Revenge of the dispossessed

Last week Kay Hassan was formally handed the DaimlerChrysler award for South African Contemporary Art 2000

Matthew Krouse

Stuttgart, May 18. Amid fanfare and a notable degree of overkill, South African artist Kay Hassan received the newly launched and already coveted first DaimlerChrysler award for South African Contemporary Art 2000.

Much has recently been written about Hassan in the context of the award, the biggest of its kind to be given to a local artist to date. Slightly blinded by the award’s worth – R300E000 to be precise – the lead up to Hassan’s appearance in Stuttgart and Berlin last week caused a little media hype in South Africa, something relatively uncharacteristic of the normally sedate art news niche.

In chilly springtime Stuttgart last Thursday evening, the turnout at the launch of Hassan’s solo exhibition and the official handover of the award resembled an apartheid heyday opening at Pretoria’s State Theatre. Lots of white mink and manure.

Six hundred of the city’s elite were fed a five-star meal. Afterwards there were speeches by, among others, President of the Federal State of Baden-Wrttemberg Erwin Teufel, German consul general to South Africa Jrgen Schrempp (who is also chair of the DaimlerChrysler board) and South African ambassador to Germany, Sibusiso Bengu.

Given the high profile of the occasion it was inevitable that Hassan and his art would take a back seat. On the very night that he was to be crowned king of the DaimlerChrysler cultural development strategy, it seemed that Hassan had to make way for diplomatic platitudes and reassurances, on the part of Bengu, that South Africa would not go the way of its neighbour Zimbabwe.

In opening his address, Bengu dubbed the occasion the celebration of the sixth South African Freedom Day, while Schrempp hailed it as the first official visit by Bengu to the rather cosy and prosperous Stuttgart city.

Of course Hassan was allowed his moment of glory, in which art critic, award judge and head of the Wrttemberg Art Society Martin Hentschel praised the “concentration and productivity of the Fordsburg artists which paved the way for Kay Hassan on his way to the international scene of art”.

In an earlier press briefing, and in publication, Hentschel has constantly drawn on the role that the collective studio – situated in the Speedy Bag factory in Fordsburg – has played in nurturing and giving space to Johannesburg’s major talents.

In acknowledgement, DaimlerChrysler also flew out senior artist David Koloane. Both Koloane and Hassan hail from Alexandra township, and both have their studios in Fordsburg.

On the following night, at the exhibition’s public opening, Koloane would say in his speech that Hassan’s work “is not angst ridden nor is it vengeful or unfeeling … It brings to [its] audience a quest for human understanding and reflects Kay’s profound feeling for humankind.”

The entire experience had two functions for its German public, in this instance the well-behaved and pristinely turned out inhabitants of Stuttgart. On the one hand they saw well-known heads of one of their country’s wealthiest corporations shaking hands with South African government representatives. This would serve the ends of yet another partner in the award venture – namely the Southern African initiative of German Business.

But if they thought their German country-folk were having a picnic in South Africa, Hassan’s work was present to tell an altogether different tale. Through his art the German public has now had a taste of the type of existence lived in Johannesburg. Gritty, large in format and highly impactful, Hassan has constructed a brilliant summary of the atmosphere and problems of the city today.

Two major installations form the core of the exhibition that will be seen in Pretoria later this year. The first is called Johannesburg by Day, the second, Johannesburg by Night.

Johannesburg by Night is the more disturbing of the two. In a darkened room two video screens show grainy close-ups of drugged street children, asleep. On the floor is a torn mattress and old blankets. Adjoining this is Johannesburg by Day.

This installation is an attempt at reconstructing the atmosphere and nature of the taxi mall on King George Avenue in Joubert Park. Large format photographs of commuters adorn a two-sided thoroughfare, and on the ground Hassan has literally thrown the debris of city life.

In the gallery – Stuttgart’s refurbished art nouveau gallery on the Schlossplatz – visitors found themselves dodging empty Fanta cans and beer bottles, paper plates, piles of old newspapers, Liquifruit cartons and a large open trunk full of ancient- looking spectacles.

In a city like Stuttgart, where one finds not a stitch of debris on the ground, visitors had to avoid the mess that begged the question of where the boundaries of art actually lie.

On the gallery walls Hassan has hung his series of mammoth collages – pasted elements he has snatched from Johannesburg’s outdoor billboards. Generally untitled, from advertising that usually relies on the beauty of its subjects, he has created portraits of non-existent individuals whose faces seem to speak of the stresses and strains of a city under threat.

Flight, an earlier work dating back to 1995, uses the same collage effect this time depicting what Hentshel has termed “a long refugee train”, behind a bicycle carrying a metal box overflowing with blankets, bags and other household objects. The work is clearly designed to comment on the tragic forced removals of the past.

In Germany, Hassan’s work seems to come from a planet on the far end of the universe. Especially in Stuttgart, home to DaimlerChrysler whose main headquarters resides in the industrial suburb of Sindelfingen. Here, in an architecturally austere mega-factory German families come to the company headquarters to buy their Mercedes Benzes.

After a single consultation they arrange finance and order their cars, that can be customised right down to smallest details. What follows is a two-hour tour of the robot-run factory, after which the family will fetch their new vehicle from the portal of the building where a photographer waits to capture them beaming beside their gleaming new toy.

Nearby, at the DaimlerChrysler corporate art department, vice president Hans Baumgart waits amid his world famous collection of non-figurative and constructivist art to receive his new acquisitions – commissioned work by David Koloane and Kay Hassan. These will be incorporated into the collection that already has major pieces by Andy Warhol, Robert Longo, Jeff Koons, Christo, Robert Rauschenberg and Nam June Paik.

These will be some of the first from the so-called “developing world” that will be brought into the collection of 600 art works that has been going since 1977.

So, Koloane and Hassan can certainly feel a sense of pride that their life’s efforts are finally being recognised. But this may come with a sense of ambivalence, for there is always an ideological tussle that comes about when the corporate world attempts to play a role in the nurturing of art.

As artists who began in poverty and graduated to using their self-taught skills to make some rather radical statements against apartheid, one wonders what they’d make of Baumgart’s words, that in collecting art for DaimlerChrysler, “PR considerations have an absolute priority here. Sponsorship is specifically used to cultivate a likeable identity and corporate image.”

One wonders whether that is also the image that these two artists are trying to cultivate.

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