Joburg Art Fair: Not yet bold enough
Political art probably isn’t as Instagrammable as all the abstract art, which has dominated previous fairs
Most often it is easy to guess what the most "Instagrammable" art piece at the FNB Joburg Art Fair has been without having to do a hashtag search on social media. Over the years Ed Young could be relied upon to deliver a showstopper at the Smac Gallery stand, with wry scripto-visual paintings like I see black people, which was photographed last year by everyone from school children to high-flying professionals and art aficionados.
This year there were no obviously Instagrammable artworks, though Lucinda Mudge’s irreverent classical-looking pottery brandishing rude phrases like "holy shit" at the Everard Read stand must have attracted thousands of likes. Young did deliver a memorable work, in the form of a video work of two little people wearing masks depicting a cry baby and a bully, fighting it out in Cape Town’s manicured Company Gardens. However, he might have taken viewers on a journey far beyond the borders of decency. This is what you want from art. Yet due to market forces it can’t really play out at an art fair, which depends on so much corporate sponsorship and is centred on generating sales and not "likes".
The art fair is less a place to gauge what is happening in the visual arts and more one to measure what gallerists believe sells. Oddly, the art is regulated by a selection committee, headed by the most powerful galleries, which dictates which artists and works the other galleries are permitted to show. Lucy MacGarry, the fair curator, says this practice "guarantees a level of quality ".
The Goodman Gallery pulled its weight with an impressive array of works from artists with international kudos such as the SA photography duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, who "curate" existing photographs, and a neon scripto-visual work by Hank Willis Thomas, the African-American artist. There were no prices on display — they were probably in dollars. It is likely they didn’t expect too many sales; maybe one covers the cost of their stand.
Clive van den Berg presented easily the most haunting work at the fair — The Unmourned. It consisted of a tall, large black tower (modelled on a classical ruin in Palmyra destroyed by Isis). The block was punctured by openings and ledges, featuring male homosexual subjects, about to be thrown to their death by members of Isis, or at the point of their death. It was rewarding to see a noncommercial artwork (its size and medium would make it beyond the reach of an average art fair buyer) with political intent.
Everard Read artist Michael MacGarry also created a disturbing sculpture — another block, this time of concrete, into which an AK47 was embedded, and bearing an official letter from Lonmin informing an employee’s family of a death. Wayne Barker presented a sociopolitical work at that stand too, in the shape of The New Normal — a work depicting a postcard of Durban beach front from yesteryear, dominated by white people.
Political art probably isn’t as Instagrammable as all the abstract art, which has dominated previous fairs. A reprieve from easily consumable, pretty art is welcome and is in line with a conscientised youth rebelling at universities and schools, though it is made by white, male artists. Art has yet to reflect the bold levels of insurgency taking place at grassroots level. Is our art out of sync with our society?
Gallery Momo was responsible for the most compelling stand — a recreation of George Pemba’s studio, encompassing a collection of works on easels. It made for an immersive experience.
The East Africa focus did not live up to the hype. The Wangechi Mutu videowork has been live on YouTube for years and is not an apt reflection of Mutu’s work, which is mostly collage, paper based. Largely, the art from that region of Africa was not of a high standard; whether this is due to a lack of access to formal education and materials or an absence of in-depth research by Artlogic, the fair organisers, is hard to tell. Zimbabwean textile-driven artists such as Georgina Maxim and Tawanda Takura impressed at the Village Unhu stand.
Artlogic would do well to focus on this country next year and present locals with a more in-depth view and maybe a spectacle.
There were no talking points this year. Silence isn’t always golden, even if pockets were being lined.