Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
On the opening night of Alfredo Jaar’s show at the Goodman, the gallery was already bustling only 30 minutes after the exhibition was set to begin. Titled ‘Amilcar, Frantz, Patrice and the Others’ Jaar’s work focused on the politics of images and their effect on modern day society, muddled with the constant bombardment of media and marketing companies. Word of the opening had been circulating in certain social media circles for some weeks before, and if you were to travel past the Goodman on the days leading up to the exhibition, you would have seen Jaar’s neon works being installed in the large window spaces of the gallery. Now, they sat fixed and illuminated, declaring bright, bold, and familiar names—Fela Kuti, Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral and Patrice Lumumba all shining out towards the street.
Inside, there are people and wine in excess and everyone has already trailed off into their constellations, slowly making their way around the space. Jaar’s pieces are slight and easily lost amongst the bodies and various empty walls, meaning a more considered walkthrough of the gallery is required. An artist statement from the reception area fills you in on most of Jaar’s exhibited work as well as the Chilean artist’s history, but something is still amiss as you make your way around the space. For an exhibition of this scale, the gallery is far too empty.
Two similar works on opposite ends of the gallery stand out. The Man sees a series of varying covers of a book by the same name, authored by Irving Wallace. The first cover is bland, featuring nothing but the title. As you move along, they take different forms, some garishly depicting a tall, strong black man standing behind a fierce and sultry woman, while others show a serious character, also suited, but now behind a desk and looking rather important. The piece traces the evolution of the African image throughout the spectrum of the publishing realm, influenced by historically political climates and cultural zeitgeist. The series of covers of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was much the same and highlighted various notions and depictions of the idea of black masculinity by historically white publishing houses.
Towards the centre of the room is a large blown up image of Dr Martin Luther King’s funeral procession. Next to it is the same image, now in greyscale and with black dots representing black bodies and red dots representing significantly fewer white bodies, decrying supposed racial unity for a historical black icon. Other works included a slow looped film comprising images of victims of the Rwandan genocide, all turned with their backs facing the viewer. This theme carried over to an expansive line of Newsweek front pages all hosting recognisable Western images, faces and historical events. A subtle, but incisive caption sat beneath each cover, detailing dates and events concerning historical events in the Rwandan genocide, calling into question the gatekeeping processes and news agendas of popular Western media organisations.
This is What Happened, Miss Simone is a simple text based piece, drawing on the American singer-songwriter and activist’s song ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ leaving a list of empty lines inviting other possible words – South Africa Goddamn? Goodman Goddamn? To much of the crowd’s delight, a rapidly declining stack of the printed work was situated in the middle of the piece, inviting viewers to take home the piece and add their own thoughts.
Altogether, these works didn’t offer up much in the way of innovative critique. The use of art as a tool to call out historically white industries and their role in the misappropriation and blatant manipulation of black thinkers, revolutionaries and atrocities is after all, nothing new. It is only after considering the largest work of the night, a large neon map titled Johannesburg 2026 which posits Jo’burg as the next main economic and cultural trade centre, that things begin to take shape. The map itself proudly celebrates the city of Johannesburg, while the neon lights speak back to the iconic names you encountered on the way in. But where are those names? Now it becomes apparent that the blank walls of the exhibition are not for lack of work, but are rather the reserved spaces for these same icons whose names are so well lauded in conversation, but whose work is so vastly absent in the minds of many.
You’ve been catfished, you realise. Led to the exhibition by promise of an evening of art and tribute to some of the greatest black intellectuals throughout history. Jaar’s trick is a mean one and one that does well to spark a bit of reflexivity in its subjects. How much do we really know about the life and works of these thinkers we so often circulate in our online and offline social circles? Just how many people went home that night and Googled a beginner’s guide to black revolutionaries can’t be said, but Jaar’s work certainly spoke to the way in which audiences consume the works of these black intellectuals through contemporary media, which apparently, is not very well at all.