‘I have learnt there are very few genuine emergencies in life’. The sentence is Chris Soal’s, its source Timothy Ferris’s audiobook, The 4-Hour Work Week. Soal and I have just parted, he in an Uber headed for the airport, me, dog in tow, back home. It’s a sunny morning. Dropping dogshit into the green municipal bin, I wonder if this is in fact the case. Are there really very few emergencies in life? The fact I believe Otium – cultivated relaxation – to be the cornerstone of life, it follows that I’d agree with Soal and Ferris, but, somehow, I’m alarmed. As Nietzsche has persistently reminded me, it is useful to exaggerate when dealing with emergencies. Urgency defies complacency. Exaggeration is vital when presented with a problem. How else does one alert others to an error or crisis? Calmly? Hardly.
A few days earlier, driving to the Jaffer Modern Gallery with Igsaan Martin of Martin Projects, Nietzsche’s alarm rang loudly. We were talking about ‘emergent artists’, Evelyn Waugh’s bright young things, recent art school graduates who never had a showing because of COVID, others who’ve never had the privilege of going to art school, the great shining light that hovers over Greatmore Studios. It seemed that right now, it’s proving harder to break into the art world, that there is no ‘in’, no platform for young artists. Where do they belong? What facility will claim them? Is the art world so utterly saturated, that it possesses no room? Is the art market too restrictive, too predictive? Is there an implicit understanding that only certain kinds of art are viable? If so, why? Who gets to be celebrated?
Starting out is dodgy, but so is canonical construction. Lately I’ve been looking at the works of younger artists exhibited in a design showroom, The Test Kitchen, a disused office lot. The contexts are instructive. Now, driving towards the Jaffer Modern, Igsaan Martin reads my mind. ‘Everyone is working with established artists’, he says. ‘How do younger artists get a shot?’
Martin’s question popped up as we swerved away from Observatory into Salt River, Faith 47’s mural of a cheetah fading by. It needs plexiglass, or someone with an angle-grinder to hack it out. Martin works with dealerships and corporate collectors, but his greater passion is to support emerging artists, ensuring ‘consignment agreements, safety, condition reports, tactical exposure’. When he harks back to the Cape Town Art Fair in February 2020, I’m startled. Yes, it happened, and no one could have predicted the global extinction of art fairs, or the permanent shuttering of smaller dealerships. Still, auction houses are thriving. The local market is alive and kicking. 9 million rand’s worth of art was recently traded in an upmarket dealership.
However, the ability of young artists to maintain a living, get an airing, is at risk. And, frankly, for me at least, it is the energy of young artists across the country, undaunted by governmental dereliction, or the blinkered vision of established dealerships which operate like fiefdoms, which require greater attention.
Travelling along Albert Road, I’m reminded of Michael Beckurts’s first solo show at The Test Kitchen … charcoal drawings and watercolours of empty country lanes. Far removed from the agonistic trials of urban life, Beckurts’s art draws us towards what we long for most – stillness, with all its tremulous vivacity. Beckurts is 20, a marvel of promise in an embittered world. As is Sibusiso art is, 25, whose mixed media portraits on paper I saw in a décor shop in Observatory. He is ‘marinating’ figuration and abstraction, learning what he must express. While the works of these artists is temperamentally distinct, for both, urgency prevails.
Two venues summarise the face of a young art world – a repurposed derelict office lot and the bespoke 7th floor arena, the ocean beckoning through glass, which Martin has taken me to. In drastically dissimilar cases, one condition rings: opportunity. There is precious little opportunity for young artists – the canon is solid. But what South Africa is, the stories it is yet to tell, is barely apprehended. A greater eclecticism is on the rise. The stories which we need to tell now have precious little to do with narratives of resistance. No inherited axioms bind us. No one, right now, can know what exactly are the emergencies of a young generation, in their twenties, making art. There is no picture for the future.
Sara Moneer Khan is the curator of Jaffer Modern, which opened its doors in January this year. Three artists are on show, two are recent graduates from Michaelis, Aimee Messinger and Sahlah Davids. The third is self-taught, Abdus Salaam. For Khan, there is no ‘blueprint’, she believes in ‘an individual perspective on things’. The focus on younger artists is unsurprising. ‘Mentorship is key’, as is the belief in creating a residency, a place of safety and experimentation. Because of COVID, Sahlah Davids never got to have her solo show, but here she is, her found furniture, pinned and snarling, pretty yet discomforting, placed alongside Messinger’s portentous painted landscapes and Salaam’s chilling relief works. Heat and cold, an unstable temperature. No constants.
