Relocating Contemporary African Art

The recent Sessions eKapa might have comprised an elaborate plot of farcical denouement but it also offered incisive food for thought, writes Kim Gurney

Sessions eKapa, a December conference hosted by Cape Africa Platform (Cape), had all the ingredients of a Christmas pantomime — aside from the significant matter of no leading lady of male gender. It comprised an elaborate plot of farcical denouement, rowdy vocal audience participation (oh yes there was!), well rehearsed performances, a few surprises, adults behaving a tad childishly, a drunken cameo, ritual boos and hisses and a lot of double speak.

The final sessions in particular felt like a family spat after being cooped up together for too long. Despite that, it was not all silly season nonsense. Many eloquent panelists at the Cape Town International Convention Centre offered incisive food for thought. And eKapa usefully exposed distinct tensions in South Africa’s contemporary art world, which September’s mooted art event (“not another biennale”) will have to confront.

Sessions eKapa (December 4-6, 2005) attracted a range of artists, curators, gallerists, academics and writers from countries including South Africa, Senegal, Cameroon, Angola, Germany, UK and US. They met to discuss contemporary African art practice. The aim was “to interrogate location in terms of medium, geography and production through economic relations and practices of curation, and their relation to the everyday, the social and the political”.

Wise words were generously proffered, with particular pertinence to Cape’s forthcoming September art event. Angolan curator Fernando Alvim spoke about the imminent Trienal de Luanda, German curator Ruth Noack on Documenta 12 and British curator Donna Conwell about inSite_05, held along the US/Mexican border region of Tijuana and San Diego. But local delegates were often too wrapped up in backyard politics, semantic tangos and ideological jousts to take note.

This was most evident in the fraught penultimate session on art and activism. A panel comprising artist Kendell Geers, scholar Thembinkosi Goniwe, artist Tracey Rose and poet Lesego Rampolokeng cued a fierce debate that oscillated between candid insight and personal diatribe.

The panel pivoted around the recurring debate of racial politics and the slow pace of transformation in the South African art world. It also addressed notions of identity and curatorial practice. Goniwe in particular lambasted the art world for being “pretentious”, with entrenched and problematic ideologies. “South Africa is a divided society, very fragmented. People don’t want to talk about that, they want to talk about post-isms … what’s the rush?” He added: “I am sick of raising these issues and feeling exhausted because I have to repeat myself.”

Rampolokeng’s poetically crafted contribution reflected the emotional timbre of the day: “We don’t have a culture of criticism, just a tradition of bitching.” He felt that dissident voices were being neutralised. And although Rose raised some valid questions, including the lack of art education at schools, her points were lost in rambling digressions that left the audience perplexed.

Geers gave a candid synopsis of the philosophy behind his art practice, identifying elitist museum structures as a fertile space for social change: “If you want to put a bomb at the centre of the capitalist beast, the place to do it is London, New York or Paris,” he said. “The captains of industry don’t go to church but to art galleries and museums and that’s where they put their faith. If you can change the minds of one person in that space, the trickle-down effect is powerful.”

The subsequent closing session of feedback from panel chairs (with Wayne Barker’s drunken interjections) revealed dissatisfaction about a weak response from Cape. Curator Khwezi Gule said: “Surely something must come from these discussions; what mechanism exists to take them forward?” But artistic director Gavin Jantjes had left the conference early. He wrote subsequently that he never understood Sessions as a foundry in which the manifestation was cast: “Such a notion would exclude what a director brings by way of experience and it would set in stone curatorial ideas and themes before research was done. Sessions is an ideas workshop, a test site, a critical mirror.”

The apparent hostility of the closing day surprised even Geers — a veteran agent provocateur. He said: “Part of it is there are so many problems and few processes to address them. But we share a central agenda: how to make South Africa more active in the field of African art.” The problem was also a paucity of such forums, according to government policy advisor Edgar Pieterse. He said: “Part of the fierceness is that people are anxious to be included.”

One panel member said delegates were talking past each other and a new language for debate was sorely needed. Premesh Lalu, an historian and academic, said: “We need to rethink the very categories by which we engage. We need a broader scholarly exchange within the public sphere and more generally. We don’t have a language to deal with the problematics of apartheid.” Cameroonian art administrator and curator Koyo Kouoh said: “You are so busy fighting and used to fighting and have such a tradition of fighting that you can’t see anymore where are the platforms where you can relate and learn something new and transcend.”

The fractious conclusion of eKapa left departing delegates in a mixture of bemusement, anger and introspection. However, various useful threads of discussion emerged. For one, Senegalese curator N’goné Fall said artists should view their industry as being in a state of crisis, with funding a central concern: “You can’t talk about cultural diversity and at the same time let your culture be funded from overseas … We have to build our own structures and take care of our own history.”

Writer and curator Sylvester Ogbechie spoke about the location of the artist and how those on the African continent were often sidelined or seen through a particular lens. He spoke more broadly about the power of the museum as a site for the construction of ideas while simultaneously the prime signifier of western domination and the panoptic viewing of cultures. Identity was also a recurring concern. Ogbechie said: “If it takes a British or a Dutch person 200 years to become South African, how long does it take a Zulu to be Dutch?” Alvim later answered: “It depends on what soccer team he plays for in Europe — it can be very fast!”

The need for institutional and educational change was reiterated by various speakers. AMAC co-ordinator Graham Falken said interesting ideas about alternative institutional topographies were waiting to be mined. And artist and curator Jose Ferreira said in a post-conference blog: “Somehow artists from ‘developing’ continents want to be represented within new systems, new cultural institutions that don’t reinforce stereotype, mimicry and fetishism of their work”.

The conference also exposed an apparent gulf between local and outsider perspectives. Many South Africans felt it was premature to overlook socio-economic, political and racial issues. Others thought it time to move on. Kenyan writer and curator Yvonne Owuor Adhiambo told The Sowetan that local artists should stop using apartheid as an excuse for not achieving and should start doing things for themselves. Noack said she was not responsible for what was going on in South Africa and made no apologies for her curatorial lens: “I don’t feel any obligation to include any artist [on exhibitions] on any other than artistic merit.”

There were also divergent views on whether Africans should consider themselves part of a global village. Alvim was surprised South Africans were still mired in such debates: “We are born globalised … I am preoccupied because our generation does not belong to arguments about these problematics.” Jantjes agreed: “Let us avoid the dogma of narrow nationalism and work in the international arena … We are internationalist whether we like it or not.” Rampolokeng, however, was opposed: “It is an ideological choice to be internationalist,” he said. “I have no intention of moving away from my past because every moment of my existence comes to bear.”

And finally, the original impetus behind Cape’s biannual art event was briefly touched upon in the closing session and deserves more attention. Cape CEO Susan Glanville-Zini said it evolved from research addressing seasonality in the tourism sector. The Tourism Board was actually behind the idea long before Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan backed it. This kind of tourism link is not new; Noack confirmed that declining public wealth in Europe had led to cities striving for consumers and tourists: “Biennales play an important part in the city image and they compete with each other.”

Jantjes maintained that synergies between tourism, government and the arts could be found. But, as the author of the December Bag Factory newsletter points out: “Tourism is in essence advertising and advertising always presents what the customer wants in order to sell the product. Is this then not a high-brow capitulation to the vision that the international contemporary art world has of a so-called African contemporary arts practice? That we should be all consumed in an intellectual examination of our ‘African’ identity and that there is a set definition of this term ‘African’?”