Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
26.09.2015 – 11.11.2015
Group exhibitions in South Africa have always carried a currency that tends to be less about a curatorial endeavour than an exertion of a concept. Often these concepts are tied to visual and material indicators of emerging ideas and trends that, as recently seen in the ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ exhibition at the Goodman Gallery, are informed by a particular desire to maintain a level of pertinence and relevance. Curated by conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, the exhibition is based on American jazz singer Nina Simone’s ode to Lorraine Hansberry, which since its recording in 1969 has become an anthem in the lyrical vocabulary of black youth across America and Africa.
With an impressive list of young artists based mainly in the USA, the exhibition consists of a range that includes video, painting, photography, sculpture, graphic and installation work. It is thoughtfully curated and a bold selection of work that seem to echo the lyrical assertion of Simone’s timeless song. Thomas’s choice to make this a group show consisting of predominantly US-based artists (with the exception of Gerald Machona and Jody Paulsen) is both deliberate and perhaps the most significant aspect of the show. The obvious criticism would be to point out the absence of young black South African artists, however given that this is not in keeping with the zeitgeist of the exhibition, it is worth exploring what then makes such an exhibition relevant to the South African context.
In the first instance it comes at a time when youth movements in South Africa’s political landscape have not only galvanised institutional discourse and spaces, but also in its inference to Simone’s lyrics it invokes a deeper historical consciousness that has always resounded with the song and its homage to the youth responsible for the Soweto uprisings in 1976. The ‘timeless matter-of-factness’ is therefore somewhat missed in that, in its claim to showcase artists that attest to this, it fails to convincingly latch this historical poignancy to a rigorous political consciousness that is encapsulated within the very essence of the song. In her delivery of To be Young, Gifted and Black, Simone asserts her words with absolute confidence and certainty. She not only urges for a sense of pride in black youth in their pursuit for greatness but also more importantly to do so completely unencumbered by doubt or feebleness. In their pursuit for such greatness, and in her tone she intimates a sense of generosity. Although this is displayed by the cultural exchange and dialogue generated by Thomas’s exhibition, it becomes lost in the meander of a formal and commercial space. The geopolitical connection is thus rendered as superficial precisely because it is not necessarily concerned with the aspirations of the billion boys and girls it ought to inspire.
Perhaps this was not the point of the exhibition for the curator and the artists that participated, in which case it lends itself to the tradition of projects underpinned by ‘diplomatic mutual cultural understanding.’ This understanding is often drenched in the rhetoric that borders dangerously on political correctness and a benevolence that tends to alienate the very audiences for which it is intended. The artists presented by Thomas are undoubtedly at the prime of their individual artistic careers and each have an intense personal investment in their work that is worth showing. The strength of the show is thus that it brings these artists together under the auspice of a noble gesture, one that will hopefully extend beyond the complacency of gallery presence and sales. As Simone’s lyrics remind us, part of the fulfilment of this ‘great truth’ of being young, gifted and black is also having your soul intact – a difficult predicament for young black artists promoted by longstanding art establishments. This is not to say that the exhibition is not as inspiring as the self-affirmation encouraged by the avowal of Simone’s lyrics but rather that in the quest to blossom, elevate and transcend and as artists that have faced various challenges in their respective journeys, they remain cognisant of the greater necessity to reach out to those who need it the most.