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Relations between the South African visual arts world and its African neighbours are currently in the spotlight. Kim Gurney reports on various initiatives planned to remedy the country’s perceived isolation

While western audiences have increasing access to the diverse contemporary production of the continent, the South African art world remains isolated from the rest of Africa, according to curator Sophie Perryer. She was speaking with direct reference to the work of Ghanian artist El Anatsui, which was included in the exhibition In the Making, hosted at Michael Stevenson Contemporary in August.

Perryer said El Anatsui was internationally renowned — he has shown alongside Marina Abramovic, Antony Gormley and Alfredo Jaar, amongst others — but little known in South Africa, which was symptomatic of our isolation. El Anatsui’s work was deliberately included on the exhibition in part to encourage exchange around issues of artistic production particular to the continent.

Perryer said the increased access of western audiences to African art production was partly due to recent large exhibitions like Africa Remix, The Short Century, and Seven Stories. Her observation preceded news that Africa Remix is scheduled to eventually visit Johannesburg. Although such shows were often reductive in approach, Perryer pointed out the difficulties of problematising aspects like political systems in exhibitions. She said: “The project is always going to be flawed but it’s the only way to get western audiences to look at that work.”It was not only large-scale survey shows that promoted African contemporary art to overseas audiences, Perryer added. El Anatsui recently had a solo show touring the UK and university galleries in the US and such exposure also contributed.

Perryer said of possible reasons for South Africa’s isolation: “Partly, it’s a legacy from the past but there are also other local issues that we have needed to concentrate upon, including transformation and representation within the South African art world, and these remain more pressing.”

It was not just the art world affected, she added. The dice was also structurally loaded, with flights to London cheaper than flights to the Angolan capital, Luanda. Dakar and Cairo host biennials but finances for travel were often prohibitive.

Mario Pissarra, an arts writer and former director of the Community Arts Project in Cape Town, agreed that legacy played a role with South Africa historically cut off from the rest of the continent. But he also made a connection with the abolition of the cultural boycott at the end of apartheid. He said the euphoria triggered “an uncritical embrace of the dominant networks in place — networks that are connected to a colonial history”.

Pissarra also criticised a preoccupation of African artists themselves with the western art world. He said a degree of opportunism was also a factor. Artists ingratiated themselves with curators working in the west rather than putting their heads together to think up creative ways of improving infrastructure locally, including an audit of resources to decide what to prioritise. He said: “The question is: How does one go about developing that infrastructure? How do we avoid creating an ‘us and them’ situation? Because Africa is in the west and the west is in Africa.” He suggested a move beyond clichés to actual practical engagement through exchange programmes, for instance.

Johannesburg’s Bag Factory is one organisation doing just that. Koulla Xinisteris, its co-ordinator, disputed South Africa’s perceived isolation from Africa. She said: “We are filling quite a big part of that gap. It is not a closed shop. There is a need for more attention … but the door has been open for many years.”

The Bag Factory has for several years had visiting artists, often from the African continent, partake in three-month residencies at its Fordsburg studios. Each year, 12 visiting artists create work, sometimes in collaboration, and participate in an outreach programme. Xinisteris said: “It is also about learning by exchange … and connecting with the local art community.”

The Bag Factory falls under the Triangle Arts Trust, which has various international branches including the Gasworks studio in London. It also produces a regular newsletter that includes news from African communities.

In 2005 alone, artists from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, India, Barbados, Korea, Russia and Germany have conducted residencies at the Bag Factory. And its sister group, Greatmore Studios in Cape Town, is running a similar programme. Thupelo workshops, affiliated to Greatmore, are also conducted for two weeks each year with 25 artists from a variety of countries and backgrounds in a spirit of cultural exchange.

Despite this kind of activity, the call for further engagement is strong. One organisation spearheading a more pan-African vision is CAPE, which uses the locality and geography of Cape Town to stage and explore African visual culture and art practice.

CAPE is currently scouting for a team to oversee an “international art manifestation” in September 2006 to explore contemporary African art as an expansive field of practice. It will focus primarily on practices and interventions within the Southern Africa region but intends to evolve into a continental focus by 2010.

