22.10 - 24.10.2021
It’s been a tough time for museums of late. Cultural institutions have been hard-hit by social distancing regulations under Covid-19, and museums in particular have found themselves caught in a moment of deep introspection. A dramatic loss of income and connection to public life has seen a rapid rethink of what and who museums are for – from the importance of local audiences to the experiences on offer, and how to engage through different modes of curation, storytelling and critically, digital media. Widespread global anti-racist protests following the death of George Floyd have also amplified ongoing debate over legacies of colonial and racial injustice encoded within museum practices, collections and structures – physical and otherwise.
In short, it has surfaced a fundamental reconsideration of the museum’s role, definition and relevance.
Zeitz MOCAA’s ‘Home is where the Art is’ opened mid-October last year in response to these multiple unfolding crises. The show frames itself as a ‘love letter’ to the people of Cape Town, who were invited through a public call to submit artwork from their own homes in a gesture of openness and inclusiveness, and in recognition of the fundamental reorientation of life in domestic spaces under lockdown. Somewhat incredibly, the call drew almost 2000 submissions of artwork across a broad spectrum of media, subject matter and participants. It’s an extraordinary showing of the diversity of engagement in forms of visual practice throughout the city, and a significant statement of intent by the museum towards recognising the importance of its local public.
It’s also demanded a shift in curatorial approach. The exhibition is hung from floor to ceiling, salon-style, across an entire floor of the museum, and the curators have done an admirable job of shaping the viewers’ experience through key thematics: among these, inside, outside and time. The show does still appear something of a victim of its own success though: it’s difficult to know where to look, and it feels a missed opportunity that subtler conversations and ideas inherent to the premise of the show could not be better explored. This is important to note, but how much does it matter?
In its homage to Cape Town’s citizens, ‘Home is where the Art is’ looks to grapple with a broader set of concerns surrounding the question of democracy, including issues of access, participation, culture, community and care, and it is to these which I will now turn.
Zeitz has produced a range of content that speaks to the broader project of reimagining the museum, including numerous discussions, screenings and presentations online. Their ‘Radical Solidarity Summit’ (September 2020) was undoubtedly a highlight in the museum’s effort to meet the moment. ‘Home is where the Art is’ looks to frame this reconfiguration in more traditional terms, but has similarly been extended into a social media campaign featuring individual artists’ stories, providing space for multiple voices and additional layers of engagement. Online content itself is not however intrinsically democratic in a country where around 65 % of the population are active internet users, and only 42 % use social media – a fact which compounds rather than alleviates the bigger challenge of limited access to and participation in formal cultural activities due to prohibitive entry fees and lack of transport.
The significance of both access and participation to the issue of democracy hinge more critically on the question of what kind of value is to be gained through cultural experiences, for whom, and how to evaluate their impact. The value of culture for society is also the subject of extensive historical debate in which South Africa has its own particular stake. Much of this falls beyond the scope of this article, but it’s worth noting a few pertinent points: firstly, that formal cultural institutions have had a powerful role in shaping our understanding of what art and culture are, and what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’ – often based on the belief that the best ideas and values transcend social and cultural differences; secondly, that the notion of the civilizing powers of the arts was systematically employed in nineteenth century Europe to provide a moral justification for the colonial enterprise, and arguably to generate and enforce a social order based on class and race distinctions; and thirdly, that the circulation of artwork within the system of galleries, art histories, art publications and museums typically attributes meaning, importance, and an increase in monetary value.
What this goes to say is that simplistic characterisations of the social value, impact and transformative power of cultural participation need to be rejected in favour of more nuanced understandings.
Recent efforts to address the issue of cultural value position first-hand, individual experience at the centre of enquiry, recognising that reflectiveness, empathy and imagination form the basis for benefits which extend outwards, such as civic agency and wellbeing. This is linked to a renewed interest in the idea of ‘cultural democracy’, described as ‘an approach to arts and culture that actively engages everyone in deciding what counts as culture, where it happens, who makes it, and who experiences it.’ An important comparison is drawn here with the ‘democratisation of culture’ or promoting access and participation in more formal cultural experiences. While many institutions do great work in opening up experiences to people who don’t think formal culture is for them, cultural democracy has a different focus: to recognise the rich ecology of any community or country’s cultural life, or everyday creativity, and that people have the right to co-create versions of culture that are meaningful to them, exercising their cultural capabilities.
Which brings us back to ‘Home is where the Art is’. The exhibition, as a combined effort to reach out and bring within, seems to sit somewhere between the democratisation of culture and cultural democracy, and is perhaps not entirely successful at either – but I don’t think this is a failure, and neither is it uninteresting. Claire Bishop writes that the value of socially engaged and participatory practice can’t simply be based on the ethics inherent to the dynamics of engagement. Although Zeitz is not operating as an individual artist, its authorial position matters here. Thus, we shouldn’t judge the exhibition as successful based on the ethical gesture of having been inclusive (with moral approval, in other words), and neither should we suspend our judgement – considering socially engaged projects as artistic and political operations, not simply as ethical acts.
In the South African context, inclusion is an essential component of social cohesion, the definitive cultural evaluation metric, but to simply be included is often only to be invited into an existing space, with its histories and teleologies already established. Inclusion is not enough, and at face value, this is where this exhibition falls short.
Yet, in its somewhat messy profusion of unlabelled artwork and accompanying social media narratives, ‘Home is …’ doesn’t conform to the sophisticated display techniques or scripted statements of contemporary exhibition presentation. It both exceeds and resists interpretation, defying the more traditional role that museums assume as mediators of meaning, as well as the authority that brings.
For visitors, it’s an exhibition that isn’t entirely oriented towards them: in seeking to create a truly inclusive experience for the participants there is a balancing of different levels and forms of access, not entirely in alignment, that subtly draws attention to how publics are constituted and value produced. Within the parameters of an open selection process, the museum actively aims to undermine the idea of exclusivity, but it also potentially undermines the circuit of market appreciation an exhibition typically bestows on an artist or artwork.
Put simply, it’s an exhibition that disrupts certain power relations, by default or design. In so doing, it asks what an ethics of care, and future actions towards inclusion, reparation and creative democratic participation might look like when we reach beyond representation into another space of imagining. If the museum is a machine for making and – crucially – preserving value, it’s also a place where we can see value being remade.
‘Home is where the art is’ is an invitation to think about more than what is on the wall. It makes room to think about the dialectic between things on walls, and things that ‘don’t belong’ on walls, and how cultural institutions – in a city like Cape Town – might offer transformative experiences of a different kind.