Rookie re­view: I’m made out of plas­tic here

Mail & Guardian - - Culture - Zaza Hlalethwa

I sup­port the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of art be­cause artists should be able to earn a liv­ing from their cre­ations. It’s the only way art can be taken se­ri­ously by the likes of my par­ents, who al­ways ask: “How will you sur­vive, do­ing just that?”

That said, I think this idea has messed me up. I have planted a seed that makes me be­lieve that art con­sump­tion is a priv­i­lege, one held ex­clu­sively by those who can af­ford to buy it. No one told me to feel this way. I just thought it was a thing be­cause no one from a back­ground like mine was in­ter­ested in the arts.

Un­til I at­tended the 2017 FNB Joburg Art Fair last Fri­day, my ex­pe­ri­ence with fine art was sec­ondary. I know what I know through ba­sic Google searches, In­sta­gram posts and what friends tell me. I’m a mid­dle­class black young ’in, liv­ing in The Or­chards, a pre­dom­i­nantly black sub­urb in north­ern Pre­to­ria, with my par­ents and sib­lings. I have al­ways wanted to in­volve my­self with the arts with the same in­ten­sity and depth that my fam­ily de­voted to their pro­fes­sional fields.

Ap­ply­ing for an arts in­tern­ship at the Mail & Guardian ear­lier this year be­came the key to some kind of hands-on learn­ing. Un­til now, I had stayed away from such spa­ces be­cause I felt as though I did not speak the right lan­guage, know the artists and un­der­stand the work. I be­lieved this was re­served for the elite.

So at my first art fair I con­vinced my­self that the only way I would sur­vive was by putting up a front. I at­tempted to look con­fi­dent, in­trigued, aware, non­cha­lant and im­por­tant like ev­ery­one around me. I’m an ex­pert at bend­ing and con­form­ing to fit into peo­ple’s pre­con­ceived moulds of who I should be, be­cause I grew up in a home with con­ser­va­tive par­ents and dom­i­neer­ing older broth­ers. That taught me how to cen­sor my­self and adapt to my fam­ily’s ver­sion of Zaza to keep the peace at home.

When I en­ter the in­tim­i­dat­ing new space last Fri­day, the more plas­tic I wrap my­self in, the safer the real Zaza feels.

The first thing I feel when I en­ter the Sand­ton Con­ven­tion Cen­tre is how cold the room is. Who­ever is in charge of reg­u­lat­ing the tem­per­a­ture prob­a­bly knows that my plas­tic would melt in a warmer set­ting.

No one seems to be mak­ing use of the fold-up Art Fair guide we’re all given at the door so nei­ther do I. In­stead, I fol­low my editor Mil­isuthando and col­league Kwanele’s lead. On en­ter­ing, we turn right to see the work of Peju Ala­tise (this year’s win­ner of the FNB Art prize) only to be met by an empty white space. I thought I was too early to see the show­stop­per but later learnt it was be­ing held by cus­toms at OR Tambo air­port.

The next sense to de­mand my at­ten­tion is smell. The strong fra­grances of white wine and paint dance in my nose as I take in what is to be my ter­ri­tory for the next four hours. High, white walls sec­tion off a num­ber of open-plan booths. You would think this would make nav­i­gat­ing around the space eas­ier but it does noth­ing for me. I lose count of how many booths there are. There is so much to see with very lit­tle di­rec­tion on how to do it.

Like the houses in The Or­chards, each booth has its own way of do­ing things. Some of­fer me wine on en­try but oth­ers are guarded by hosts who do their best to ig­nore my ex­is­tence. And, be­cause of the lack of a pat­tern, I am un­sure about how to en­ter each space.

I am drawn to the booth of the London-based Ty­burn Gallery be­cause it show­cases Fire with Fire by Lady Skol­lie, who I am fa­mil­iar with through my best friend and In­sta­gram, but the re­cep­tion I re­ceive does not match my en­thu­si­asm. Com­pare this with my re­cep­tion at Lalela, which works with at-risk youth in ed­u­ca­tional arts. I have an op­por­tu­nity to write down my thoughts on a sticky note to help to re­veal the project’s hid­den mes­sage on the can­vas in the cen­tre of the booth.

The only thing that out­weighs the gal­leries present and art­work on dis­play, in num­ber, are the con­ver­sa­tions I watch peo­ple take part in. Al­most ev­ery­one I come across is shak­ing hands, mak­ing small talk, ar­gu­ing about the mean­ing be­hind a paint­ing, clink­ing their al­most empty wine glasses and ex­chang­ing con­tact de­tails — ex­cept me.

Other than a few uni­form-clad school­child­ren in groups, it feels as though ev­ery­one here knows that this is my first time. Maybe I’m over­do­ing it. I think it has some­thing to do with my clothes: a sheer black dress over a black T-shirt dress with black plat­form sneak­ers and more makeup than I would com­fort­ably wear on a Fri­day af­ter­noon. They all know I don’t know what I’m do­ing, at least it feels that way.

At some point, I make a turn that re­sults in me losing my col­leagues. Be­ing of­fi­cially alone forces me to make an ef­fort to be present, to take some­thing away from all of this, be­cause it’s what I should do. I keep chanting: “Soon my plas­tic will ex­pire and the courage to do this will leave with it” in an at­tempt to build up the strength to start a con­ver­sa­tion or ask a ques­tion. This does not help. In­stead, I fall deeper into the abyss of plas­tic­ity.

I do my best to hide this by mak­ing my way through the pas­sages, al­ways look­ing left then right. Look­ing for some­thing to catch my eye, a point of ex­ha­la­tion, a rea­son to sit down and col­lect my­self. On my sec­ond at­tempt at go­ing through the en­tire space, I find Self-es­teem for Girls by Chemu Ng’ok, a Rhodes alum­nus, in a stand­alone booth put up by her gallery, Smac.

In her paint­ing, The Bound­ary Wall, she makes use of mul­ti­ple colours and what seems to be dif­fer­ent frames of the same sub­ject. The paint­ing and her other work il­lus­trates how my in­ter­nal con­flict is sub­tly caus­ing an ex­ter­nal ten­sion.

I lose sense of who I de­cided to be that day. It is no longer about Plas­tic Zaza at the art fair. It is about be­ing al­lowed to view prod­ucts of artists’ in­ti­mate thoughts. The chat­ter be­comes mean­ing­less buzzing and my plas­tic pro­tec­tion melts off me. It feels okay to be alone. It be­comes okay not to know what I am do­ing and to be do­ing this on my own.

Art fair ex­pe­ri­ences: Lady Skol­lie’s Fire with Fire (left) at the Ty­burn Gallery and the Lalela booth (above). Photo: lale­lapro­ject In­sta­gram

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