Brave New World… 20 Years of Democracy
Iziko South African National Gallery
03.07.2014 – 09.11.2014
It may sound absurd but don’t be naïve
Even heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed but won’t you concede
Even Heroes have the right to dream
And it’s not easy to be me
-Five For Fighting Superman (It’s Not Easy) (2000)
Meandering through ‘Brave New World’ at the Iziko South African National Gallery, you are perpetually followed by the adenoidal sound of John Ondrasik’s slightly whiny voice as he laments that ‘It’s not easy to be me’. The soundtrack comes courtesy of Ed Young’s video work It’s Not Easy (2004) and whether intended by the curators or not, the song becomes somewhat of an anthem for the exhibition as a whole. Not to mention the ISANG itself.
The woes of the national gallery have long been established. In 2004, the catalogue accompanying the decennary counterpart to ‘Brave New World’, ‘A Decade of Democracy’, featured an essay by Marilyn Martin entitled ‘The Horn of the National Art Museum’s Dilemma‘. Aiming to highlight the struggle of the National Gallery in the face of a notable lack of financial support from government, Martin noted that the National Gallery was ‘no longer perceived as [a social entity] at the service of the people of South Africa’, and consequently was being forced to find ways to support itself financially as ‘[a business that has] to be self-sustainable’. A further decade later and seemingly nothing has shifted.
Setting issues of employment ethics aside, the most alarming aspect of Riason Naidoo’s recent media statement regarding the non-renewal of his contract as director of the ISANG is the section outlining the rapidly diminishing acquisitions budget. According to Naidoo, this was reduced from R300 000 in 2009 to R50 000 in 2013/2014. In the afore-mentioned essay, Martin noted a period between 1997 and 2003 where this budget was nil. Clearly it is indeed ‘not easy’ to be you when you happen to be the National Gallery.
Under conditions such as this ISANG’s project then becomes an exercise in making do, depending extensively on private donations and the fine work of the Friends of the National Gallery. Consequently, relying on recent acquisitions to the permanent collection as your sole trickling fountainhead isn’t necessarily conducive to the goal of ‘commemorating the major milestone’ of twenty years of democracy (as suggested by the blurb on the Iziko website). This is especially true when the exhibition in question immediately follows another that drew exclusively from the same finite pool, ‘Objects in the Tide of Time’. This time around, it may have been worth calling in a favour or two to secure a few extra loaning streams.
As it stands, there is a pervasive sense of déjà vu where it often feels like the primary curatorial strategy for ‘Brave’ was merely to move the post-1994 works from ‘Objects in the Tide of Time’ into a different room. While undeniably iconic, prize entries such as Mary Sibande’s The Reign (2010) and Stuart Bird’s Zuma Biscuits (2007) seem like they have been towelled down, given a pep talk and immediately thrown back into the ring for another round. This does of course assume a viewer who has seen both exhibitions; otherwise it is reasonable to assume that ‘Brave New World’ may well come across as being far more impressive.
Although the exhibition as a whole is a tad uneven, there are many aspects which work quite well. For one, the included timeline proves a very capable framing device, providing more than enough context for viewers to access any of the works throughout the exhibition. Moreover many of the groupings are smart and produce sharp inter-work dialogue. This is particularly true of the exhibition’s first room where Rozalla’s soundtrack to Dan Halter’s Untitled (Zimbabwe Queen of Rave) (2005) prompts many of the works in the room to be read as part of the video’s juxtaposition between European rave culture and Southern African protest riots. This creates an impression of a sort of ‘extended cut’ of the video, pulling in works such as Gerard Sekoto’s watercolour series The Sharpeville Massacre (1960) and Antonia Steyn’s 2008 portrait of Eugene Terre Blanche and horse under the mantra of ‘Everybody’s free’. As an aside, Sekoto’s inclusion has been justified by the fact that the works were acquired by ISANG in 2007.
Another example of effective curation is the linking of work by Bridget Baker, Mary Sibande, Sabelo Mlangeni and Nandipha Mntambo in the far room. While not necessarily adding any new layers to the works, the imagery of strong female protagonists enacting performative ‘masculine’ roles become steadfast in their solidarity; united by Baker’s declaration of ‘Only You Can’ in The Blue Collar Girl (Cape Town) (2004).
Worth mentioning too is the astute decision to use Pierre Fouché’s crochet lace version of The Kiss (2008) as the exhibition’s promotional image, a reference to Tracey Rose’s similar work which functioned as the face of ‘A Decade of Democracy’ in 2004. This gesture provides a degree of continuity between the two exhibitions while also highlighting what is undoubtedly one of the strongest works in ‘Brave New World’.
Ultimately, ‘Brave New World’ is not a definitive showing of the state of post-democracy South African art. While many of the key names are present and accounted for (Muholi, Goldblatt, Hlobo, Modisakeng, Clarke, Alexander, Patra Ruga, Mntambo, Subotzky, Shapiro, etc. etc.) the works are rarely seminal. I could repeat ad nauseam that the cracks in the system are evident, but what is really interesting is just how resiliently comfortable ISANG appears to have become in operating under these challenging conditions. More modest in scale than ‘A Decade of Democracy’, the exhibition never once feels like it is trying to ingratiate itself with any of the powers that be (which something of this nature could very easily have become). It even finds the stamina to fire-off more than a few shots at ‘Number One’ in the post-2009 entries on the timeline, which is probably not the best means of soliciting favour with our new Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi ‘I don’t like derogatory artists’ Mthethwa – but no harm done if they weren’t getting very much from the deal anyway.
I returned to the exhibition four times; partly due to the unavailability of images or information pertaining to the exhibition outside of physically viewing it in situ (there may be something to this approach in terms of encouraging repeat viewings!). Nonetheless each time I was there, there seemed to be consistently more visitors to the ISANG and certainly more than one sees in any other gallery in Cape Town. Clearly, it remains an important vehicle for how the public accesses and engages with art. And for that, ‘Brave New World’ is as much a commemoration of ISANG continuing to soldier on as anything else.