The Cape Town Art Fair has introduced a special project of curated shows, ‘Tomorrows/Today’. The first iteration is a series of eight solo presentations called ‘Consuming Us’ curated by Ruth Simbao and Azu Nwagbogu. ArtThrob asked the curators some questions:
ArtThrob: So far there hasn’t been any publicity of the eight artists you are curating onto Tomorrows/Today. Can you tell us a bit more about the artists you are featuring and why you have selected them?
Ruth Simbao: At a time of fast-paced consumption, ‘Consuming Us’ provides a platform for eight artists to pause and to speak about the ideas and concerns – whether small, large, positive, negative, tangled or in-between – that consume them. While it’s hard to explain why one artist was chosen over another, in one way or another these eight artists caused me to pause. Their strengths and interests are diverse, and it is precisely this aesthetic and conceptual diversity that enables the plurality of tomorrow to remain open.
Thania Petersen’s work is about the strength, beauty, and deep spiritual drive that apartheid did not manage to take away from her Cape Malay community. Focusing on what Sufism enabled people to do and retain in an oppressive regime, she has produced an installation for the Cape Town Art Fair that includes smell and sound. Reflecting on the ability to move inwards rather than be consumed by exterior forces that label and stereotype people, her work reflects upon what is retained rather than what is lost.
Mathias Chirombo also engages with the spiritual world and has produced a series of works informed by the death of his father in 2014. Predominantly blue in colour and alluding to the stillness and intense emotions associated with deep waters, these paintings contemplate a crossing over – from the living to the dead, and from human form to spirit form. Consumed by the pain of losing a loved one, Chirombo not only grieves through these works, but also reaches for the power and wisdom of those who have come before and who continue to communicate with the living.
Inter-generational dialogue is central to Rehema Chachage’s installation. Titled Mshanga, the work refers to her great-grandmother, Orupa Mchikirwa, who would wrap mshanga (layers of cloth including cutout pieces of an old rug and an old khanga) around her waist to stave off the feeling of being consumed by pangs of hunger. The video in this installation portrays a woman continuously whirling around in circles, bringing together the ideas of spinning out of control, spinning for meditation, and the spinning motion of the mshanga wrapped around the waist.
Lady Skollie’s work for the Art Fair focuses on ways that we consume sex and women’s bodies in what she calls ‘the year of the booty’. Contrasting willing and unwilling consumption, conscious self-exposure and the violent display of others, she grapples with her own fears in a ‘politically wonky and confusing South Africa’.
Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude’s paintings focus, in part, on the consumption of media and its impact on portrayals of Africans. Edgy and often satirical his work explores themes of leadership (particularly in the context of Zimbabwe), hypocrisy, falsehood and other forms of learnt survival tactics in which the lie often consumes the self.
While Nyaude’s paintings grapple robustly with tactics of survival in times of socio-economic turmoil and unsteadiness, Kyle Morland’s practice utilises apparent precision as a way of grounding ourselves in a hasty world that seems to swallow us. However, the exactness of the angles and measurements of his industrial-like sculptures and drawings is quietly whimsical. Subtly alluding to uncertainty despite the appearance of extreme meticulousness, Morland’s work raises questions about our understandings of certitude: When is the scrupulously set angle of a sculpture correct or mistaken? When does something topple from ‘enough’ to ‘surplus’?
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze’s drawings and video projections portray space as a playful and liberating concept that can be picked up, folded, or carried along. Drawing loosely from stories, popular culture, art history and memory, she imaginatively creates characters (and includes ‘space’ as a character) that evolve, merge, slip and transmute, not as outlandish, out-of-the-norm beings, but as characters that simply participate in the everydayness of change.
Just as Amanze portrays space as a character, Masimba Hwati teases out the personalities of objects and is fascinated with the ways that ideas become attached to them – sometimes meaningfully and at times arbitrarily. Deliberately switching contexts, he questions the ways that ‘things’ become consumed by ‘ideas’. Interrogating postcoloniality, he utilises the multiple personalities of objects to raise questions about knowledge systems of the past and our interpretations of them today and in the future.
ArtThrob: In the press release, you stress the importance of markets for contemporary African art, but also ideas of meaningful engagement. How do you find a balance in this show between these two seemingly contrary ideas?
Azu Nwagbogu: It used to be that these two ideas were separate and independent and as curators we do not want to speak about markets, it interrupts our creative ideas and dilutes our intellectual relevance and contaminates our space – not always true – but we all know today that this is pretentious and unrealistic. There’s room for market engagement and artists need to find multiple income streams so they can do what all true artists want to do, which is: make work. In the past, African artists were denied access to the markets but the market is sophisticated space and is beyond the art fairs. The biennials are more markets today than the art fairs and the art fairs have increasing cultural engagement and curated exhibitions, talks and serious discourse that shape ideas than they ever used to in the past. This is welcome and is probably because there is more general public participation and engagement in the arts.
ArtThrob: Cross–continental engagement seems to be growing in importance for many African art institutions. What do you think is the significance of this engagement for the market? And what is its value for art-making and viewing?
Azu Nwagbogu: To answer simply: Yes. The world is now a global market and collector’s interests and tastes expand with increased ease of travel and increased access to the works produced from any part of the globe.
Ruth Simbao: There are certainly pros and cons to this. Contemporary art produced in Africa and the African diaspora has been popular in international art institutions for a couple of decades and this popularity has on the one hand provided certain artists with important international exposure, but on the other hand it has also tended to pigeon-hole artists in reductionist ways. An important shift, however, is taking place and I think we are in an in between space at the moment. In the past the emphasis (at least from the perspective of the international art world) was on art institutions outside of Africa and group shows that tended to focus on the broader issues of framing ‘Africa’ (an impossible task in many ways) rather than on the work itself. More recently art institutions and individuals on the continent have been gaining increasing recognition for producing exhibitions that pay meaningful attention to the work itself. It is important, though, not to suggest that cross-continental engagement is new, as it has been taking place for a long time. The South African art world is relatively new to this conversation due to apartheid isolation and false perceptions of South African exceptionalism, as well as post-apartheid aspirations to engage with the Euro-American art world. As we try to image the various forms of ‘tomorrows’ in terms of contemporary art and Africa, it is critical to strive for reciprocal cross-continental engagement. Only then will it create meaningful value for art making and viewing.
ArtThrob: How would you characterize the difficulties, challenges and pleasures of working as a curator on this continent?
Azu Nwagbogu: The main thing I would say would be that we probably have less time than our counterparts because we are often engaged in other administrative and directorial roles that curators engaged in museums and with major institutions in Europe and the US don’t worry about.
Ruth Simbao: I worked as a freelance curator in Canada in the 1990s for a while, and although the financial and logistical support was substantial, the reality is that art institutions all over the world face challenges in terms of finances and logistics. So instead of bemoaning the fact that many institutions in Africa might be less resourced than those elsewhere, I recognise from my experience in South Africa and Zambia that incredibly exciting things can happen when one is ‘freed’ from the restrictions that often come with highly resourced institutions. Of course we all want funds to make our ‘dream projects’ come true, but there is a new generation of amazing and energetic curators, artists and writers on the continent that is producing edgy and important work despite logistical and financial challenges. In many ways, these challenges mean that we are able to set the trends. While better resourced institutions overseas might have to wait until they can justify exhibiting the work of artists from Africa who already have internationally recognised reputations, working in often smaller and alternative spaces in Africa means that we can play a significant role in shaping what is recognised as the best contemporary art of the African continent. While the agency of Africans in this process has, for a long time, been ignored, that is changing. We are doing it on our own terms and are starting to be recognised for it.