We're all talking - nobody is listening
The France South Africa Seasons 2012-2013 has been an exciting initiative and cultural exchange between the two countries thus far. There has barely been an arts or cultural related event without the mention of this partnership, with a key achievement perhaps being the 20th Century Masters: The Human Figure flagship exhibition hosted by Standard Bank. The exhibition, which was curated by Sylvie Ramond, director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, came to a close on September 15.
The day before, however, saw the last panel discussion of the exhibition taking place and I thought it would be a great opportunity to pick out a few more insights into and around the mostly amazing work in the exhibition I attended. The first thing I noticed about the panel was that it only had one black person on it. No matter, there were a handful of us in the audience anyway, I told myself.
The discussion took off seemingly well, with questions put to the curator about the choice of the "human figure" as a central theme of the exhibition. The very soft-speaking curator explained that the choice of title was not meant to allude to any idea of fashion aesthetics – à la the female body in its current fashion(ised) and commercialised form – but rather "the human figure as an ideal starting point in art".
Very well, but I couldn't help but think that given how the female body made up the majority of the human figures in the exhibition it would've have been fair to accept that many of the works of the all those masters were in fact exercises in, or better yet, manifestations of the male gaze, mild being the predominant description of it.
A question was put to the black panellist and arts writer, Percy Mabandu, about his thoughts on the exhibition and what he saw and didn't see in it. His honest response was that he didn't see himself in the exhibition despite the respect and awe that he has for many of the artists included in it. He didn't see himself in that there were no black bodies in the human figures of the exhibition. He expressed how it was a valid observation to make, in that the exhibition as it stood gave a visual glimpse into a historical period which cannot simply be looked at without questions. It seems he had opened up a can of worms.
A lady in the audience said that when the same exhibition went to China in the previous years, there were no complaints or observations about the omission of the Orient’s body, so why does it seem to be such a problem in South Africa. A Frenchman in the audience said he didn't see himself in the works either and that in France they didn't think about questions of who is and is not represented.
An old white man, clearly frustrated at the turn of the discussion, decided to put an end to the matter once and for all with his two cents worth. "There was no art in Africa except maybe the cave paintings by the Khoisan and a few decorative works here and there," he said confidently. Much of what followed were generalisations and the odd position that the exhibition was not being engaged with in the manner that it was supposed to.
A rebuttal was imminent as one of the black audience members pointed out that the conception of art was never the same in Africa as it was in France and the rest of Europe and to say that there was no art practice in Africa is to essentially say that there was no civilisation either. There was no response and the mood of the discussion went tense.
On the whole, I found two things amiss from the general atmosphere in that small discussion venue. The first being that at no point did it seem a relevant enough point that any historical work, be it visual or textual, requires that it be engaged with on the basis of the period that it represents. Secondly, the very people who became defensive about the simple observation made by Mabandu were not themselves willing to ask awkward questions about what the exhibition meant in the greater scheme of human history and evolution of thought.
As mentioned earlier, the art in the exhibition was indicative of many 20th century art works. None of the women said anything about the gendered othering that was so loud in the works. The simple truth is that the "masters" (of visual representation) were all white. That France produced the Picassos and Renoirs of this world does not make other nations and countries devoid of a artistic sensitivity and expression. History, regardless of the manner in which it is represented, is not there to simply be looked at approvingly? It must be asked questions and considered anew if need be.