Am­bi­tious show ex­plores art en­gag­ing the fu­ture

Business Day - - Life - Melvyn Min­naar

C• Case made for art as key cor­rec­tive in a world in cri­sis an art tell the fu­ture? If the cu­ra­tors of an am­bi­tious group ex­hi­bi­tion in cel­e­bra­tion of Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity’s cen­te­nary have it right, art needs not pan­der to science fic­tion. It can and should par­tic­i­pate con­struc­tively in con­ver­sa­tions about the fu­ture, es­pe­cially of higher ed­u­ca­tion.

If the ti­tle For­ward? For­ward! For­ward ... sounds a lit­tle chewy, its open-end­ed­ness is not so puerile, given the chal­lenges fac­ing real artists in an un­sta­ble global en­vi­ron­ment. It could be one of the most im­por­tant pro­jects un­der­taken by the univer­sity’s mu­seum — an apt move in the light of the 100 years of ed­u­ca­tion and cul­ture cel­e­brated.

The theme of the show, tuned to the fu­ture of a crit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion — like many oth­ers on the cusp of dra­matic change and chal­lenges

— is se­ri­ous: What will art be? And what will higher ed­u­ca­tion be­come? And how can the prac­tice of art be in­volved?

In an es­say pre­pared for the cat­a­logue, Lize van Rob­broeck, a pro­fes­sor at the univer­sity’s vis­ual arts fac­ulty, makes a com­pelling ar­gu­ment for cul­ture pro­duc­tion as key “cor­rec­tive” in “a time of un­prece­dented global cri­sis”.

She as­serts that the arts have an es­sen­tial role in re­con­nect­ing hu­man­ity in a con­tem­po­rary world that is in dire and dark moral straits.

The proof of the pud­ding is, of course, in the pre­sen­ta­tion. And ac­cord­ing to the univer­sity’s two cu­ra­tors charged with the project — Ul­rich Wolff and El­iz­a­beth Miller-Ver­meulen — the re­sponse has de­liv­ered an in­trigu­ing range of ex­cit­ing works, touch­ing numer­ous themes in a va­ri­ety of me­dia.

Out of more than 250 in­no­va­tive and com­pelling pro­pos­als, say the cu­ra­tors, they se­lected close to 100 works which could serve as cat­a­lysts for de­bate about and en­gage­ment with the fu­ture of the univer­sity and higher ed­u­ca­tion in gen­eral. Artists in­ter­preted the theme to deal with such is­sues as iden­tity and cul­tural per­spec­tives, men­tor­ship, lit­er­acy, fields of knowl­edge, hu­man-to-hu­man con­nec­tiv­ity, lan­guage, cam­pus power struc­tures and pol­i­tics, so­cial sys­tems and repli­cat­ing past mis­takes.

Art­works in­clude in­stal­la­tions, paint­ing, col­lage, draw­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy, video, short film, an­i­ma­tion, print me­dia, sculp­ture and per­for­mance art. While some classy names fea­ture, a num­ber of lesser-known artists are con­tribut­ing dy­namic pieces.

After a widely pub­lished call for sug­ges­tions — an “open in­vi­ta­tion” as it were, which, de­spite a demo­cratic ba­sis, do not al­ways play out as or­gan­is­ers or cu­ra­tors wish — the re­sult turned out sur­pris­ingly se­ri­ous. A se­lec­tion panel com­pris­ing artists and cu­ra­tors Ash­ley Wal­ters, Robyn-Leigh Ce­dras, Mau­rice Mbikayi, Ul­rich Wolff and El­iz­a­beth Miller-Ver­meulen de­cided on the works to in­clude in the show.

A com­mem­o­ra­tive pub­li­ca­tion by the Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity Mu­seum will ac­com­pany the ex­hi­bi­tion, record­ing the am­bi­tious in­stal­la­tion, and host­ing a va­ri­ety of es­says pon­der­ing the fu­ture of art and ed­u­ca­tion.

Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity, like most in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing, is deal­ing with dra­matic so­cial changes, and it is in­ter­est­ing that the cen­te­nary year prompted this project for in­tro­spec­tion. (Com­pares it with a sis­ter univer­sity where a large num­ber of art­works in its col­lec­tion re­mains locked away, sub­jected to mud­dled think­ing.)

Van Rob­broeck’s ar­gu­ment for in­volve­ment of the arts in con­sid­er­a­tions of the fu­ture is a strong driver for the ex­hi­bi­tion, as she calls for new ways of imag­i­na­tion, “ca­pa­ble of con­ceiv­ing less ex­ploita­tive tech­nolo­gies and sys­tems. The power of rep­re­sen­ta­tion must never be un­der­es­ti­mated, and imag­i­na­tion is needed to re-present the hu­man in ways that can heal the toxic world we cre­ated.”

This is a power call for art it­self, of course. Clearly, art has a say in dis­cus­sions about where it is head­ing and can and should de­bate it­self.

The post­mod­ern ques­tion­mark that hov­ers over For­ward? For­ward! For­ward... al­lowed artists to in­ter­ro­gate not only the fu­ture of art it­self but the man­ner in which it may ne­go­ti­ate that un­known ter­ri­tory.

It makes for plenty of ex­cite­ment in skilled and tal­ented minds and hands. When sci­en­tists, econ­o­mists and philoso­phers hold their ind­aba, the con­ver­sa­tion would be in­com­plete with­out those who speak in a dif­fer­ent way about dif­fer­ent things con­cern­ing the hu­man con­di­tion.

Art, and what it will be in the fu­ture, is in­deed a se­ri­ous

mat­ter. Van Rob­broeck’s dark sce­nario of the state of things sets a high bar to art, and in this am­bi­tious group show, one is highly aware of how se­ri­ously our artists en­gage with the heal­ing she calls for.

In the ex­hi­bi­tion, numer­ous con­ver­sa­tions over gen­res and me­dia take place, as only South Africans, highly tuned to ex­is­ten­tial moral­ity — can when they con­sider the fu­ture.

At a time when art, its mu­se­ums, cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions and, yes, uni­ver­si­ties are threat­ened by a desta­bilised en­vi­ron­ment in which late cap­i­tal­ism and cor­po­rate greed act as hand­maid­ens, Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity cel­e­brates artists who are not here for only the money.

They seem to ar­gue that they are the fu­ture.

Among the artists in For­ward? For­ward! For­ward... are Zyma Amien, Willem Boshoff, Liza Grob­ler, Lhola Amira, Jo­hann Louw, Mau­rice Mbikayi, Wil­lie Bester, Gor­don Froud, Mark Raut­en­bach, Dan Hal­ter, Marlise Keith, Con­rad Botes, Lunga Kama, Colleen Al­bor­ough, Claudette Schreud­ers, Han­nelie Taute, Lehlo­honolo Mkha­sibe, Heleen de Haas, Nor­man O`Flynn, Jaco Sieber­ha­gen, Vic­tor Mofokeng and Sinethemba Ntuli.

● For­ward? For­ward! For­ward... opened on De­cem­ber 5 at the Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity Mu­seum and will be run­ning un­til April.

/Sup­plied

Sights fore­seen:Left, Con­rad Botes, ‘Prox­im­ity of Ob­scen­ity’. Top: Heidi Fourie’s Knowl­edge Flows Freely, be­low it, Heidi Fourie’s ‘Beyond Brick and Mor­tar.’

/Sup­plied

Con­stant adap­ta­tion: Zyma Amien, ‘Supreme Good’ is look­ing for the tra­dional in the fu­ture.

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