as postcolonial studies, feminist studies, cultural studies and African studies whereby marginalised subjects have claimed the space to voice experiences of race, gender and colonialism, were strangely missing from the debates. Instead personalised attacks on individuals and petty individualistic defensiveness closed down many instances where possibilities emerged for productive interchanges. It is here that I would like to pause and to examine the possibilities for creative thought that might emerge in amongst the clumsy messiness of eKapa. Instead of retreating into the binary space of violence, it might be time to explore the interstices of marginality and to add content to seemingly intractable questions of artistic production.

Returning to the idea of performance, a central question of the three days focused on the nature of the biennale-model in a context such as Africa (where notions of what constitutes art has long been contested against a Western framing of high art versus African Art). Many opinions were heard about the consumer driven nature of established metropolitan biennales alongside visions and experiences from Dakar and Launda’s staging of the possibilities for alternative events.

By way of adding content, the CAPE Project initiated and explored the notion of the “minilaboratories” as a performative space for exploration, linking art to urban subjects and removing it from its traditional sites of production within the academy and state institutions. It is here that I think there exists the real possibility to explore concepts of marginality and location through finding the exciting ruptures that come to the surface of the African city and exploring how these might work to undermine the modernist bodies of work that dominate creative outputs. Through acting back or working with jamming together seemingly unconnected treads of practice, eKapa may well have realised their intended outcome of an opening up, if only tentatively, the space for an “open platform” from which a reflexive turn might emerge from the political location of the South.Noëleen Murray is an architect and lecturer in the Centre for African Studies. She facilitated the minilaboratories review session at eKapa

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