At the same time that contemporary African art is packaged up with the glitz and glamour of Cape Town Art Fair and sparkly new museums like Zetiz MOCAA and the Norval Foundation, something very different is being inaugurated just outside the city limits. The Stellenbosch Triennale, an ambitious, multi-layered, multi-disciplinary exhibition across several locations around the small city. Funding from a sum of individual investors and businesses in Stellenbosch allows it to be free and open to the public. There is a film festival, a performance art festival, an interactive online educational platform for young learners, a talks programme, and musical interventions throughout the city. On the Cusp showcases young artists at the advent of their careers. From the Vault curates from the historical acquisitions at Stellenbosch University and the University of Fort Hare. Unfortunately, for this review, I have time only to focus on the artworks which were included in the Curator’s Exhibition, subtitled ‘Tomorrow There Will Be More of Us.’
The Curator’s Exhibition is housed in what was once a sawmill – in fact, the floor is still marked where palettes of wood would have been stacked, numbered, and auctioned off. It’s huge, industrial, air-hangar sized, and has limited usable wall space. Some artists shine when given this much room to play. Ronald Muchatuta, whose work I’ve only seen tied down to board or canvas, has created an exquisite, three-dimensional installation of drawings and collages hanging on pegs from a washing line. Lots of artists opted for big, hanging textiles. Some gorgeous, like Zyma Amien’s worker-overall patchwork piece, a commentary on rising job losses in the manufacturing industry. Using 2020 metres of colorful fabric, it trails an impressive amount of ceiling space. Or Victor Ehikamenor’s tapestry, a hybrid artifact that interweaves Catholic rosary beads with objects from traditional Edo systems. Other fabric pieces went for scale but compromised on quality. Mongezi Ncaphayi’s huge, billowing curtains took up lots of space, but seemed to lack a message. Igshaan Adams’s contribution lacked the meticulousness and intricacy that was afforded to their other works, say, the ones up right now in their solo at blank or at the art fair. This raised questions, at least for me, about how a nascent, noncommercial arts platform might survive if an artist’s best work is reserved for the market.
Adjacent to the warehouse is a lifestyle market – complete with the trendy coffee-delis and antique-boutique shops that have become synonymous with gentrification. It seems a bit odd that a triennale meant to centre contemporary African art would take place here, at a hipster hotspot in Stellenbosch, one of South Africa’s smallest cities, not to mention a city centre which remains predominately white. What would be a successful intervention in this space? How might an artist make use of this space, without erasing the violence attached to its legacy?
Sethembile Msezane’s Signal her return stands out. Inside a squat silo, a bell hangs from a long rope of hair. Candlewax melts on the ground, and the metal walls reverberate with the sound of Msezane’s voice, “calling the women who did not leave the world peacefully.” It’s hot inside, and haunting. The low ceiling, the darkness, gives the viewer the sensation of being trapped. Considering what stories and spirits might be trapped here roots the viewer in this place. So too does Browwyn Katz’s soil-stained wrapped column of bricks, a subtle reminder that objects are not extricated from the soil that they stand on. Or, as Adrian Diff Van Vyk said, in a performance/blessing which kicked off the exhibition, ‘If you don’t stay cognizant of the soil you are walking on, if you care only for aesthetic, you will never be released.’
Imbrahim Mahama does an excellent job of negotiating space, place, and history with his installation Stranger to lines II. His oversized coffins, created from wood reclaimed from farms and similar sawmills around Stellenbosch, are eerily reminiscent of the lifeboats slaves would have rowed into the Cape, slaves whose descendants have been working the land for white farm owners in and around Stellenbosch for generations. At the time of the press opening, four coffins leaned against the warehouse walls, although the press release promised ten. The absence of the others was felt, strikingly so, speaking to the erasure of the people who built this building, who worked this factory and the earth surrounding it. The coffins – some open, others closed – serve as a memorial to their lives and an attempt to resurrect their stories. For Mahama, a Ghanian artist, to engage so carefully and compassionately with local context speaks, I think, to the generative, transnational exchanges a triennale presents. The Triennale, after all, is meant to create a temporary utopia, in which artists from across the continent intersect, share, and strategise for the future of international art.
However, in a world repressed by borders, the logistics of transnationality are not so simple. Artists who struggled to get visas to South Africa were forced to create works for a space they’d never seen in person, relying only on pictures or glitchy FaceTime tours. Artists who were unable to travel for the opening had to trust the curators to install their pieces. Curator Silas Miami was stuck in Amsterdam at the time of the opening, barred from returning to South Africa because of visa complications. The Triennale, thus, becomes a stage not where artists from across the continent could work together, but the product of visions realised through faith and interpretation. Artworks in conversation are transnational in theory, but the absence of their creators is felt. Dr. Bernard Akoi-Jackson put it bluntly, ‘Objects are allowed to cross, not people.’
What, then, is the role of the triennale? What can it do? There was lots of talk of temporality. Future dreams, inviting history into the future, narratives of possibility. To borrow the words of Chief Curator Khanyisile Mbongwa, the Triennale is a ‘meeting point for engagement with the divided past, the collective present, and imagined future.’ It’s a trend of curatorial ethos I’ve noticed elsewhere in the South African art world over the past few years, most notably Still Here Tomorrow to High Five You Yesterday, an afrofuturist exhibition at MOCAA. Interesting that, as these brand new institutions are trying to articulate their cultural import and stake a claim for longevity, there’s an impulse to curate exhibitions around potential, becoming, on-the-verge. Why this obsession with futurism? What are the implications of imagining as space as just that, imaginary?
Perhaps this is their way of resisting the way art has been curated in the West, wherein artworks are classified according to era and movement. I like a curatorial practice that sees art as uncategorised, and therefore, malleable. But, I wonder, does this reveal the institution’s anxiety about its sustainability? It makes sense, in an art market that relies on foreign investors and a small local elite, in a country where arts funding falls to the wayside time and time again. It makes sense, when the Johannesburg Biennale—which Hans Ulrich Obrist called ‘one of the most influential exhibitions of the 1990s – succeeded only one and a half times in 1995 and 1997, having lost funding from the city half-way through the second iteration. Curating the Triennale around its future potential is a way to embrace the unknown, the unplanned, the what-might-be.
What the curators are doing at this inaugural moment is nothing short of spell-casting. Manifesting. Hoping. Khanyisile Mbongwa spoke to the healing potential of the Triennale, where healing is an ongoing process. The success and significance of Tomorrow Will Be More of Us can only be determined by waiting. Three years from now, and three years after that, who knows what more is to come.