Living at the bottom of Africa, even farther south than the bruised and scarred Zimbabwe, has its disadvantages. It’s kind of like being in Never-Never land: it’s a place where people don’t really think that a sense of society and civilization can possibly exist. Everything based on hearsay by the media paints Africa as a really scary place. And on a number of counts, that image is not all that far off. We’ve got an embarrassingly weak currency, hijacking and rape are so commonplace that they seldom make it to the press, and AIDS statistics reveal this to be the continent most riddled by the disease. That’s a whole bunch of negativities that are contradicted by the bare-faced optimism that brings the work of a European master to Johannesburg’s central business district.
I lie not. The Standard Bank of South Africa, in conjunction with the Johannesburg-based French Institute and Air France, put their resources together. They did it broadly in the name of promoting cultural tourism and combatting the horrible reputation of Johannesburg’s inner-city. Whatever their motives, they created some precedents which belie all of the bad stuff that has been said about this place, this country, this culture.
The initiative was begun in 1999, in the face of an exhibition of work attributed to Leonardo da Vinci which was expensively shown at the Pretoria Art Museum, about 50km north of Johannesburg. The thing about this show was that it was beautifully done, it was efficiently marketed. But got up everyone’s nose, because the works were reproductions and the exhibition was strutted as an educational tool instead of an aesthetic experience. Whatever that may mean. For these reasons, the show felt trite, silly, and patronising in its intention that the serious gaze of art connoisseurs be directed at imitation.
One of those irritated enough by the exhibit to do something about it was Henri Vergon, deputy director of the French Institute in Johannesburg. He took careful cognisance of the factors within his organisation’s control: contacts, money and marketing. He was fortunate enough, during 1999, to establish contact with Meret Meyer Graber, the granddaughter of the artist Marc Chagall and no light-weight in the modern art world, in terms of her professional reputation and her personal art collection. One thing led to another, and with the additional association of Sylvie Forestier, a Parisian Chagall specialist, the die was cast.
Money was supplied from the coffers of the Standard Bank, the French Institute, and Air France, and excellent marketing lessons were learned from the Leonardo exhibit. The end of 2000 was to see the largest exhibition of the original work of a major European artist in the centre of Johannesburg and the city of Cape Town. From a critical perspective, Marc Chagall may have become careworn over the years, and his work may be perceived as being rich with schmaltz and corrupted by the notion of schlock. But being in the presence of the work supersedes judgements of this type. Suddenly, even the most sever critic can become dewy-eyed in the presence of a Chagall.
The Chagall exhibition represented the kind of cultural must-see in Johannesburg that was so badly lacking. Finally, with the demise apartheid, embargoes were dropped and cultural options proliferated. Unprecedented quantities of visitors braved the vagaries of terrifying Johannesburg, and hundreds of black scholars from inner-city schools were given the unbelievable privilege of their first access to “real” art. And I don’t say this in a pejorative vein, or in ignorance of local art: working class parents who quite likely are raising their families in squatter camps on the outskirts of Johannesburg don’t have the luxury or time to take their kids to see art galleries. That experience is still reserved for the bourgeois.
Eventually, time passed and the exhibition closed. Then our currency began to plummet in value, and September 11 happened. In light of these events, the prospects of a repeat performance of a show of the breadth and ambition of the Chagall exhibit seemed far and faint. But creative professionals are known for their ability to see around corners, or to improvise in the face of dead-ends, and with almost the same curatorial team in place, work was duly begun on another show. The reputation of the South African displaying institutions was still palpable in the very critical eye of the rest of the world; the important contacts had been established and were growing by word of mouth; and the sponsors were still at the table. Other than a few albeit significant socio-political and economic setbacks, the 2002 show remained possible.
One of the top loaners for the Chagall exhibition was the Fondation Maeght, in the South of France. As well as rich holdings of Chagall’s work, it boasts the collections of other masters, including Joan Miró. Professor Alan Crump of Wits University in Johannesburg, was the scientific curator for the Chagall exhibition. As the key player responsible for the selection, motivation and marketing of the show in its entirety, he decided that Miró was the route for 2002. But not just the same old Miró: this exhibition was to reflect a side of Miró seldom seen: this was to be Miró the gamesplayer, Miró the guy who subverted traditions and made work that made him smile. This was to be Miró the master of improvisation, assemblage, and art that gives total unadulterated sanction to spontaneity and playfulness.
Perhaps this sounds simplistic. But looking at the array of works, I know it isn’t. The spontaneity and playfulness is seen through the wordless relationship which the lithographic prints form with the surrealist poems for which they were created; in the crazy and spontaneous relationship with improvisation that can turn the body of a plastic doll into the nose of a creature; and in the use of symbols that we warm to, because of their apparent simplicity. And that is what the magical universe of Miró is about.
Craft in Africa is one of the central tenets to the notion that informs art. Because of this, improvisation with materials that represent throwaway elements of our day-to-day existence is par for the course, both visually and economically. This is chickens made out of industrial plastic bags, sculptures featuring advertising detritus, or the use of disused telephone directories as a sculptural medium. These are all commonplace approaches to contemporary art in Africa. This is the kind of wavelength that Miró was addressing in his latter years (the exhibition features work produced between 1930 and 1978).
And although the exhibition that is up at the Standard Bank Gallery in the centre of Johannesburg right now is smaller and perhaps more humble than the original intentions dictated, there is a body of work which stands proud and magnificent as it interfaces with the perceptions of both local Johannesburg dwellers and the well-heeled art aficionados who have seen the work overseas.