Writing Art History Since 2002

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Despite seeing his optimism thoroughly defeated by eKapa, Edgar Pieterse was nonetheless inspired by a Kenyan speaker’s provocative suggestion

I arrived at Sessions eKapa on day three with great anticipation, having missed the first two days due to a clash commitments. My expectation was fuelled by a reading of architect Nigel Coates’ provocative book Guide To Ecstacity (2003), which argues for an appreciation of the affective in the city if one is to truly reimagine and remake its predictable banality. In my naive exuberance this idea suggested cross-pollination between traditional urban studies, my field of expertise, and art criticism and insurgency. Given the spatially attuned design of the programme of eKapa where better to go to be inspired and instructed in what such cross-pollination may mean?

However, after attending the morning sessions, I had to concede that my optimism was thoroughly defeated. As the peculiar mixture of debate and bitching brewed on over the course of an eventful morning it struck me that many of the artists simply could not reconcile the tension between their necessary individualism as creative beings and the collectivism implicit in transforming the many evils bandied about at eKapa — “art as elitist practice”; “bourgeois values”; “persistent racism”; “white control of art institutions”; “lack of transparency” and so forth. There seemed to be a pervasive ignorance of how the world works to keep its disciplinary discourses and concomitant institutions in place, let alone a savvy sense of activist insurgency about how one link, fuse, subvert and remould the dominant into its own shadows, which in itself hold no guarantees that new forms of oppression and extinction will not spring anew.

My suspicion, totally unverified, is that this ignorance has a lot to do with the fact that most of the people at eKapa come into their own and do their most magical things when they are alone with their canvasses and demons bringing beauty and terror into the world. Fundamentally, artists thrive through individual acts of being and becoming, and the only place where mistrust and suspicion can be held in abeyance, even if momentarily, is the artists’ imagination. Now, attempting to bring together such a ‘special’ species with an expectation that they can see possibility in the realms of action and design beyond their immediate control is probably asking for a bit much. Organising a whole conference of discursive exchanges built on such a premise was possibly not such a productive idea. Maybe one has to redefine the prospects of talk shops and find other, more experimental, mediums and forums to distil and refract the transcendent desires of artists — but as part of a much larger conversation where the parameters of discourse exceeds the precious egos of the artistic community. It’s just an idea.

Maybe it is in such spaces that one can take further the most interesting provocation I heard on the day, from Kenya’s Yvonne Onwuor, who argued for holding in tension meaning-making, imagination and bottom-line pragmatism. If there is a set of vectors that can creatively open up urban studies in South Africa it is an aesthetically informed dialogue along these three vectors, grounded in the everyday diversity of emergent cities.

Edgar Pieterse has extensively researched and written on urban policy, and is a Special Policy Advisor in the office of the Premier, Western Cape. He chaired the session “Artist Without Borders” at eKapa

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