And white saviours

An im­por­tant ex­hi­bi­tion of black art, cu­rated by a white art his­to­rian, has Lwandile Fikeni ask­ing why black aca­demics are still be­ing side­lined

CityPress - - The Good Guide -

en­sions over who has the le­git­i­mate claim and au­thor­ity to frame the black mod­ernist tra­di­tion in our art sim­mers be­neath the Black Modernisms in South Africa (1940-1990) white daddy,” to cite artist, cu­ra­tor and aca­demic Them­binkosi Goniwe.

“The as­cen­dancy of white women into po­si­tions of power sug­gests a glar­ing lack of faith in black cul­tural work­ers and in­tel­lec­tu­als,” Khan wrote. “When asked why there are so few black writ­ers, cu­ra­tors and aca­demics staffing key in­sti­tu­tions and projects, the rote an­swer is that there are no ‘qual­i­fied’ black in­cum­bents, or sim­ply too few. This at­ti­tude has suc­cess­fully thwarted sub­stan­tive racial re­dress in the visual arts, and also been used as a ploy to pro­mote ‘yes baas’ blacks.”

In terms of look­ing out­side Wits Art Mu­seum for other “more ex­pe­ri­enced” black cu­ra­tors, Net­tle­ton says there was no bud­get to get some­one from the out­side.

“Why bring in other peo­ple when we have our own peo­ple?” she asks. Khan’s es­say was com­pletely puerile, she says. What she finds an is­sue is the over-de­ter­mi­na­tion of race as a proxy for one to speak about cer­tain cul­tural sub­jects. “Does the colour of your skin de­ter­mine what you can talk about?” she asks. “If we’re go­ing to go that way, we’re not go­ing to go any­where ... We won’t put on any ex­hi­bi­tions by black artists if we don’t have a black cu­ra­tor or un­less we have the bud­get to hire one.”

How­ever, Md­luli traces the tra­di­tion of lib­eral white cu­rios­ity in study­ing black South African mid-20th cen­tury artists to the 1990s, where “schol­ars were try­ing to le­git­imise their schol­ar­ship”, she says. “You name some­thing, then you can speak about it; you can own it and start speak­ing au­thor­i­ta­tively about it.”

Who had the right to de­cide or de­fine what au­then­tic African art is, she asks.

Net­tle­ton, on the other hand, doesn’t see the ex­hi­bi­tion as be­ing de­fin­i­tive, but rather an ex­plo­rative en­deav­our.

At stake, of course, is our his­tor­i­cal cul­tural mem­ory, as well the mas­ter nar­ra­tive in­form­ing it.

In trac­ing the bi­ogra­phies of the artists se­lected for this ex­hi­bi­tion, Md­luli has keenly ob­served the white Mes­siah com­plex de­ployed, es­pe­cially those from spe­cific art cen­tres like the fa­mous Polly Street.

“I’m not say­ing Ce­cil Skotnes [of Polly Street] did not have an in­flu­en­tial role,” Md­luli says. “But for how long must we speak of Ce­cil Skotnes, even if he was only present for a short pe­riod in these artists’ pro­fes­sional lives?” she asks. “Res­cu­ing cul­tural mem­ory is im­por­tant. Res­cu­ing in­sti­tu­tional mem­ory is im­por­tant. But how do we lib­er­ate the artists from their bene­fac­tors?”

The ex­hi­bi­tion runs un­til June 19

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