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 second session.
Session two started with the powerful presence of William Kentridge. As someone who specialises somewhat at giving lectures (think the 2012 Harvard Norton Lecture series – which is where our Black Monkey Thorn print edition stems from), William sure knows how to conduct a crowd’s interest and emotions. William’s work is well known to us South Africans, but it’s always a treat to hear the man speak (recently he was featured on Bruce Whitfield’s ‘The Money Show’ on 567/702). A highlight of the talk was a interaction William staged between himself, and well, himself, himself, and himself. The below was recorded on a mobile, so please excuse the quality, but you get the picture (lots of applause).
William’s focus was on the mapping of Africa by the west and the middle east, specifying six particular moments. Branded as ‘unknown and unknowable’ in 137 AD, the continent was still to see all the unhappiness of colonialisation and the great subdivision of the land between the European colonial powers. During the South African Apartheid era (through which William lived and worked, and which is one of the main subjects in his work) the Paraguayan, Uruguayan, and Chilean dictatorships were some of the few countries who accepted South Africans abroad. For South Africans during that time, the rest of the world became ‘unknown and unknowable’. And even now, argues Kentridge, South Africa is trying to renegotiate their relationships with those formerly estranged countries…
Then the talk segued into speaking about the studio as a membrane, and then (more relevant to current concerns) the need for us (as South Africans) to fill up the gaps in our knowledge. William refers to matters like the experiences of African soldiers who fought in the 1st World War (here’s a link to a recent call for papers on exactly that topic).
I feel that William’s signature erasure-and-redrawing loop in his work ties in quite nicely with the drawings and redrawing of maps, and borders, and enforcement. The focus at the end of his talk – on the need to fill in the gaps of history’s books – is call for new pens and pencils of change.
Neelika Jayawardane was up next, the US Arts and Culture Editor at ‘Africa is a Country’, Academic, and Arts Writer. Neelika spoke very personally on her experiences of people not being/feeling as though they are required to pronounce her name, due to the privilege they feel entitled to. Through these “moments of erasure” – when Neelika’s name is unpronounced or mispronounced, or indeed anyone’s name which is just too strange for a western tongue – Neelika explains how one has trained oneself to accept this thoughtless laziness, and not only to accept it but to accept with a ‘good sense of humour’. She expanded on the dangers of this path.
“The refusal to pronounce the other is a one-way privilege” – Neelika Jayawardane
Kossi Aguessy wasn’t able to join us, and was replaced by a screening of Amit Sood: Every piece of art you’ve ever wanted to see — up close and searchable. Personally I’m not convinced (though admittedly nor is Amit) that exploring high def images of artworks will ever be a decent substitute for actually encountering them, unless there’s VR involved in that experience (at the very least). I can of course see the value of an arts-only image database like this. I just can’t get the visual out of my head of people swiping through dozens of artworks with cheery bite-sized ‘daily dose’ facts.
Buhlebezwe Siwani was on residency in Zurich (on a Pro Helvetia programme) at the time of the talks. She spoke via a recording (not a live stream, as promised, due to apparent paranoia on the organisers side that tech infrastructure might fail us). Buhle relayed the story of her calling, and the impact of her spiritual path on her artistic path.
Buhle’s face appreared at the lower edge of the screen throughout the whole talk, covered in a hardened white substance (possibly clay). During her 15minutes, she rubbed and scratched at her face, in a movement akin to an unconscious anxious act, or a cleansing regime. The white was worked slowly away, first along Buhle’s jaw and the sides of her face, revealing at one point a fairly awe-inspiring shape reminiscent of a skull.
Lerato Shadi was definitely a highlight of the second session, speaking intensely and precisely about her work, and the unacceptable racism she’s encountered within the art world itself. Lerato’s talk dealt with exactly what William was urging in his, that of rewriting history and writing history.
Lerato spoke to us about Seriti Se, a work which she has shown both in Joburg at Goethe on Main as well as Berlin (where she’s based). In writing and then erasing the names of 130 women who had not been recognised for their various deeds and thoughts – and in forcing the audience themselves to make that erasure – Seriti Se is quiet, furious, heartbreaking, and animates the talks that proceeded hers (particularly Neelika’s). Lerato’s work is monumentalising silent labour. It is studied, serious, and unapologetic.
Pamela Joyner was our final speaker. I can only imagine how irritating it was to start her talk all over again after only a few minutes. Despite whatever technical error occurred, Pamela held court without a flinch. Speaking on her and her husband’s art collection, some of which we saw on the screens (images which included an easy majority of STEVENSON artists) Pamela ended quite passionately by appealing to the audience to go out and find the stories that are being told, represent them, and spread them far and wide.
All photography by Nicole Olwagen and courtesy of TEDxJohannesburg