A detail of the invitation
Installation view of 'New
Fiona Hall (Australia)
'New Worlds' reviewed
By Jennifer Law
By Jennifer Law
The foundation of empire is art & science. Remove them or degrade them, & the empire is no more. Empire follows art & not vice versa as Englishmen suppose. - William Blake, Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses (c. 1808; repr. in Complete Writings, ed. by Geoffrey Keynes, 1957)
It is rumoured that on his death bed, King George V gazed up into the faces of his mourning royal entourage and asked "How is the Empire?"; the final words to part the lips of a dying king before entrusting his soul to God. It has since been at times difficult to convince the Brits that the Empire too is dead - or at least resurrected as independent (if somewhat schizophrenic) progeny of the Motherland. Indeed, try as we might, children will we always be to our Mothers.
Thus do I, a Canadian ex-pat residing in London, researcher of contemporary South African art, and still-reluctant subject of the Queen, come to view the 'New Worlds' show, currently on display at the Canadian High Commission in London.
Fighting my way through the tourist-encrusted streets of Trafalgar Square into the startlingly cool, faux-Victorian interior of the last truly colonial outpost of Canada-in-Britain, I am struck by the pomp and circumstance of it all. Make no mistake, Toto, we're not in Canada anymore. From the suspicious collective-gaze of the security-en-masse, one feels more as if en route to visit Her Royal Majesty herself, rather than attend an exhibition displaying the post-Imperial artistic spoils of three ex-colonies - Australia, Canada, and South Africa.
But I welcome the opportunity for at least two familiar worlds to collide on my now-doorstep, a "doorstep" which just happens to be shared by the Queen (in metaphor, if not quite in situ). And I find myself wondering what they have in common, these three erstwhile colonies, other than a common self-proclaimed (adoptive) parent. What does it mean to be post-Empire, if not quite post-colonial? Walking around the space, however, certain correspondences quietly emerge: concerns over multiculturalism, land rights, truth claims, and democratic nation-building.
Curated by Sunil Gupta and Edward Ward, the show exhibits the work of 15 artists, struggling to come to terms, in one form or other, with who they are in a post-colonial world. Travel and history seem to be the overwhelming preoccupations here: tracing routes of migration, belonging and exclusion, searching for homes away from homes … The threads to Britain seem at times tentative at best, but its presence (however peripheral) remains indelibly impressed onto collective memory.
Sometimes the basis of exchange comes in the form of small seeds. For example, South African/Canadian artist Trevor Gould's botanical reflections - studies in watercolour alongside maquette figurines - speak of hybridisation and transplantation. As with Australian artist Fiona Hall's work, these creations are similarly fashioned from a shared colonial discourse on collection and classification, illicit exchange and reproduction, and competition between the indigene and the foreigner. Hall's small fetish-like silver amulets - of the kind Medieval Christians were so fond - are carefully sculpted out of sardine cans. Sterling seedlings burst from the top, while the lids are surreptitiously scrolled back to reveal intimate glimpses of sexualised body parts. I have endured the artist's rather overwrought elucidation of her gilded garden: painstakingly researched botanical biographies of plants both indigenous and foreign, bearing the biblical inscription of forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. But I preferred to come upon these Lilliputian treasures unencumbered by painfully inscribed clarification, for it becomes rather like sex zapped of its mystery by clinical narration. They are detailed enough in their aesthetic fashioning, and appear far more erotic sans viewer's manual.
Simultaneously gardens and wildernesses all, the three great land masses have long fostered strong identifications with (and equally strong competition over) the land and its possession. These are panoramas of both defended belonging and profound alienation, monumental diversity and nostalgic familiarity. The Old World gaze looks on still, in the history of our art and literature, in the names of our cities and flora and fauna, in the way we build our parliaments and choose to govern our lives.
