SA’s disconnect from Africa limits cultural landscape


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May is Africa Month and, as is the case with Women’s Month, it is only useful if it functions as more than an opportunity to “celebrate” and also serves as a chance to analyse the flawed and limited ways we connect to the continent.

In cultural spheres, from theatre, art and museum programmes to our major annual National Arts Festival,  there is not much content pertaining to, or participation by, cultural producers from other African countries. Some might argue that with so few opportunities for our artists, there is no room to include artists from elsewhere, but it could point to a deeper sense of insularity.

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South Africans suffer from cultural myopia.
Granted, we have much historical and political baggage to work through collectively, which artistic platforms and products offer, but what happened to the warm and fuzzy form of pan-Africanism that defined our democracy in its nascence?

Viewing Tandazani Dhlakama’s magnificent exhibition, Five Bhobh — Painting at the End of an Era, which is on at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, known as the Zeitz MOCAA, until the end of this month, was a bittersweet experience.
Although it presented a visually and intellectually stimulating collection of contemporary art from Zimbabwe, it was devastating to realise that it had taken 25 years, if not longer (Zimbabwean artists have been living and working in our major art capitals for many decades), for an exhibition of this weight and focus to have been staged in our country.z

It was also worth noting the conditions that surely allowed it to take place: it was steered by a Zimbabwean curator, may not have manifested without the establishment of a museum explicitly focused on art from beyond our borders (which was initially driven by the eponymous German art collector) and possibly also took the abrupt departure of the South African director of Zeitz MOCAA, Mark Coetzee, and the temporary appointment of Azu Nwagbogu, a Nigerian curator.

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The publication of The Top 50 Artists and the 20 Top African Curators Who Validated Them, which my art consultancy, Corrigall & Co, released a few months ago, was not designed to challenge what Achille Mbembe, the public intellectual heading the Wiser research centre at Wits, has termed our perpetual “national chauvinism”. Our mandate to map the contemporary African ecology automatically demanded that our purview extend beyond South Africa.

The list of “validated” African artists this publication contains is an objective one; the names are arrived at through tracking and studying the exhibition practices of Africa’s top 20 curators and discovering whose art over a decade (from 2007 to 2017) has been consistently included in the high-profile exhibitions both on and off the African continent. Because only three high-flying South African curators (such as Gabi Ngcobo) are included in the study — 20% are Nigerian — this report automatically suppresses a South African bias, offering a list of artists from Africa and the diaspora.

It was telling that South African art journalists, collectors and other interested parties did not recognise half of the names it contained, despite the fact that the artists had all regularly shown their art in high-profile exhibitions.

South Africa’s Zanele Muholi topped the list. The artist who made their name creating photographic portraits of black lesbian society in their native country was selected for 12 exhibitions by Africa’s top 20 curators. Bili Bidjocka (Cameroon), Otobong Nkanga (Nigeria) and George Osodi (Nigeria) occupied the second tier of most validated artists in the report. The hierarchical ratings depended on the number of exhibitions each artist participated in that was curated by one of the top 20 curators between 2007 and 2017.

Few local art journalists or dealers appeared to know the names or work of Bidjocka, Nkanga and Osodi, or Kada Attia (Algeria) who is listed in the third tier. Bidjocka was represented by the local Goodman Gallery and his work showed in the country in a number of exhibitions. Kudzanai Chuirai (Zimbabwe), who shares third tier status with Attia, is known but only because of the fact that he lived and regularly exhibited in South Africa for decades before returning to Zimbabwe.

These artists are no less important than Muholi — most have commanded the spotlight at the Venice Biennale, the biggest art event held every other year in the titular Italian city, have impressive, lengthy CVs and are all represented by galleries in major Western art centres — sadly, the clearest sign of their success.

Are the artists from other parts of Africa uninterested in us — more focused on making it in Europe or the United States — the main Western art capitals? Does this continental disconnect extend beyond the art industry — to pop culture, to politics? Do South Africans generally lack curiosity about the history and/or conditions elsewhere? Or perhaps seeking out any commonalities or links with other societies that happen to also be African is not worth pursing when virtual digital realms have generated communities bound by attitudes and not geographic criteria?

Some suggest that it is South Africa’s location — on the tip of the continent — that has generated a downward gaze rather than an upwards, northern-focused one.

In mapping the history of our cultural insularity, you could trace a line from a colonial obsession to embed themselves in the local context through a landscape genre, to white supremacism institutionalised by apartheid, which sought to thoroughly sever us from a pan-African identity. Cultural isolation, which intensified after 1968 when South Africa was prohibited from participating in the Venice Biennale, was then imposed on our society, compelling our artists to initially reject conceptualism until the 1990s. This all placed our artmaking at a remove from global movements, leading to a pathological mix of arrogance and insecurity. This perhaps manifests in a disconnect from African art, a separation between “us” and “them” while continuously looking to European art capitals for acceptance and recognition.

When apartheid ended and the cultural isolation years came to an end, we enjoyed some short bursts of public connectedness with artists from Africa. This was most obviously realised through the Jo’burg Biennales — the first one in 1995 was titled Africus — and second in 1997 curated by the late Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian curator, whose work is tracked in 50 Validated Artists. With regards to the latter, one commentator asked if it was possible for “a transnational” event to take place “in a country not yet a nation”?

Is it possible we are yet to establish our national identity sufficiently and lack the confidence to appreciate the artistic products from elsewhere in Africa?

If the notion of a unified rainbow nation has escaped us, perhaps we should view it as an opportunity to be less obsessed with who we are and establish ourselves as more transnational citizens of Africa.

Are South Africans Ready to Engage with Art from Africa? This is the subject of a panel discussion that will take place at the Franschhoek Literary Festival on May 19 at 11.30am at Ebony/Curated gallery on 4 Bordeaux Street. Mary Corrigall will be joined by artist Patrick Bongoy from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Emma Bedford, art specialist at Aspire Art Auctions. It will be mediated by Tamara Le Pine-Williams. Space is limited. Tickets cost R70. For more details visit this link