The Museum of Contemporary Art
by Tavish McIntosh
Whilst many believe that Africa has no Museum of Contemporary Art, the recent 'Hell Yeah!' exhibition in Cape Town's inner city marked the re-launching of a local version, Barend de Wet's erstwhile brainchild. This Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) is however demonstrably less concrete and tangible than its international counterparts. Rather than having a permanent collection of artworks and revolving curated exhibitions, South Africa's MoCA is - as current custodian Christian Nerf points out - rather more 'slippery', its archives a sealed up building in Observatory, and its centre of operations merely an email address and a removable vinyl sign.
Originally MoCA was set up by artists Barend de Wet and Peet Pienaar in Cape Town as a platform for artists to expose their work without needing to rely on gallery sales. It was subsequently transformed into the 'Museum of Temporary Art' by an act of 'god' (a truck reversed into the signage and knocked off the C-O-N). MoCA has been in 'hibernation' since Barend de Wet closed the premises in Observatory and invited neighbouring businesses to dump their rubbish in the space, an ongoing work he entitled White Trash. And this, although the physical address of the Museum, is now sealed up. 'White Trash' remains as a legendary archive of the achievements of the South African avant-garde, inaccessible to the public. This 'permanent collection' of the Museum will remain closed, whilst pop up exhibitions revolve around South Africa and elsewhere.
Christian Nerf's directorship of MoCA has a different focus from that of Barend de Wet. Nerf is primarily concerned with archiving current contemporary practice. With this in mind, the Museum is collecting off-cuts of artists' works, sentimentally compiling an archive of rejects. The residue of artistic practice, that which remains behind, is rejected or merely deemed unnecessary, takes on a special significance in this context. These rejects are the underside of what is accepted and promoted as the authentic and proper artwork.
Nerf also plans to start building a library of what led up to current contemporary practice, primarily that of South African artists. Publications, under the guidance of Kathryn Smith, will be produced regularly. And judging by the provocative and insightful One million and forty-four years (and sixty three days) launched at SMAC in May these promise to challenge the popular tomes of art history and be valuable resources for contemporary artists. Nerf is also concerned with promoting public accessibility. With this in mind, the Museum is collaborating on the Artheat
blogspot's Project Space.
MoCA is also a wake-up call for commercial galleries. Their once-off exhibitions, interventions and performances demonstrate that artists can operate independently, can promote their work themselves and can bring in the crowds more successfully than galleries. Without the saleability and hefty 40% commission demanded by the average gallery, the artists are able to make work that challenges conventions and set up provocative exhibitions that question 'the norms of society'. This is an artists' initiative in the classic sense, allowing artists the opportunity to transform any space into the temporary location of the Museum.
With the group exhibition (the recent 'Hell Yeah!') out of the way, there are thoughts of starting a residency programme for artists from overseas, setting up a website of their own, whilst also producing some physical art. These plans are, however, like everything about this local Museum not set in stone. And Nerf is happy to consider all interesting and provocative ideas.