Warhol in Africa: an exhibition
Why is he still so popular in Africa after the postcolonial turn?
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