Julian Jonker, sessions co-ordinator at CAPE, agreed that in the context of recent survey-type shows of African art, it was problematic that African audiences did not have as much access to African art. CAPE is consciously addressing those issues.

This this month [December 4-6] hosting an international summit, eKAPA 2005, of delegates from around the globe. They will debate the theme of “Mzantsi: (Re)Locating Contemporary African Art Practice”. eKAPA aims to provoke questions about the location and constitution of contemporary African art practice, its production through economic relations and practices of curation, and its relation to the everyday, the social, and the political. The framing of Africa in contemporary exhibitions and cultures of display as well as globalism, locality and new models of large-scale curation are on the agenda.

Jonker said Cape Town as host city was compelling for a number of reasons: “I think in terms of ideas of what an African city is and can be, Cape Town is both problematic and presents opportunities. Its history of creolisation intensified by the politics of the city today makes it an interesting place to stage this.”

Intersecting with the idea of greater regional co-operation is an exhibition under the auspices of the Cape Town Festival planned for March 2006. Curators Andrew Lamprecht and Monica Mosarwa are heading up Art in Africa, which aims to include a visual artist from every African country.

Exhibition co-ordinators Siona O’Connell and Sarah-Jane Johnson said the idea was to bring a visual arts element to the festival while also positioning Cape Town as a gateway to increased engagement with Africa. They hope Art in Africa will stimulate dialogue and make art from the rest of the continent more accessible.

Johnson said the exhibition’s title reflected its aims: it did not purport to be a definitive take on the state of African art in each country represented but rather a showcase of the diversity of contemporary production. O’Connell added: “We don’t intend for the artists to represent their country; it’s just a taste and a platform from which to build. People have been talking about this for a long time but it’s never been done before.”

Michael Stevenson Contemporary is also planning two shows with an African twist for 2006. Meanwhile will include the work of African Modernists not seen in South Africa and Elsewhere will showcase South African artists working in the diaspora. Meanwhile, in Johannesburg, Henri Vergon’s new venture, Afronova, will also be introducing a number of prominent African artists to local audiences. His inaugural show featured the Ethiopian, Gera Mawi Mazgabu.

These initiatives are not unrelated to an increasing overseas phenomenon: a spate of blockbuster shows attempting to provide a survey of African art production. Africa Remix, for instance, claims to be the first show to provide a comprehensive overview of present-day artistic activities on the African continent.

Pissarra raised the question of where such exhibitions fitted historically, which was in turn related to the broader issue of modern African art. He said constructions of authenticity — that African art was somehow timeless and static in its essential nature — created a prejudicial expectation of canonical African art that excluded alternative modes of production. He added that despite some progression, the new generation of African curators who emerged in the 1990s, many in the diaspora, were equally caught up in such notions through their reactions to the idea of Africa as unsophisticated and primitive. Pissarra said: “Their desire to show a more sophisticated Africa with access to technology and to break the mould of expectations in turn threatens to sideline artists who do not have the access to finances and resources to intersect with these ideas, or familiarity with the discourse … To what extent are these curators representing an agenda that will advance art in Africa?”

According to Pep Subirós, Spanish writer and exhibition curator, the European and North American art world now have a greater consciousness of a very “guilty” tradition of historical relations with Africa. This realisation has led to the recognition that change is necessary. But Subirós said alternatives proposed had not altered the fundamental relationship of ‘us and them’ to a partnership of equals. He said: “Now, we appreciate it [art from Africa] has a value and authenticity we have lost but … as an object that can be bought.”

Subirós pointed to some critical responses to Africa Remix, which found the exhibition “not African enough” in the sense that some works reflected ideas or materials considered western. He added: “Africa is not ‘supposed’ to have a universal outlook.”

Regarding blockbuster shows in general, Subirós thought them more connected to the economic activity of host European cities — a kind of tourism drawcard, without serious critical emphasis. He offered no solution but proffered a suggestion: “Projects that appear as a lens to look back on ourselves, trying to understand otherness as our own stereotypes, reflecting our own unseen … a projection of our worlds, fears and aspirations”.

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