As you like it at the Joburg Art Fair
by Jacki McInnes
It could be argued that the true curatorial brilliance of Simon Njami's 'As you like it' lay less in the works shown within than in the three hulking container-like structures constructed to house them outside the Joburg Art Fair. Was it intentional that the pod-like, closed-off exterior of the curated space should fly in the face of the wide-open shop front approach necessarily adopted by the gallery booths? Just a stroke of luck perhaps, but either way, a deft curatorial strategy. Njami�s stated premise - to destabilise, even if just for a moment, the secondary meanings and values inevitably foisted onto an artwork the moment it exits the artist's studio and enters 'the system' - seemed better articulated by means of the peripherising and exclusionary effect of those imposing black walls than by the actual exhibition.
Of the works displayed inside, I was less convinced of their ability to convey the idea of a studio practice untrammelled by the evaluations of art critic and dealer. Njami writes in his introductory essay that the artistic act is at 'its purest singularity' in that moment at which the artist completes the piece, before any other eye views it. 'It has no other value than that of the energy and passion the artist has ploughed into it. The moment the agent, the museum, the critic, the dealer enters into the process, the work of art acquires a new life and takes on a new dimension.'
But if it was this 'virginal' and 'valueless' stage in the life-cycle of the artwork that Njami hoped to evoke in 'As you like it', he would have served his purposes better by avoiding the re-showing of works that appeared on other exhibitions so recently - especially on such high-profile exhibitions as 'Africa Remix', as was the case of Jellel Gasteli's photographic works Eclipse No.1 - No.7. It seems a vain hope that the viewer could assess this work as Njami intended - devoid of associations and value judgements - when the fact of it having been exhibited on 'Africa Remix' was bound to elevate both its conceptual and monetary worth.
Similarly, it was difficult to consider Bili Bidjocka's The Jetlag Experiment - 24 Watching the Mount Sainte Victoire in a non-commercial way. The polished professionalism and superb framing of the works implied careful commercial considerations and could not but enhance their desirability to the 'customer king'.
Perhaps not surprisingly however, it was precisely Gasteli and Bidjocka's artworks that, in my opinion, stood head and shoulders above much of the rest. Gilles Deleuze's ideas, touched on in Njami's essay, which suggest that without the external interventions of contextualisation and favourable presentation an artwork remains devoid of any social value, and hence commercial value, seem here to be completely confirmed.
Works that were more successful in terms of curatorial intent were those that retained a sense of the make-shift or those that seemed not quite fully considered. Michèle Magema's Overseas stories - Mary and Bruck a successful integration series, showing a number of group photographs taken at a smart function, appeared to be completely incidental, even a little slap-dash if one considers the washed-out, over-exposed quality of the photographs. Usually photographs demonstrating such apparent exposure flaws are the ones relegated to the trash can. And yet, there they were, confidently shown at an important exhibition, leading one to suspect that their poor photographic quality was entirely deliberate.
The group comprises three black Africans and a white man, and where the overexposure seems to enhance the appearance of the black complexions, it completely washes out the facial features of the white man, almost obliterating him. One has the sense that there is an ironic undertone to this work; on one hand, the title claims a successful integration, but on the other, for all the group's attempts at physical interlinking, the white man seems to be in the process of fading away. Perhaps the artist is not convinced that the relationships depicted here will stand the test of time.
Also tending towards the sketchy but nevertheless forcefully engaging was Amal Kenawy's You will be killed. The video depicts an unmoving image of a woman's face that becomes progressively less and less coloured until it is nothing more than a sketch of her face overlaid with other sketches of limbs, rooms and house plans. The rough uncut quality of the piece allowed us to buy into the notion that this work had not yet been seized and manipulated by forces external to the artist and studio, but more importantly, these same unrefined attributes hinted at a desperate message scribbled in haste as the victim fled the scene.
'As you like it' was a difficult exhibition to access. Njami's curatorial premise was such that the works he presented had to stand alone without elaborate explanation or referencing, which left quite a number of viewers feeling cheated, or worse still, that they were being dismissed because they just weren't art-smart enough to get it. In the context of the first Joburg Art Fair however, the exhibition raised pertinent questions centring on the extrinsic nature of imputing value to the art work. We would do well to take the time and effort to ponder them.
Jacki McInnes is a curator, art writer and artist
Opens: March 13
Closes: March 16
Sandton Convention Centre
Tel: (011) 482 4459