If Jaffer Modern is an elegant display room, the derelict office lot on Strand Street where the collective Joe Prussian exhibited their work is anything but. If sun poured through the sprawling glass frontage of Jaffer Modern, the sky was especially gloomy on the day I stepped into the sprawling lot. This outing, and encounter, was, for me, the most instructive. The eclectic products of the collective comprised paintings in oils and watercolour, video, sculpture, readymade florescent installation. All the works have the derivative in-the-know innocence of youth, charming for this fact.
Joe Prussian is a collective in the most delinquent sense – there is no agreed upon premise, no equivalences in feeling or idea. In this key sense, the collective embodies the multiplexity of an emergent art world, as knowing as it is uncertain, as daring as it is tremulous, familiar yet novel. The title of their show – ‘Premise’ – underscored the group’s refusal to be pinned down, and, more generally, a greater openness.
A premise is a proposition, and, as such, a fitting aggregation for a showing of wildly dissimilar practices. Carola Friess’s conglomerates of repurposed waste matter, billed as RePaired Disparities, aptly described the faceless collective dubbed Joe Prussian. Then there was Isabella Chydenius’s luminous pink homage to James Turrell. Ashleigh Frank’s oxymoronically titled, How to Build an Ocean. Thero Makape’s archival prints, a deep-dive into miraculous ephemera. Heinrich Minnie’s screenshots of caged birds, a reminder of the carceral tyranny of tech. Billed as Ergonomically Designed Apparatus – for apparatchiks, the pun achingly funny – Minnie tells us that there is nothing benign about the prison-house of technology, or any ideology that promotes an indentured mind; dumbed-down sedatives for sleepwalkers.
Saaiqa’s pin-hole visions into history, and the void beneath surfaces, are soulful photographic records of how little we do see, and that nothing seen is ever resolved in the mind’s eye. Guy Simpson’s cartoon cloud painted on supawood, titled It’s uncertain but its something worth following is a witty reminder of how easily we’re hijacked by matters as trivial as they are precarious. A bulky riposte to taste, it celebrates just how kitsch and shallow we’ve become. Shakil Solanki’s mesmerising watercolours are the sublime antithesis to Simpson’s jocular farce. His sensuous bodies possess a luminosity that blindsides the glitzy pink glow in Chydenius’s installation.
Laura Viruly’s Wa Lehulere-esque sculptures with titles such as Gambol and Riddles between bigger fish are all about surviving the concussive blows to the head by left-and-right-minded thugs. On the other hand, Paul Wallington’s creepy whimsy speaks to an even deeper psychological dread. An eeriness clings sickeningly to his oils on canvas which veer between a Munchian and Baconesque howl. Against the destruction of mind, or the psychopathy of our unconscious, however, stands Martin Wilson’s 3d-printed PLA plastic Predicted figure, a swirling perforated synthetic wave. Nicolas Tanner’s digital prints of fences split the flow of nature, while Inga Somdyala’s piled breeze-blocks are a reminder, after MJ Mngadi, that Home is Nowhere. Matt Slater’s threaded whorls and Sitaara Stodel’s vacant photographs return us to what is missing or hidden, what lies beneath a neglected ground or within a destroyed collective imagination.
The point of ‘Premise’ is that we should be wary of group-think – ‘RePair Disparity’, break free of consensus, mutiny against a toxic present. Otherwise, how do young artists get the attention they deserve? In their brief, the curators, Kerry Lee Chambers and Nathalie Viruly, directed their attention to ‘the push and pull of a city; especially a covid-city in the midst of a new normal and ways of being in the urban environment’. True, but COVID is not the only real problem, far more insidious is the failure, infrastructurally, professionally, to support younger artists whose lives and work will continue long after we’ve bested COVID.
The problem in Cape Town is not unique. All over the world we are witnessing a regression in freedom, a liquidation of democracy. Ours is a dark age. So, when told that there are very few emergencies in life, I’m understandably sceptical. If anything, it is a young artist’s ability to express their urgencies, doubts, fears and hopes, that matters most. A shattered self-portrait, a desolate country lane, a velvet-cushioned chair that aches, are the deceptively minor aspects of a complex yearning. In four emergency rooms – a test kitchen, showroom, white gallery with a glassy view of the Atlantic, and, most inspiring of all, a derelict office lot – I found some illumination.