FNB Art Joburg
08.09 - 10.09.2023
Art fairs are festivals for the eyes. The annual FNB Art Joburg fair held recently was, in this sense, an expected smorgasboard of visual art spilling out from a floor at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg onto different parts of the city. Expected as the seasons, but forced to respond to changing environments locally, nationally and globally, this year’s FNB Art Joburg could not extricate itself from the conditions that govern the country and the world.
FNB Art Joburg (FAJ) is singularly significant for its scale, in physical size and breadth of visual arts sector actors included in its programme. But size matters only as far as how effectively it, whatever is being measured may be, is used. At a physically smaller scale than its last iteration, with fewer participating galleries occupying a smaller space in the convention centre, this year’s FAJ lacked the sense of occasion which ultimately gives it its gravitas. Prevailing global economic conditions are playing out on the South African economy across sectors. It is predictable that the visual arts, which is considered a non-essential for most, would also take a knock. The shrunken size of the fair did mean that the art shown was afforded more space and time for consideration by attendees.
Photography came into sharp focus at this year’s FAJ. Lindokuhle Sobekwa, the Johannesburg-based photographer, was named the 2023 FNB Art Fair Prize winner. His work transcends photojournalism in its thematically and stylistically complex depiction of the socio-political and socio-economic makeup of South Africa.
Sobekwa mainly focuses on the geographic and social peripheries of urban life, mostly in Johannesburg. His work on Daleside, where his mother was employed as a domestic worker for a significant portion of Sobekwa’s upbringing, as well as his work on nyaope users, trains the photographer’s lens on those communities who have been relegated to the margins of the contemporary South African democratic project.
Goodman Gallery, who represent Sobekwa, also presented a body of photographic works by Jabulani Dhlamini. This was the third in a series of iterations of Dhlamini’s exploration of the landscape, people and memories of post-apartheid in the rural Free State, done in collaboration with Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo. His work is meditative, but also has a sense of dynamism. It is the quality of the photograph that portrays the photographer as someone who knows when to be where.
At the BMW Kinetics of Art & History event, which took place on the weekend prior to the FAJ proper, The Centre For the Less Good Idea exhibited a collection of works by renowned South African documentary photographer Ernest Cole. Between familiar works, there were some that had never been seen before. Collectively, these demonstrated why Cole is a giant of South African photography, especially with his documentary style having influenced legions of photographers after him.
FAJ 2023 gave a glimpse of a possible art fair format that would not alienate an existing core audience, while catering to a new and curious one. The pre-game satellite event at the Centre for the Less Good Idea in the Maboneng precinct, for example, assembled a scaled down version of a traditional art fair experience. Artists Mikhael Subotzky, Nandipha Mntambo and others generously opened their studios to the public, dance and choreography doyen Gregory Maqoma performed a deeply personal three-person work, a talks programme pulled apart pertinent themes in contemporary South African visual arts. This was in contrast to the main FAJ’s talks programme which, for the most part, was poorly attended.
When looked at carefully, the art on show at this year’s FAJ could have been the set menu at a local eatery: comforting for its familiarity, but also frustrating for similar reasons. The blame for this is not solely for the FAJ’s curators to bear. Art galleries, institutions, individual artists and art collectives erred too far on the side of safety, opting to show works by familiar artists that were guaranteed to leave the majority of the audience satiated and the discerning few unsatisfied. Everard Read highlighted Thonton Kabeya and Blessing Ngobeni, artists with solo exhibitions up for viewing in the city, for free. BKhz showed, among others, Sethembile Msezane’s work using hair extensions, Sphelelo Mnguni’s portrait of Pharell Williams and Mankebe Seakgoe’s work that was relegated to being used as a backdrop for pics. The gallery made more of a record of being there than sending a novel message through the platform. Artist Proof wheeled out an essentially unchanged bargain bin of prints that they had at other fairs. For the FAJ to return to its place as a spectacular festival for the eyes, it will need to make more ado with what is available in the way of resources.