Warhol in Africa: an exhibition

Why is he still so pop­u­lar in Africa af­ter the post­colo­nial turn?

African Independent - - BUSINESS -

ON the evening of July 26, more than 5 000 peo­ple vis­ited the Wits Art Mu­seum (WAM) in Jo­han­nes­burg, South Africa to at­tend the open­ing of its lat­est exhibition, Warhol Un­screened: Art­works from the Bank of Amer­ica Mer­rill Lynch Col­lec­tion. Andy Warhol, an Amer­i­can artist known for his im­ages of pop cul­ture, celebri­ties and ev­ery­day ob­jects, is ar­guably the per­son who in­vented fame and celebri­ties in the art world.

At the very least, Warhol is cred­ited with coin­ing the term “15 min­utes of fame” af­ter his state­ment that ap­peared in a pro­gramme for an exhibition in 1968: “In the fu­ture, ev­ery­one will be world-fa­mous for 15 min­utes”.

Warhol’s world-fame has lasted de­cid­edly longer. Al­most 50 years later, he is still pop­u­lar enough to pull un­prece­dented vis­i­tors to a mu­seum on the south­ern tip of a con­ti­nent he never vis­ited. The WAM show, which spans two floors, features many of Warhol’s screen prints, in­clud­ing a Mar­i­lyn and set of Camp­bell’s Soup Cans. And de­spite hav­ing seen these im­ages in a 100 books, on T-shirts and mugs and count­less TV and com­puter screens, it’s hard to not feel be­witched by the ob­jects.

For one, they are much larger than ex­pected and the sur­face qual­ity of the print is more im­pres­sive in real life.

Per­haps this ref­er­ence is a ghost of some high school art his­tory text book past, but Wal­ter Ben­jamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Me­chan­i­cal Re­pro­duc­tion comes to mind.

Pub­lished in 1936, the Ger­man philoso­pher dif­fer­en­ti­ated be­tween the orig­i­nal and the copy. He ar­gued that the ac­tual art­work has an “aura” that is com­pli­cated once a work is mass-dis­trib­uted via re­pro­duc­tion. The frag­ile sur­face of the Amer­i­can dream In the con­text of mid-20th cen­tury Amer­ica, Warhol’s works were po­lit­i­cal. They com­mented on cap­i­tal­ism and mass con­sump­tion. They com­mented on ad­ver­tis­ing and the frag­ile sur­face of the Amer­i­can dream ad­ver­tised on larger-than-life bill­boards.

The process of screen print­ing is rooted in the prac­tice and ef­fect of re­pro­duc­tion. What is fas­ci­nat­ing, how­ever, is that the blur be­tween the orig­i­nal and the copy doesn’t seem to be at the fore­front of the minds of vis­i­tors to the WAM exhibition.

Most of the works shown are one of an edi­tion of 250-odd prints. In other words, these are “di­luted” orig­i­nals. They’re lim­ited edi­tions, yes, but not in any way unique ex­cept for the small num­ber mark­ing the edi­tion. Why is Warhol pop­u­lar in Africa? If we are to con­sider Ben­jamin’s prophe­cies, it’s in­trigu­ing that the po­lit­i­cal con­text of post-apartheid South Africa man­i­fests in small ways in the exhibition. WAM has been un­der pres­sure over the last few years, caught in the cross­fire of de­bates around what con­sti­tutes African art, who has the power to de­cide and how nar­ra­tives are con­structed, me­di­ated and au­thored. In­creas­ingly, the mu­seum is be­ing chal­lenged to show more African artists, con­tem­po­rary and his­tor­i­cal, rather than in­ter­na­tional block­busters. The cu­ra­tors’ un­der­stand­able self-con­scious­ness of these is­sues comes through in sev­eral “feed­back” in­stal­la­tions, which ask the au­di­ence to con­sider the ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of the Warhol ex­hibit in an African art mu­seum. One of the pan­els asks:

Why do you think WAM should be show­ing the work of Andy Warhol?

And this is the ques­tion, right? Why is Warhol still so pop­u­lar (in Africa) af­ter the post-colo­nial turn? How do we rec­on­cile the mas­sive pop­u­lar­ity of an exhibition of art­works by a dead white man, when the Uni­ver­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand, where the mu­seum is lo­cated, is caught in the (some­times vi­o­lent) con­flict of de­colo­nial­ity?

As the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall stu­dent protest move­ments con­tinue to un­fold, how does the Western cap­i­tal­ist flavour of these works go un­no­ticed as young peo­ple In­sta­gram their par­tic­i­pa­tion in this spec­ta­cle? How is the late-cap­i­tal­ist neo-lib­eral agenda screened or un­screened?

Un-iron­i­cally, the exhibition is spon­sored by and comes from the col­lec­tion of the Bank of Amer­ica. But since WAM couldn’t af­ford the copy­right fees, the in­vi­ta­tion and mar­ket­ing of the show features im­i­ta­tion screen prints by lo­cal South African artists.

This exhibition em­bod­ies so many of the con­tra­dic­tions, com­pli­ca­tions and con­flicts in art and so­ci­ety in con­tem­po­rary South Africa.

What in­ter­ro­ga­tion or trans­la­tion of the exhibition can we look for­ward to as ex­ams loom and uni­ver­si­ties brace for a pos­si­ble third wave of protests? I look for­ward to read­ing the re­sponses ac­cu­mu­lated on the feed­back pan­els in two months’ time.

Warhol Un­screened: Art­works from the Bank of Amer­ica Mer­rill Lynch Col­lec­tion runs un­til Oc­to­ber 8, 2017. – The Con­ver­sa­tion

Stacey Vorster Lec­turer in His­tory of Art, Uni­ver­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand

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