Johan Thom, Terms of Endearment, 2007, performance / video still,
Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Barry Keldoulis, Sydney.
Judging by the relatively large numbers of South African artists since the end of apartheid who regularly feature on exhibitions of international importance, contemporary South African art appears vibrant and healthy. This year again established and emerging South African artists are participating in major festivals like the Venice Biennale (Marlene Dumas, Santu Mofokeng, Kendell Geers) and Documenta 12 in Kassel (Churchill Madikida, David Goldblatt and Guy Tillim). Continued economic growth, general optimism and the multiculturalism of the post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation” have paved the way for South Africa’s re-entry into the international art world.
But appearances can be deceiving. Much of what constitutes the contemporary South African art world remains stratified and divided along ideological and economic lines. In one prominent example, the discontinuation of the Johannesburg Biennale after 1997 is often blamed on financial constraints or “infighting amongst the ranks”. However, in an environment of political and cultural clashes, these reasons are almost certainly not true.
The government also stands watch. President Thabo Mbeki’s vision of an “African Renaissance” and how it relates to contemporary South African artistic practice in general is a constant presence.
Contemporary art is viewed with some ambivalence by Afrocentric purists. They argue that modern art’s individualist orientation has little place in a Pan-African development narrative premised on the traditional African worldview of Ubuntu– a term stressing the inextricable link between the individual and their community. The hostile relationship between the individual and society that forms the bedrock of most so-called “cutting-edge” artistic practice has little or no relevance for this communal return to indigenous value systems.
Nonetheless, contemporary artistic practice is the relationship between individual creativity, national prerogatives, institutional doctrine, society and the economy rendered concretely as “a sign of the times”. Thus, one way of gaining broader insight into contemporary South African art is to look at the ways in which it exemplifies and responds to the fragile dreams and fears of our young nation state.
The key players here may loosely be grouped into four subdivisions: individual artists and artist-run initiatives; the government and institutions, such as our national museums and funding bodies; the private sector, including commercial galleries and corporate collections; and the public. Added to all this are the expectations and biases of the international art community, factors which also shape the production and reception of contemporary South African art, locally and abroad.
Individual South African artists such as William Kentridge, Willem Boshoff, Tracey Rose, Santu Mofokeng, David Koloane, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Kendel Geers, Lisa Brice and David Goldblatt are all familiar faces on the international art circuit. To a large degree their works seem to define our image as a first rate, art-producing nation. True, these artists produce work of exceptional quality, often touching the raw nerves of issues such as poverty, racism and identity politics – all topics of global relevance. However, the lack of innovative works by young artists that critically reflect the current political, economic and social environment is worrying.
With the exception of Dianne Victor and, perhaps, young photographer Michael Subotzky, few South African artists seem eager to engage thoughtfully with the fact that today South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world to live in.
Artworks depicting violence do not sell or sit well with a government caught in the throes of denial: Which government employee would readily admit that serious crime is on the rise in the host country of the 2010 Soccer World Cup?
A thornier issue largely untouched by the contemporary art world surrounds the Black Economic Empowerment laws. While they stem from a real need to address the imbalances of the past, they often seem to perpetrate in reverse the racist prejudices of apartheid South Africa, creating a new black elite.
A frank assessment of the nation’s plight is needed without the burden of political correctness and without the questioning of your “anti-apartheid struggle” credentials as soon as problems with the “new” South Africa are articulated.
What better place to start than contemporary art? Yet, many of our emerging artists prefer producing slick works that get them great amounts of media attention and bookings on hot international shows. Who can blame them?
Ever since our first democratic elections in 1994, the private art sector in South Africa has experienced enormous growth. Today contemporary art is a booming industry catering for the needs of our ever-growing middle classes, both black and white, as well as the international market.
Several excellent commercial galleries now vie for the discerning private buck, including Michael Stevenson, Gallery MOMO, Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art, Bell Roberts and the Goodman Gallery. Sales are up, auction prices are at a record high and South Africa now plays host to some of the wealthiest privately sponsored art competitions on the continent: both ABSA Atelier and the SPIER Contemporary Art Award have combined purses close or in excess of 1 Million Rands each (AU$165,000).
The flipside to all this is that artists who do not produce easily saleable work like sculpture, painting, or, worse, controversial work, find it increasingly difficult to survive in an art world dominated by corporate and private sensibilities. The simple truth is that most collectors, like most artists, need to be educated before they will venture into uncharted artistic territory. This takes time and, as in any other emerging economy, time is the one commodity that few South Africans seem to have.
The private sector contemporary art scene is also focussed around the urban centres of Cape Town and Johannesburg. Given that Cape Town is a burgeoning international tourist destination and Johannesburg arguably the business metropolis in Africa, this is not surprising.
But it still does not help to dispel the stigma of contemporary art as being an elitist activity, one that in many ways now seems to embody the post-colonial dilemma of being a young nation desperately battling to shed a history of exclusion and marginalisation, only to find its best efforts frustrated by the global realities of multinational capitalism and liberal democracy.
Where government is ambivalent regarding its support of contemporary art, the capitalist, consumer driven society of South Africa is not. Consumers are purchasing and corporations are sponsoring, and without their continued investment the contemporary South African art world would be in dire straits indeed.
Sadly our government still seems more interested in window-dressing than actually doing anything inside the shop. This was on display in the recent parliamentary Budget Vote Debate where a number of worrying trends became clear: the issue of name changes (of places and all things considered colonial) still dominates the national arts agenda; though numerous educational arts initiatives are launched, owing to mismanagement and a lack of sustained financial support they soon fail miserably; 95 per cent of any art entity budget is allocated for salaries with only five per cent left for artists or new museum acquisitions; during the past four years 14,000 heritage objects were pilfered from our national museums, governmental offices and archives; and R12 million of the National Arts Council Budget for the past fiscal year remains unspent while R3 million was spent irregularly.
Irrespective of the growing pains that accompany being a young democracy, 13 years after taking power, our national government should be held accountable. One of the major problems may be located in the centralised structure of the National Arts Council, a structure that, if weak or plagued by internal mismanagement, leaves all beneficiaries out in the cold. Another problem is the official government policy towards the arts in general, which does not provide any tax breaks or financial incentives for the collecting, commissioning or private support of the arts at all.
Nonetheless, philanthropic, nationalist images abound and should your work fit the celebratory mould of the “new” South Africa, the official stamp of approval will soon adorn it. While the situation may seem dismal now, owing to the concerted effort of individuals like Clive Kellner, chief curator of The Johannesburg Art Gallery, it may not tomorrow. The Johannesburg Art Gallery is still the only venue in Africa to host a massive showcase of contemporary African art – “Africa Remix”, curated by international rising star Simon Njami.
In a country still wracked by widespread poverty and disease, art may not seem a national prerogative. One may question whether contemporary art has any real significance in post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa (other than being a bitter reminder of colonial subjugation, cultural displacement and class based-privilege).
Yet, as numerous contemporary scholars have shown and ordinary life clearly illustrates, culture is never pure, it is a hybrid phenomenon formed through dialogue, even if with oppressive forces. It was through the works of the African modernists such Aina Onabolu, John Mohl, George Pemba and Gerard Sekoto, among others, that control of fine art as a signifier of civilisation was wrested from the hands of colonial powers.
In doing so, their works became not only a statement of cultural resistance but also one that accurately reflects the quality and vitality of life of subjugated people in modern Africa. This journey continues.
Johan Thom is a professional artist based at the Fordsburg Artists Studios, Johannesburg.
This article first appeared on the-diplomat.com