The work of Vietnamese-Canadian artist Jin-me Yoon highlights the ways in which the image of the self stands (quite literally) against the image of the nation and its (Eurocentric) history. Large format colour photographs juxtapose the portraits of two Asian women against the painted Western-Canadian landscapes of Lauren Harris (1924) and Emily Carr (1929-30). These juxtapositions are intended to address questions of minority representation, gender and sexual stereotypes, regional and national identity. But I can't help but question whether this work simply reproduces rather than challenges the typecasting of Canada and its art. Why, oh why, are our imaginings of Canada forever haunted by the Group of Seven and Emily Carr? After decades of art, is the legacy of our artistic forebears really so enduring? Can we not find alternative ways to question our identity, and at last allow ourselves to look forward rather than forever gazing back?
Indeed, the search for truth in the post-colony seems to uniformly take place in the past. Perhaps we feel that we may only find peace in the present, the moment that we can finally look history in the face and recognize ourselves in its murky reflection. The docu-fiction videos of Canadian Leila Sujir and South African Clive Van den Berg independently embark on such a quest, exploring that which is unrecoverable, those moments which are forever lost to history in their (too often anonymous or unspoken) vernacular passing. Similarly, the work of South African artists Sue Williamson and Brett Murray aims to examine the contradictions of truth-seeking and democratic nation-building.
Overall, the work from Australia and Canada feels somehow less urgent to me than that of South Africa; a leisurely journey through the travails of daily existence, musings about where one has been and faint intimations about where one might go. South Africa in comparison is, after all, a nation which is relatively new in its democratic emergence. Its scars are still visible and raw. It appears, for this reason, at times more affecting. And it serves to remind us what we have gained in independence, and what is at stake in seeking out our various visions of reconciliation.
In many ways, I am as much reminded of what it is to be Canadian, what it is to lead a multiply hyphenated existence, via the doubled French-English signage throughout the exhibition, made necessary not only out of courtesy, but by law. I am yet again reminded through the charming, broken-English words of a French-Canadian ambassador officially opening the exhibition in the birthplace of the English-speaking world. This is how our divisions and convergences, as post-colonial subjects, are subtly articulated - in a softly forked tongue. This is what it means to be post-Empire in all its wondrously frustrating schizophrenia. But if art must truly lead the post-Imperial nation, it must lead it into the future, not linger indefinitely in the past.
'New Worlds: Contemporary Art from Australia, Canada, and South Africa' is currently on display at Canada House, Trafalgar Square, in London until June 18 1999. Open Monday to Friday, 10am to 6pm.
Jennifer Law is currently co-editing a soon-to-be-published book entitled Divisions and Diversions: The Visual Arts in Post-Apartheid South Africa
The cover of Grey Areas
Grey Areas reviewed|
By Paul Godfrey
The publication of Grey Areas: Representation, Identity and Politics in Contemporary South African Art marks a welcome intervention into the discourse-starved arena of South African contemporary art. The majority of the 33 texts centre on an article written by the artistic director of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, Okwui Enwezor, entitled Reframing the Black Subject: Ideology and fantasy in contemporary South African Art which was originally published in the catalogue of a Norwegian exhibition, 'Contemporary Art from South Africa'. This polemic was supplemented by a review of the exhibition/catalogue by Kendell Geers in The Star and an essay by Olu Oguibe, Beyond Visual Pleasures: A Brief Reflection on the Work of Contemporary African Women Artists. It may be informative that all three refused permission for their texts to be included or to write a new piece concerning the issues raised.
Enwezor's text makes many salient points, albeit in an at times discursively contradictory manner. The most controversial of these was the accusation that the work of some white South African artists continued the apartheid/colonial practice of representing the other as abject and denying those previously constructed as "other" their rightful voice, through their use of the black body. Particularly targeted, especially in the Geers and Oguibe texts, were woman artists who were criticised for using "falsely mediated" sisterhood in order to legitimate practice and access marginal positionality.
The personalisation of this criticism (Lien Botha, Candice Breitz, Pippa Skotnes, Penny Siopis, and Minnette Vári were all targeted) clouded the debate and seems, possibly through the discursive difference between the three texts, to have reduced the question to whether white artists can represent the black body, something that is not stated by any of the three writers. This type of reductionism generated something of a knee-jerk response from the artists and allied artworld, which given the nature of the South African artworld meant the majority of those involved in so-called fine art production. Several of the essays included in Grey Areas smack of this type of reply and many seem framed by opinions of Enwezor, Oguibe and Geers. Perhaps this polarisation is itself a legacy of the apartheid era when issues appeared clear-cut and the general political and artistic environment allowed no middle-ground.
