Dividing the Horses from the Donkeys

[13 November 2001]

By Robyn Sassen

Picture this scenario: I live in a country that understands sport as high culture. Corporate interest, money and priorities are constantly poured into team sports and sporting heroes, leaving the visual artist alone and struggling in her/his traditional modernist role. I live in a community that represents the detritus of apartheid. The peculiar contradiction of the white liberal madam who rallies against apartheid’s ideologies, while in the back of the house a black women is laundering her undies, is still commonplace, here. I live on a continent where amongst all the languages spoken that don’t derive from Europe, there is no indigenous direct translation of the term “art” in the western sense of the term, i.e., art as functionless and aesthetic. But given all of this, I live in a place where not a day can go by that there isn’t some great and wonderful bash in the name of new, fresh and exciting indigenous culture. Go figure?

Africa, or rather South Africa, for the last seven years or so, has slipped into a funny sense of anachronism. On the one hand, it still exists under the shadow of apartheid. On the other, everything’s fertile for new things to develop. Gallery spaces are being made of disused power plants. Theatrical productions are taking to community centers rather than the traditional, expensive theatre venues. Artists that are put out on the street through lack of funding are looking in other directions for inspiration and luck. People are learning how to improvise; their talents combined with the raw material that is Africa.

October in South Africa saw many new and brave initiatives take shape and blossom, and while we have to remain philosophical about the projects that begin like race horses and end like donkeys, the spark is there for all manner of animal to pick up some speed.

The Johannesburg Art Gallery is nearing its 75th year. Something of a bastion for visual culture in the “city of gold”, the Gallery has been home to a fairly rich collection of relatively minor works by international painters and sculptors. It has one Picasso, one Monet, and a couple of other competent English, Dutch and Spanish works, as well as, in more recent years, prominent and important local works. To add to this, it is also situated in a park, which has quite recently become notorious for opportunist crime and the home of many of Johannesburg’s homeless people, who find themselves in this ignominious situation because of socio-political realities that are bigger than they.

This combination is potentially volatile. The homeless have no aesthetic education, and need roofs over their heads and food or drink in their bellies (and other chemicals in their blood streams). The gallery has no street wisdom, and is there for the basically over educated, over privileged (read: “white”) visitors, who arrive at the museum in expensive cars wearing flashy jewelry and flashing cell phones. Sounds like a potential for crime, yes?

Well, no. This potentiality is being turned on its ear by a group of young artists and arts administrators who believe in Johannesburg and want to change this ridiculous status quo, which may be par for the course in any society where there is a great disparity between rich and poor, but which, in Johannesburg’s Central Business district, is a situation that is threatening the existence of one of our main cultural edifices. The aim is to keep the volatility intact, but creatively so.

A year or so ago these people got together and brainstormed over the situation. Admittedly, they are artists who need experience in the admin side of things and exposure on a number of other different levels. Nevertheless, the spark of hope to re-evaluate the city center by blurring the distinction between park and gallery, art and reality was there. Hard work and careful planning enabled their idea to give birth to the Joubert Park Public Arts Project (JPP), which was formally launched mid-October.

The JPP is an initiative that is all about bringing the solemnity and inaccessibility of this strange rubric “public art”, down to more accessible, grass roots levels. It comprises over thirty artists, who in the name of Johannesburg, have conceived of and made art works that broadly — and rather unevenly — address the underbelly of this vast and complex city. So we have videos, we have performances, we have people giving free manicures to homeless park women in the name of art. Indeed, we have art that stretches across many cutting-edge genres.

We also have the obligatory sense of unevenness and lack of clear direction that characterises many a group show. We have clever esoteric work, which is inaccessible to even the highly educated visitor, and we have beautiful contemporary dance that enthralls even the highly educated visitor. And given the spectacular and projected nature of the project, we have glitches, too: music that doesn’t play on cue; speeches that are poorly cobbled together and read at inopportune moments in the sequence of things; electrical cables not sufficiently removed from sight; and the presence of lecherous security men, who may indeed present a bit of unpleasantness for lone female visitors . . .

But all this aside, the opening was indeed spectacular. There was fire sculpture and public performance, karaoke and video art, paper pigeon making sessions, and the mandatory free drinks and food. Karaoke is not generally considered a sister or even a distant relative to the serious and high fine arts, but the atmosphere that made stuffed shirts across the proverbial board dance and sing with no compunction regarding what idiots they may be making of themselves is such a happy, carnivalesque one, that it was absolutely perfect!

With over two thousand visitors on that single evening, it was a celebration of Joubert Park such as it hadn’t seen in a long time. During the 1980s, people would dress up for a visit to the center of town; a trip to the Johburg Art Gallery was an opportunity to see and be seen by the cream of local culturati. But the 2001 JPP opening could have no such decorum. You dress down when you come to the city center, now, particularly at night. You wear no jewelry and you make no eye contact with strangers. It takes a bit more savvy to navigate the downtown area, now, but on 13th October, at the opening night of JPP no one got murdered, mugged or raped during the proceedings. No cars were stolen. It was truly a celebration.

But inevitably, the mask of enthusiasm and possibility for Johannesburg had to slip. Eight days after the opening, this show, scheduled to run until the end of the year, had lost its veneer of sophistication and enthusiasm. The horrible little dictum, “This Is Africa”, an unfortunate phrase that denotes pejorative and bitchy criticisms about Johannesburg’s lack of efficiency; its mal-coordination of business expectations in this post-apartheid land, was now tagged onto the faltering JPP. The doors to the gallery’s park side were locked due to “insufficient manpower”. Electronic snow replaced the video art on one or two of the monitors set up for the purpose, and some of the photographs on the walls were not properly lit. Without the two thousand-strong visitors, the rooms have become cold and are tinged with a feeling of dampness.

The indictment is not on the heads of the organisers, the artists, the gallery or its park. Rather it’s on a culture that is still fairly new to the concept of visual art. Yes, of course rugby and cricket and soapies and other things that are easy to digest are much more popular than fine art, which can be alienating. In pre-colonial Africa, art was something made for utilitarian or religious use, and the concept of it being displayed in a space that exudes sacrosanctity, is still quite odd, to many (potential) patrons coming from every walk of life; be they from the stuffed-shirts quarter or where the homeless hang out.

I say all this somewhat sadly, but also kind of dispassionately. Johannesburg is not a stranger to the race horse/donkey syndrome. But having seen such enthusiastic initiatives take shape, grow with abandon and die very quickly, I believe that this is part of a hopeful process.

Will the JPP last its anticipated run for the public? It’s difficult to say. But the larger picture is that it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the bumping and grinding in the night that goes on in spite of its apparent failure: the enthusiasm and thought processes that made the JPP possible. Despite the “This is Africa” cynicism and the horse and donkey tendencies, Johannesburg is still very much alive at the southern most tip of Africa, and its enthusiasm for the arts hasn’t dimmed. Johannesburg’s challenge is to narrow the gulf between those who understand and love visual culture, those who don’t but could, and those who are still off “ivory towering” in the seeming distance.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/sassen011113/