A decade of art

Mail & Guardian - - Art -

zor had dubbed it, had shifted in the post-truth era.

For sev­eral years af­ter the in­au­gu­ral fair, Art­logic would make a big deal about the fig­ures, the turnover and the num­ber of vis­i­tors. Ac­cord­ing to their web­site, last year R43-mil­lion worth of art was sold. With FNB as the spon­sor, no doubt they were forced to speak that lan­guage and sub­stan­ti­ate art’s fis­cal value as a way to quan­tify its ef­fect.

The fair it­self could be viewed as the barom­e­ter of change in the arts, be­cause it has evolved in its decade­long life­span.

The change of lead­er­ship of Art­logic in it­self tells a tale of trans­for­ma­tion. It has gone from be­ing a largely parochial event steered by a bullish and, at times, con­ceited white male, Ross Dou­glas, who re­lo­cated to France to pur­sue run­ning other ex­pos (soon af­ter the em­bar­rass­ing cen­sor­ship de­ba­cle with the Mab­ulu work), to one run by white women.

Cobi Labuschagne, Dou­glas’s busi­ness part­ner who had been in the shad­ows ini­tially, stepped into the lime­light when, in 2014, cu­ra­tor Lucy MacGarry was ap­pointed. To­day Art­logic is a black-dom­i­nated team headed by Mandla Sibeko who was in­tro­duced to the public when Dou­glas stepped away from his ac­tive in­volve­ment, but ap­pears to have only stepped up to the podium since MacGarry’s exit. He owns shares in Art­logic, though they are mum on his ac­tual stake and he is the only black share­holder in the busi­ness.

Many of the gal­leries that par­tic­i­pated in the first fairs are no longer in busi­ness — Rooke and AOP gal­leries — or have be­come com­mit­ted deal­ers, jet­ti­son­ing the gallery space — such as the João Fer­reira Gallery, War­ren Siebrits, Erd­mann Con­tem­po­rary, Afronova and Seip­pel. The com­mer­cial art gal­leries are pre­dom­i­nately white male-owned. More white women have pushed their way into the in­dus­try — there are three more female-run lo­cal gal­leries and there are a num­ber of male-female teams too. Con­tem­po­rary African Art Fair was es­tab­lished in Lon­don in 2013, be­fore adding a New York edi­tion, and one in Paris, dubbed the African Art Fair, the Joburg Art Fair must have strug­gled to at­tract an au­di­ence that could en­joy vis­ual arts from the con­ti­nent, when they could do so in their back gar­den. Not sur­pris­ingly, lo­cal and other African-based gal­lerists are now opt­ing to ex­hibit on those plat­forms rather than lo­cal ones.

Nev­er­the­less, the Joburg Art Fair has only since last year be­come more Afro­cen­tric in terms of its con­tent. The big push in this di­rec­tion was her­alded by MacGarry, who es­tab­lished an East African fo­cus, pre­sent­ing seven gal­leries and plat­forms from Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda and se­cur­ing Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu as the fea­tured artist. The qual­ity of the art was a lit­tle un­even and it was clear no grass-roots re­search was done in these coun­tries.

Art­logic is not the only gate­keep­ers of this fair. Ac­cess to it and the kind of art shown in it is not in the hands of the so-called cu­ra­tors. In 2014 it es­tab­lished a se­lec­tion com­mit­tee (chaired by Michelle Con­stant each year), which MacGarry sug­gested was nec­es­sary to “en­sure a level of qual­ity that com­petes on an in­ter­na­tional level”.

Art­logic doesn’t em­brace much trans­parency about this, avoid­ing nam­ing the in­di­vid­u­als on this com­mit­tee. It claims the com­mit­tee re­volves ev­ery two years, but many in the in­dus­try sug­gest the same gal­lerists serve on it ev­ery year, push their own agen­das and limit the po­ten­tial of their com­peti­tors.

This year rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Smac, Steven­son, Whatifthe­world and Gallery Momo are serv­ing. These are all South African-based, large gal­leries. Only Gallery Momo is black­owned.

To counter the dry com­mer­cial func­tion of the fair and to keep the “art” fac­tor in­tact, non­com­mer­cial ini­tia­tives have re­mained a con­stant fea­ture. This has most suc­cess­fully man­i­fested through filmic works. In 2008, the Swiss-born, Paris-based cu­ra­tor Si­mon Njami cu­rated a group ex­hi­bi­tion of video art cheek­ily ti­tled As You Like It. Dou­glas was dis­ap­pointed that none sold, but Njami viewed this as a sign of its suc­cess — he was never much of a fan of art fairs.

In 2012, there was a film in­stal­la­tion by Brid­get Baker, Only Half Taken. Mutu showed the 2013 an­i­ma­tion The End of Eat­ing Ev­ery­thing and in 2015 Candice Bre­itz, the Ber­lin-based South African, set up two booths where her sem­i­nal films chart­ing how gen­der is in­cul­cated through mass me­dia, Him + Her, were screened. These were for sale and were ru­moured to have come with a R1.6-mil­lion price tag. In­evitably, ev­ery­thing at the art fair be­comes com­mod­i­fied and per­haps it should — if value in this set­ting trans­lates into a price tag.

Per­for­mance art was re­lied upon to in­ject that arty je ne sais quoi. In 2012, Trade Rerouted by Non­to­beko Ntombela was a high­light that re­sponded to the fair set­ting. Per­formed by Anthea Moys and Donna Kukama with Jamie Gowrie and Shan­non Ferguson, the project saw the per­form­ers mak­ing and sell­ing rough doo­dles of ex­pen­sive art­works.

Art fairs are strange cul­tural an­i­mals. They are the new “art mu­se­ums”, the set­tings where we lit­er­ally con­sume art. They make us aware that art and artists don’t re­side on the pe­riph­ery of so­ci­ety any longer — they are part of the same sys­tems as ev­ery­one else.

This ex­plains how the fair’s evo­lu­tion and lack of trans­for­ma­tion re­flects broader re­al­i­ties be­yond the Sand­ton Con­ven­tion Cen­tre. It is easy to think that the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of art that the fair has ac­cel­er­ated has proved a limit for art-mak­ing. But it is also worth en­ter­tain­ing the no­tion that it has been lib­er­at­ing in a coun­try where art was bur­dened to have the sta­tus quo changed. It has freed artists to think about art it­self.

Silk tapestry: Bil­lie Zangewa’s Ev­ery Woman (2016)

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