Theatre on the Square, Sandton
The art talks programme got an exciting upgrade at the FNB Joburg Art Fair 2016 by taking the form of the first ever series of TEDxJohannesburg Salon Talks themed on the contemporary visual arts of Africa. Presented by bi-monthly pan-African magazine Ogojiii, the talks took place at Theatre on The Square and were streamed online and live within the Fair.
Entitled ‘Art for Africa’, the speakers were asked to respond to 3 main questions: How is art changing us? How is art changing our world? And most pertinently, how might those changes help to shape Africa’s future?
ArtThrob was in attendance to see what they had to say, below is the coverage of the first session.
The programme got off to a controversial start with Ashraf Jamal’s talk, framed around the idea of Planetary Humanism and transcultural globalised African citizenship/identity. Alongside a few light-hearted jabs at the TED Talk format itself, Jamal managed to sneak-off a number of shots at targets ranging from the absurdity of the concept of VIPs at art fairs, to “new black nihilism” (“Current BC knows nothing of humanity”), the need to save Africa from itself and “narcissistic/onanistic” identity art. Jamal’s central contention revolved around the preposterousness of limiting definitions of humanity according to physical traits: “If we cannot have a struggle on the basis of humanity, we must scrap the whole thing”. On account of the seemingly contentious nature of a few of Jamal’s viewpoints, the talk served to jolt the audience into active engagement right off the bat. One suspects that’s exactly the way Jamal likes it.
Next up, Zoe Whitley (Research Curator at the Tate Modern) considered how art museums could be reimagined to serve as transformative places for people to communicate. Whitley stressed the need to get over “threshold fear” and look at ways to move past stale, pretentious conventions which are unhelpful in allowing museums to be a space of discourse and communication. Whitley related back to a Mexican town square exhibit at the Capital Children’s Museum which she visited as a child and found to be an enthralling immersive and interactive experience which sparked her passion for museums. She also referred to the surprising new insights gained from her 5 year-old child’s inquisitive responses to a Kemang Wa Lehulere exhibition in London as a way of emphasising the need to find new ways of using art museums as a space for dialogue.
One of the undoubted highlights of the day, Jim Chuchu of The Nest Collective delivered an exceptional talk about the production of the collective’s film Stories of Our Lives; dealing with the stories of LGBT individuals living in Kenya. Upon returning from the film’s premier at a film festival in Canada, the Nest Collective found that Stories of Our Lives had been banned in Kenya. Chuchu used this as springboard to decry the tendency of what he saw as self-imposed exile, where African artists leave their home countries to pursue artistic careers abroad. “Too many of the best African minds, filmmakers and artists live in Paris, Brussels and New York”, Chuchu related, stressing the importance of creating discussions through art within Africa. “It is important for kids to see themselves reflected in art”, reflected Chuchu, asserting that it is artists who are the tools to expand the idea of existing outside of oppressive frameworks.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, Manthe Ribane was unfortunately unable to attend the talks and was replaced by a stream of Blaise Agüera y Arcas’ Ted Talk on how computers are learning to be creative. While not specifically focussed on art and Africa, there was some nifty explication on how the hell Google’s Deep Dream Generator actually works.
Cobi Labuscagne (co-founder of the FNB Joburg Art Fair) reflected on her frustrations and surprises in attempting to ‘amplify the volume’ of conversations between the art world and the general public. Labuscagne emphasised the importance of starting with what is possible and to build momentum upon that. By way of elaboration, she discussed the key role of the FNB Joburg Art Fair in providing a space where people buy art, which in turn serves as a catalyst for conversation between art and the public. “It is surprising who is ready to engage when the forum is given”. Labuscagne concluded by referring to artists such as Nandipha Mntambo, Mary Sibande, Mohau Modisakeng and Zanele Muholi , using their own bodies to actively self-represent African contemporary culture and stressing the need to “stare back, even though our eyes are sometimes filled with tears”.
Closing off the first session, Neelika Jayawardane (who spoke again in her own capacity in session two) interviewed Aida Muluneh about her career as a photographer; both in terms of fine art photography and photojournalism (Muluneh doesn’t view one as being less than the other, they are both “just photography”). The interview format served as an efficient means of covering quite a bit ground, as Muluneh effortlessly reflected on her first encounter s with a darkroom in high school, her approach to art photography (“I want to take traditional elements of Ethiopian culture and take it into the future”) her involvement in Simon Njami’s African reimagining of The Divine Comedy, finally moving to Muluneh’s intentions behind founding and curating the Addis Foto Fest. The interview concluded on a similar note to Jim Chuchu’s talk earlier as Muluneh spoke at length about her goals with Desta for Africa Creative Consulting (DFA), an initiative aimed at creating opportunities for photographic training in Ethiopia and to ultimately create employment opportunities within the Ethiopian cultural sector and “developing society through art”.
All photography by Nicole Olwagen and courtesy of TEDxJohannesburg