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