The lim­its and free­dom of

The Joburg Art Fair has evolved in the last decade, but the ques­tion is: Have they gone far enough?

Mail & Guardian - - Art - Mary Cor­ri­gall

The Joburg Art Fair sort of pre­pared us for In­sta­gram. The vis­ual over­load of im­agery dur­ing its in­au­gu­ral open­ing in 2008, where Robin Rhode was the fea­tured artist, was a novel sen­sa­tion. The tem­po­rary white cubes de­mar­cat­ing gallery stands in the Sand­ton Con­ven­tion Cen­tre were heav­ing with art. Hang­ing work salon style was the rage in that first and sub­se­quent years — un­til gal­lerists fig­ured that less trans­lates into more sales.

In the decade that this an­nual art event has ex­isted much has changed: the art, the prices, the gal­leries and how Art­logic, the founder and or­gan­iser of the art fair, has con­fronted and dis­placed the event’s com­mer­cial func­tion and ad­vanced its “African­ness”. In other re­spects, such as the own­er­ship of the art in­dus­try, the pro­file of the gate­keep­ers and how art is val­ued, noth­ing has changed.

Most im­por­tantly, the fair al­tered the way we look at art — or don’t look at it, as the case may be. Per­haps not even dur­ing the Jo­han­nes­burg bi­en­nales of the late 1990s had so much vis­ual ex­pres­sion been packed into one space. In your first round of the fair on the open­ing night, you in­vari­ably sur­ren­der to it be­ing a so­cial event, opt­ing to air kiss in­stead of scru­ti­n­is­ing art.

When vis­i­tors leaned in closely to an art­work it was not to study a mark or brush­stroke but to see what had seem­ingly been treated as top se­cret for so long; the price. It wasn’t quite like the #Gup­taLeaks. The truth was some­times less ugly than you had imag­ined.

This set a tone that shaped ex­changes and for­mal com­mu­ni­ca­tion about the fair. Its suc­cess or ef­fect was al­ways mea­sured nu­mer­i­cally. This was one way of pro­cess­ing all the art — with so much on view it was tricky for com­men­ta­tors, cu­ra­tors and gal­lerists to ex­trap­o­late truths about vis­ual ex­pres­sion. What­ever truths were laid bare, they were al­ways com­mer­cially driven and there­fore skewed.

This im­per­a­tive to some de­gree (as well as other nu­mer­ous fac­tors) fed into the ma­jor shift from a pho­to­graphic-driven art dis­course to a turn to­wards ab­stract art, which now dom­i­nates.

As cu­ra­tors Ok­wui En­we­zor and Rory Bester would drive home in the gar­gan­tuan Rise and Fall of Apartheid ex­hi­bi­tion in 2014, photography had played a piv­otal role in the “war of aes­thet­ics” and had so­cial value. In­ter­na­tional in­ter­est in this as­pect of our vis­ual cul­ture through mu­seum shows ap­peared to sub­stan­ti­ate this.

As such, all our ac­claimed pho­tog­ra­phers fea­tured widely across the fair in those early years. In 2009, David Gold­blatt, the Es­sop broth­ers, Jodie Bieber, Jo Ractliffe, Santu Mofokeng, Guy Til­lim, Roger Ballen, Lolo Veleko and Mikhael Subotzky were the at­trac­tion. This was art that was seen as so­cially rel­e­vant; sales told another story. As art auc­tion fig­ures con­tinue to sub­stan­ti­ate, edi­tioned pho­to­graphs are not viewed as valu­able in rands and cents.

Pho­to­graphic prac­tices in con­tem­po­rary art haven’t ceased. Gold­blatt was the fea­tured artist in 2013 when Art­logic de­cided to claim that year as one ded­i­cated to photography. But this was out of sync with the art that was be­ing pro­duced and sold. In that year, for ex­am­ple, Steven­son’s stand was de­voted to Ian Grose’s quasi­ab­stract paint­ings, Mary Sibande pre­sented her ab­stract “pur­ple” be­ings and Ayanda Mab­ulu’s paint­ing Yakhali’nkomo (Black Man’s Cry),

At the art fair this year: Khaya Wit­booi’s Labour of Glove (above) and a work by An­golan artist An­tònio Ole (right

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