Writing Art History Since 2002

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Even when you’re staging polemical debates hosts should respect basic party etiquette, writes Storm Janse van Rensburg

The intended aim of the Cape/Africa Platform, to present a large scale “biennial African art event” (just don’t call it a Biennale), is a great thing for the local artworld. It will challenge our collective navel gazing, connect us in a real way with the artists and practices of the African continent, and help crystallise debates and local practice in unprecedented ways. The initiative is worthy of support and needs the buy in of local art communities.

That said, the organisers and leadership of the organisation must own up to aspects of the messy prelude to this forthcoming art event. I would compare the Sessions eKapa and the discussions it generated to a flopped cocktail party. One of the basic components of a good party, and indeed any meeting for that matter, is to ensure that the right people are invited. Also, to make sure the guests are made to feel comfortable, that a visible and strong host is present, and that everyone’s glass is always full. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

On all these counts the organisers fluffed it. They didn’t invite all the right people — or at least this was the view of some of those attending the event. To borrow further from the party metaphor, the comfort levels were low, partly the result of the offensive packaging of the event, and also because of its demographics. The hosts were also hardly visible. Not only did the Chief Executive Officer, Susan Glanville-Zini, shy away from a prominent and visible role, the newly appointed artistic director, Gavin Jantjes, missed some sessions and left early. At the end of it all, the partygoers were left dissatisfied and unfed.

Speaking with attendees afterwards, many expressed serious concern for the state of the visual arts in South Africa. Most related an immense sense of unfulfilled promise and just plain bewilderment at the course of events, as the eKapa slid into chaos over the course of three days. However, the organisers should not be blamed for the endemic problems with the South African art world, from which the conference and discussions battled to emerge. The heated and necessary debates that surfaced around representation, power and race did not benefit from the ridiculous shenanigans of some individuals.

Many speakers, contributors and attendees were unable to mediate their responses and to harness it into meaningful and constructive discussion. Perhaps these processes could have been better managed. Some were obviously set up to be controversial, but in the end they ended up being rudderless.

It is a very rare opportunity for that the local art community to come together to talk and discuss things. We should seize this when it comes along. This very simple fact probably explains my disappointment when I sat watching the eKapa degenerate into a disorganised, chaotic mess. An optimistic view would be to liken the eKapa to something else. A sore. Attending eKapa was like watching a swollen boil being lanced. The experience was excruciating — for the sufferer and the viewer. But the process is necessarily restorative. Only after this intervention will the wound subside, the sufferer start healing. Storm Janse van Rensburg is an independent curator and arts project manager

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