The highlights talks were a true contribution to the discourse around African art, and the thinking around art fairs, although they could have arranged more of these talks, considering the interesting line up at the fair this year. There were a some disappointing issues around organization and attendance.
Robin Rhode started the first session in conversation with Roselee Goldberg (founder and director of Performa). To hear Robin Rhode speak about his artistic practice felt like an immense privilege. Black South African artists are not heard often enough. Most often, art viewers only see the final realization of a work of art, and they do not necessarily gain access and insight to the process, or to the inner workings of an artist’s mind and practice. This is a great loss for the ability to fully appreciate the work produced.
Rhode spoke passionately, humorously and eloquently about his art practice and conceptual frameworks. He was speaking to an audience already familiar with his work yet still managed to captivate and enthrall with his dense engagement.
His most recent body of work has been the process of a number of years working on the same wall in the West Rand in Johannesburg. Here he expanded his practice to creating far larger works that reach outside of his usual physical constraints related to chalk or charcoal manipulated by his own hand. He constructed what he calls ‘a small army’ of vulnerable youths from the area that help him make these works, with ‘Lieutenants’ and ‘Corporals’ for whom he acts as the ‘General’. Due to the violence in the area, and the way his ‘army’ was being affected, he has had to draw the project to an end. This has initiated the inception of Rhode’s NGO that will help young, disadvantaged and vulnerable South Africans to enrich their lives and uplift themselves through art-making. Rhode stated that he thinks it’s ‘miraculous’ that there are so many artists in South Africa, in spite of the immense setbacks, they achieve so much. Rhode ended his talk with a call to major international institutions to stop lumping African artists together in group shows and to offer them solos. He considers the inclusion of African artists in the ‘blue-chip’ part of the market the next step in acknowledging African art and its value. Rhode uses words like ‘army’, ‘war’, ‘fighting’, ‘struggle’, ‘conflict’ and ‘violence’ in talking about the state of things in South Africa, which resonated deeply with the audience. Rhode ended his talk by saying that this is a battle, and that he wants to fight in the frontline.
The second speaker, Benjamin Genocchio, presented a very interesting and informal talk, which was short, but full of incredible insights and ideas for the future of art fairs and cultural institutions. It was unfortunate that this talk was not well attended as it offered so much.
He has clearly thought very deeply about the nature of art fairs and what they have to offer the various publics that are engaged in attending these spaces. He spoke about the Armory Fair in New York and the experiences he has had in developing that fair over the years, and the opportunities they have focused on giving African art galleries and artists in the space every year.
Genocchio made some very important points. He states that all artists and curators should pitch ideas to the organizers of fairs because they are usually looking for new talent, and have the money to sponsor the ‘art events’ realized by young curators. He also made the point that one usually has to convince only one or two people for the idea to come into fruition.
Genocchio believes that art fairs should buy back exhibition space at the fairs and use that space to create something akin to a “town square” where there is communal art space for ‘art events’ like performances or installations, and where people can gather to remove themselves from the commercial spaces. He says it’s important to reject the grid-like floorplan of the average fair, and create a more engaging way of encountering the art spaces.
He also stated that he is particularly interested in the way that South African cultural institutions currently operate, and he thinks that reimagining the way in which suffering institutions operate, that they should let go of their structural deficits and move their collections into public spaces where they are not bound by their crumbling buildings which eat into their meagre government funding. He mentioned WAM in particular as a unique model for a museum, which is both a collecting institution, and one that rotates its exhibitions. He states that it is highly unusual for a collecting institution not to have a permanent display and praised it for its unique solutions to its spatial restrictions.
Genocchio’s talk was full of ideas of how to empower young art professionals, artists and the spaces that exhibit artwork.
In lieu of the disorganization and the lack of structure at the talks, they ran obscenely late. The third talk run by Zoe Whitely with heavyweight panelists Sue Williamson, Penny Siopis and Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, discussing ‘Past, present, future,’ started thirty minutes late and ran for thirty minutes longer than it was supposed to. Described on the programme as a ‘lively’ panel discussion, it was neither ‘lively,’ nor a discussion. An audience familiar with the work of all three renowned artists present may have expected something more than a mere overview of their most famous works.
It was interesting to hear the artists speak about their work, but it would have been more interesting to hear about the way they may have discussed ‘Past, Present, and Future’ between them. One of the most interesting moments of this panel was when Thembinkosi Goniwe, in the audience, stated that he finds it problematic that white South African artists discuss their conceptual frameworks in relation to their art, whereas all too often, black South African artists are expected to discuss their personal narratives instead. Mmakgabo Sebidi herself remarked after the talk, in conversation with me, that the need to constantly address the past, in order to qualify the present, is frustrating. She stated that it’s so much more complex than that. In principle, it’s a magical thing to bring these three minds onto stage together, but it was disappointing not to hear them speak to one another on the topic at hand.
The large panel discussion ‘I’m not who you think I’m not #2 – What to do with anxiety?’ got a very mixed response, but generally there was a lot of talking without much really being said. It is always interesting to hear about the exploratory process curators undertake in the lead-up to a biennale, but the topic, once again, seemed like it would yield far more depth of engagement than it did. The panel didn’t offer enough explanation of what they are doing with the opportunity, and they found it difficult to contextualize this process with the previous Berlin Biennale.
The final panel on ‘The Significance of Power and Womanhood’ moderated by Pulane Kingston was a valuable addition to the contemporary portraiture discourse, with some very accomplished panelists, including the 2017 FNB Art Prize winner Peju Alatise, Lady Skollie, Zohra Opoku and Sethembile Msezane. Unfortunately, due to it running so late, the panel lost Lady Skollie early on, as she was scheduled for a performance at the fair, but the remaining panelists had an engaging discussion about the power of absence.
In all, the talks were a space for growth, discussion and conceptual wrangling, but also betrayed disorganization and lack of planning. The quality of panelists was generally high, but there needs to be more engagement involved with the deliverables and expectations of discussions to mediate the time constraints.