Making Sense of the Pose

Africa Remix’s first panel discussion included a number of artists represented in the exhibition. Their ambiguous responses prompted an open-ended conversation between Brenden Gray and Michael Smith

Michael Smith: Let’s look at the idea of African identity, or “Africanity” as curator Simon Njami called it in the first of the show’s discussion panels.

Brenden Gray: It was evident that the artists on the discussion panel, to an extent, disavowed African identity, or refused to engage with it in the discussion session. Most of the artists on the panel seemed to suggest that they were artists first and foremost, and seemed resistant to Khwezi Gule’s question: “What does it mean to be an African artist?” This strikes me as odd given Njami’s insistence on African-ness in a Mail & Guardian article a week prior to the show’s opening. The artists seemed at pains to avoid discussing politics. It seemed like a case of what Pierre Bourdieu argues is the organising principle at work in the field of cultural production — disinterestedness. The more disinterested a practitioner claims to be about their work in relation to politics and economics, the more valued it may be symbolically.

MS: What always interests me in discussion panels is the calculated edginess, which operates as a marker of credibility. Artists swear and carry on, apparently with abandon, but actually quite clearly to assert an almost juvenile level of street-cred. Similarly, phrases like “I just do what I do” and “I try not to define my practice”, which resist any explication of process, seem calculated to mythologize and simultaneously naturalise artistic practice, rather than productively problematise it and its history in African contexts. It’s like a rock star pose, but without the sharp dress sense.

BG: Through them talking about money, career, politics and the difficulties involved in being an African artist entering the mainstream, work by these artists becomes less fetishised. This does, however, point toward a very real problem African artists face in struggling for their work to be received by the west, something that is discussed by Olu Oguibe in The Culture Game. He suggests African art is susceptible to an almost pornographic exoticisation by the western art establishment generally, resulting in a game in which they are expected to relinquish their autonomy and produce the kind of aesthetic the west expects from so-called “African” practitioners. It seemed the artists were pretending to be disinterested producers, to avoid running the risk of being labelled as African and thus co-opted as exotics. Why they have to assume this stance in a country that is all too familiar with the politics of co-optation is beyond me. Oguibe calls it the “significant silence of the native”. To speak radically as an artist is to be intolerably different and thus run the risk of being ignored by the western mainstream, but to speak without authenticity is to secure the interest of the western mainstream while betraying one’s interest as a cultural practitioner. Hence the silence on “being African”.

Africa Remix curator, Simon Njami, (left) listening to Angolan artist, Fernando Alvim, at a panel discussion held on June 26

MS: I think though that artists missed a prime opportunity to speak radically about Africa and “Africanity” within the broader arts context, especially given the insights their privileged positions afford them. I wasn’t expecting univocal consensus, nor was I expecting the construction of a positivist identity monolith as an alternative to the one of ceaseless chaos and interminable need propagated by world media, but I was expecting something more useful than what happened. I really appreciated Fernando Alvim taking artists to task on this. He got quite heated, delivering a diatribe peppered with the word “bullshit” — and then disappeared for much of the rest of the discussion, which was great. Nonetheless, I do think Africa Remix is a good show, and that one of my chief criticisms of the discussion panel is that it didn’t live up to the promise of the work in the gallery. But you seem to disagree?

BG: The risk of curating a survey-type, blockbuster exhibition of this type is that it tends to reduce the criticality or decisiveness a smaller show might have. The variety and volume of the work on show tends to collapse any political critique these artists might have had in mind. The Johannesburg Art Gallery becomes a kind of shopping mall of difference. I thought that a lot of the work looked cheap, like pornography, because there was so much glut. It seems to me that what was really lacking in this show was a direct and critical engagement with the position of African production within a western art industry paradigm. Much on the show is soft, simply presentational, a kind of showcase of what’s going on in Africa. I wonder why artists that deal aggressively with postcolonial issues, Thembinkosi Goniwe comes to mind, were not included in the show, or why the thematic for the show did not foreground more emphatically radical postcolonial discourse. The themes are mushy. If we look at the South African contingent alone, it confirms my shopping mall thesis. William Kentridge’s work, for instance, seemed to have no bearing on the theme; it was just his latest stuff. It seemed to me that the curatorial strategy was aimed at identifying who is big in which country. It would have been great to see a show with more balls.Michael Smith is an artist and art writer based in Johannesburg ; Brenden Gray is an artist and lecturer at Johannesburg’s Greenside Design Center