Tellingly, the most comprehensive engagement with the actual issues raised comes from an "outsider", Brian Axel, who critiques Enwezor's employment of discursive terminology in a theoretically dense but engaging essay. The one reservation that I have is that Axel tends to a pernicious (post/neo-colonial?) practice, inadvertently echoing Enwezor, of inscribing debate from the diaspora onto a particular and distinct context, something that marks the contributions by Becker, Van Alphen and Amanda Williamson.
Colin Richards highlights some interesting aspects in his essay, particularly in his citation of Bourdieu's theories concerning cultural capital and artistic competition. The SACP's Jeremy Cronin discusses the appropriation of the language of struggle and the stereotype of the black body in advertising while AbdouMaliq Simone shows the role of urban life in transforming cultural relations and articulating identities in the assumed process of globalisation in a concise, well-argued study. Many of the other texts offer artists' anecdotal experience of dealing with the issues raised. Some of these provide useful empirical examples while others drift into self-justifying over-subjectivity.
The interview with Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa provides an important insight into an emic perspective and a break from what occasionally degenerates into a contest between black Americans and white South Africans over who is the most authentic, alluded to by Lola Frost in her Checking one another's credentials?. Dhlomo-Mautloa makes several pertinent points, notably that white artists need to "'Speak for', to 'be representative of' and to 'do things on behalf of'" their black counterparts. She identifies this as symptomatic of theories "so entrenched in the South African system that it is difficult for some white people today to undo or unlearn these theories".
Dhlomo-Mautloa also points out that "South Africa doesn't have curators, writers, and critics. Most people double up [original emphasis] as curators, critics, writers, commentators and administrators when all they are good at is art production." While this may be exaggerating the situation to a degree, it identifies a serious discrepancy in quality in the South African art comunity between the primary producers on one hand and the secondary and tertiary levels on the other.
Grey Areas provides a serious resource for anybody interested in the issues surrounding contemporary art production in South Africa. While the editorial policy of inclusivity may have been well-intentioned, it leads to a repetition of criticism and an extremely variable quality in the texts. It is to be hoped that these texts offer a basis for the development of more sophisticated critical discourses for the analysis of artistic production in South Africa.
Paul Godfrey is currently working on a dissertation for the University of London on issues of contemporary art in South Africa
Greatmore Studios in
New studios for Cape Town |
By Paul Edmunds
A studio, run along the lines of the Bag Factory in Johannesburg and the Gasworks in London, has been opened in Cape Town. To be known as the Greatmore Studios, this project aims to nurture artistic production by providing affordable space and opportunity for artists in the region.
The project has its roots in the Thupelo workshops held in Johannesburg from 1986 and in Cape Town since 1991. These workshops are ongoing in Cape Town, consisting of groups of artists, both South African and foreign, spending a short intensive period working together. From the workshops it became clear that various sectors of the art community in Cape Town and surrounds were in need of affordable studio space and the artistic dialogue that a communal situation can provide.
Situated in Woodstock, within reasonable distance of the city centre and saturated by the colour and activity of the area, the studio comprises two old, adjoined houses. Twelve separate working areas are available. Ten studios are kept for local artists, particularly those who are not otherwise able to afford work space. Eight of them will be older artists clearly committed to a career in the field and the other two will be younger people deemed fit to benefit from this situation. The other two studios form part of a residency programme whereby artists, from other parts of Africa or abroad, will take up a three-month occupancy.
The property, like those in London and Johannesburg, is owned by patron Robert Loder. This means that rents are kept to a bare minimum, covering only administrative and maintenance costs. A full-time administrator is about to be appointed and the residency programme will begin in September.
Current residents include Billy Mandindi, Bernie Searle, Ishmael Thyssen, Sophie Peters and Ralph Gallagher. Veronica Douglas, Isky Gordon, David Koloane, Robert Loder and Jill Trappler are trustees of the initiative.
Paul Edmunds is a Cape Town-based artist