The FNB Joburg Art Fair (JAF) led the way as Africa’s first art fair, introducing the international trend that transformed the relationship of the art market worldwide to the local scene. It remains the biggest art fair in Africa. Last year, in just one weekend, it generated sales of R46m, and the year before it drew R43m.
But even as the JAF expands, the terrain in which it operates is shifting.
As interest in African art grows globally, the fair has a unique responsibility, as nearly half of art sales worldwide are estimated to take place at art fairs.
The general feel is that as the JAF enters its second decade, there’s less of an emphasis than in previous years on trying to prove the quality and validity of SA and African art by seeking affirmation overseas. The art world abroad has come to Africa, and African art now has to present itself on its own terms.
The double-sidedness of this situation can be seen in the selection of Billie Zangewa as featured artist. Her Malawian roots hint at a broader African identity, while the personal and domestic emphasis of her work suggests the sense of localism and particularity.
In another way, recently announced 2018 FNB Art Prize winner Haroon Gunn-Salie’s work is all about uncovering local histories and using them to undermine grand narratives. Even Sue Williamson’s large-scale installation, which has been shown overseas, appears at JAF as a kind of local re-appropriation of a conversation that has been taking place abroad.
This year’s JAF represents more commercial galleries than ever from the rest of the continent — Addis Ababa, Harare, Kampala, Lagos, Luanda, Maputo — in addition to a good selection of SA contemporary galleries and some from the US and Europe. Prizes, publishers and platforms from elsewhere on the continent are also making an appearance.
This comes with an emphasis not just on presenting art from the rest of the continent, but also on discovering it. This year the fair features a social media initiative #FNBJAF20, which is designed to "uncover the new and exciting talent on the African continent". In the three weeks leading up to the JAF, people have been able to nominate and vote for artists put forward online and via social media. The top 20 artists nominated will be announced on social media this week.
Of course, all this is capitalising on a growing interest worldwide in African art. The hunger to discover new and unknown cultural resources on the continent creates an odd sense of an artistic scramble for Africa, but it’s also undeniable that with this interest comes the potential for artistic and cultural growth and change and that it ushers in a powerful new African voice and centre of creativity as well as a new art market.
Here’s what to look out for in addition to the commercial galleries.
JAF celebrated its first-decade anniversary last year by inviting German-based Robin Rhode as its featured artist, reprising his appearance as the fair’s very first featured artist back in 2007. This year fair director Mandla Sibeko said in a statement that, after many years of featuring artists from around the world, the organisers wanted someone who lives and works in Joburg. Zangewa manages to be both local, in the sense that her work is clearly of Joburg, and someone more broadly African, because of her Malawian roots.
Her hand-stitched collages, made from colourful raw silk offcuts, present domesticity, the female form and individual experience (most prominently in the recurring motif of a self-portrait or doppelgänger figure).
This forms a counterpoint to the historical narratives that oppress women’s — particularly black women’s — bodies. Rather than re-insert herself and the craft and materiality of her work into grand narratives, she focuses on the private spaces, introspective moments and quieter, more confessional side of feminism, with unexpectedly affirming and empowering results.
She’ll be showing a new installation, The Garden, exploring the themes and implications of this private, domestic space in the city.
Gunn-Salie rose to prominence with his graduate exhibition six years ago relating to forced removals in District Six. Ever since, he’s been doing collaborative works that deal with oral histories and the reading of history against the grain.
For the fair, he’s presenting an installation from his project Senzenina, which deals with the Marikana massacre — a kind of booth in which an "immersive soundscape" pipes through sounds that have to do with the lives of mineworkers, including archival snippets of calls for mineworkers to disperse peacefully and an anti-apartheid freedom song.
Williamson’s Messages from the Atlantic Passage is a large-scale installation that delves into the history of slavery and the movements of slaves across the Atlantic Ocean. It is based on records from both sides of the Atlantic of the history of slavery in the 19th century. Twenty-one years ago, Williamson’s highly acclaimed work Messages from the Moat listed the slaves brought to the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company between 1658 and 1762. This work is an extension of that and consists of fishing nets suspended from the ceiling over water tanks. The nets are filled with glass bottles containing traces of earth.
Each bottle is engraved with the names and details of a single slave who travelled on a slave ship across the Atlantic. It was shown at Art Basel (Switzerland) last year, but hasn’t been exhibited here. The curators felt it was important for it to be shown on home soil.
Zimbabwean artist Takunda Regis Billiat, known for his sculptural works using cloth binding and the horns of cattle, will show a large installation exploring the tensions and ruptures between contemporary political and economic upheavals of Zimbabwean life and traditional and ancestral forms of knowledge and understanding.
This year’s talks programme, curated by Kabelo Malatsie, the new director of Visual Arts Network of SA, addresses the questions facing the art world about how it should operate, given a transforming audience. There is a surge of global interest in African art, but also a changing local public that is interested in art, going to galleries and exhibitions, and attending art fairs.
The programme is structured around the question: who’s it for? And: how do "art practitioners" respond to the shifting ground of the art world?
• The FNB Joburg Art Fair takes place at the Sandton Convention Centre on September 7–9. Doors open at 11am