Writing Art History Since 2002

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Last year 33 curators were put on an island for two weeks. Joseph Gaylard reports back from vansa’s survivor: Robben Island

A compelling parallel programme of evening activities instigated by workshop participants was one of the many instances of spontaneous creativity generated during a workshop for curators hosted by the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA) last year. These included the screening of Battle Royale (2000), a Japanese film in which a group of schoolchildren dumped on an island are obliged to slaughter one another in a contest for survival. Anyone who has been at a dinner with a group of contemporary visual artists, gallerists, curators and critics will recognise the rich potential for a similar dynamic to emerge out of the basic proposition underpinning the VANSA event, held towards the end of November: What happens if 33 curators are put on an island for two weeks with only one-and-a-half virus-infested internet connections to the rest of the world?Gavin Anderson’s recent acidulous questioning of the emergence of the figure of the curator as a kind of visual arts uber mensch also seems relevant in this context. Writing on the ASAI website, he asked: “Who are these people? Who appoints and remunerates them? Who peer-reviews them? What precisely qualifies and causes them to identify accurately the ‘states of play within global art discourse’ and move art and artists around at whim like Olympian philosopher-gods upon their exotically-located game boards to illustrate their extraordinary powers of global insight?”As project facilitators, Storm Janse van Rensburg and I experienced some moments of run-up trepidation, anticipating an appetite for internecine warfare and very elaborate dietary requirements. But our experience ran entirely against the grain of Anderson’s characterisation; indeed, we were quite taken aback by the generosity, playfulness, humility and enthusiastic engagement — not to mention the sometimes alarming catering offer.The VANSA workshop aimed to bring a group of experienced and emerging local and international curators together to “share experience, ideas and initiate collaborative curatorial projects, with a particular focus on the opportunities and challenges facing curatorial practice in contemporary African contexts”. To this end, the first week was devoted primarily to project presentations from the group of experienced curators, interspersed with panel discussions. A series of working seminars with the group of emerging curators, convened by experts in a range of areas of core curatorial competence, took place over the second week. A rich variety of mooted exhibitions emerged, addressing themes from the cultural politics of the koeksuster to immigrant shopkeepers in Johannesburg, the ubiquity of surveillance technology and practices in contemporary urban contexts and artists working in rural Free State schools.A number of critical issues, perspectives and trends emerged. Amongst them, the nature of contemporary curatorial practice and the imperatives confronting curators, in a local and continental context. These included the need for curatorial practice to be driven by challenging, compelling and innovative project concepts rather than out of a crude analysis of funding possibilities and attendant criteria. Related to this, the danger of curators rushing to produce big-budget exhibitions that “follow the money” but lack substance and rigour was noted. The emergence in the local context of many modest curatorial initiatives driven out of shared interests and concerns (within creative networks) was seen as promising. The contrasting position of independent versus institutional curators was also noted. The need for a better developed infrastructure for the visual arts emerged. This included the need for more concerted efforts to address the shortage of black curators and for the existing network to function as a ‘community of practice’ to actively support the emergence of a new generation of confident talent. The international curators placed a particular emphasis on research and archiving to develop strong project ideas while ensuring artists do not disappear from the historical record. This seemed particularly important in the South African context, where resources to properly document and archive are often lacking outside of a small number of public galleries.The extent of the interpenetration between curating contemporary and heritage exhibitions was noted as a defining feature of South African curatorial practice, that to some degree could apply to the rest of the continent. The growing number of new heritage institutions and sites (and concomitant investment of public money), as well as the maintenance of colonial and apartheid-era heritage museums and sites has arguably created a critical demand for curating skills. It has also opened up important opportunities for innovative approaches to curatorial practice in which the lines between heritage and the creative arts are blurred.Here participants pointed to a number of projects driven out of a heritage agenda that had received insufficient curatorial input, these projects often driven and shaped by architects and urban planners, curators brought in after the fact. The increasing importance of public art, also often borne out of heritage-related projects and programmes, was noted as a critical area of creative opportunity for curators in the South African context.The next iteration of this proposed annual event is tentatively scheduled for July/ August this year, and will narrow its focus around some of the key issues raised here.

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