Discovering and recovering

The launch of the much-anticipated and much-delayed art event so long promised by the Cape Africa Platform (CAPE) could be seen to have been framed by two rather remarkable speeches: one that was made outside of the official context of CAPE 07 by Ronald Suresh Roberts; and the other that officially opened the show at Khayelitsha’s Lookout Hill last Saturday, by Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan.

The official series of exhibitions scheduled for the next month in and around greater Cape Town includes what the organisers call “The Lions of Contemporary African Art”: 40 significant and respected visual artists from Africa. Funding shortfalls led to a radical cutting back and scaling down of the planned exhibition and it is of great credit to the team that saw the event through to its present form — especially the only remaining member of the original curatorial team, Gabi Ngcobo — given how easy it would be to argue for outright cancellation (which many people seemed to expect). Operating from 10 venues, with numerous ongoing cultural events and strongly supported by X-CAPE, a fringe programme with about 300 participants showing in 100 venues, there can be no doubt that Cape Town is currently supping on a rich “Cultural Soup Afrique”, as CAPE brands it. There are also many more art and cultural events and shows happening further to the “official” fringe, which will contribute to the pot.

With a well-coordinated branding campaign, the city and its environs are bedecked with yellow-and-black banners and posters and with colour- coordinated (and highly symbolic) life-vests outside each venue. One suspects that even the most cynical critic of CAPE 07 cannot fail to acknowledge the cultural visibility of art in Cape Town at the moment.

But, more than the art itself, what struck me most as I went around the various events — whether formally, informally or coincidentally associated with this exposition — was the way art was being referenced, spoken about and used to discuss something utterly different than its subject or context. The two opening speeches mentioned will serve to illustrate what I mean. The first took place on March 21, before the official start of CAPE 07, effectively serving as a “curtain-raiser” at the expanded SMAC Gallery in Stellenbosch. Opening the show of four young conceptualists whose surnames provided the show’s title: Gimberg/Nerf/Sacks/Young, Ronald Suresh Roberts irritated, enraged or otherwise stirred up a large proportion of the almost exclusively white audience.

Not only did he achieve this by speaking for more than half an hour (an endurance event normally reserved for speeches at the South African National Gallery) but his address also seemed to make no direct reference to either the art on show or even visual culture in general.

Perhaps more than the length and intellectual rigour of his speech, the greatest irritation (to judge by the slow hand-clapping and general burble of mumbled outrage heard from many quarters of the “respectable”, almost exclusively white and middle-class audience while he was speaking) was his frequent and pointed references to current South African politics and the pains he took to critique a certain pathology among the “liberal” bulwark, which he argued still controls so much of and in South Africa.

While I have no doubt that some who were jangling their jewellery at his speech simply did not get it, I’m sure that most of the respectably outraged mob knew that he was pointing the finger at them. In presenting a self- fufilment of the worst of what they have probably heard about Suresh Roberts, he was directly answering the question: “What is/is there/can one speak of an avant-garde today?”. This question was the basis for a very fine “reader” of original texts put together by Kathryn Smith to accompany the show. In forcing many in his audience to enact their assumptions “of how an art exhibition should be opened” and their disassociation of politics and art, he certainly revealed the terrain upon which any “avant-garde” would have to fight.

CAPE 07 was officially opened by the arts and culture minister the following Saturday at the Civic Centre at Lookout Hill in Khayelitsha. At times, his speech threatened to be drowned out by the sound emanating from a wedding that was taking place at the same time in another part of the venue (a confluence that Mokena Makeka, chairperson of the board of CAPE, could not resist pointing out was particularly apposite).

His speech frequently drew on historical examples and emphasised the necessity for revision of accepted versions of art history, what he called a process of “discovering, uncovering and recovering” the history of this country and the continent, with particular focus “as it pertains to art”. Jordan referred to art institutions that tend to be exclusionary or, at the very best, uninviting or unwelcoming. He took this particular opportunity to note that most South African school learners have probably never been inside an art gallery and repeated the old, and I suspect unreliable, statistic that the majority of people think our major art galleries are court houses or something of the sort. I don’t think the audience assembled for his speech would have offered up much opposition to his position that museums and galleries must attract a new clientele. That cannot be doubted. It is clear that this motivation is key in the development and construction of the CAPE project.

But he then went on to indicate an unwillingness to pander to “the usual suspects: the kind of people you find in our galleries today”. I am not sure who he was referring to by this phrase — whether staff or visitors or both — but I hope that this position indicates a shift that will see government­-sponsored projects such as the educational programme of the Luanda art triennale, which saw literally thousands of schoolchildren visit at least one contemporary exhibition. That sort of programme would undoubtedly bring a new clientele into our museums and galleries and expose a new generation to art and its possibilities.

Andrew Lamprecht is a lecturer in the theory and practice of art at the Michaelis School of Fine Art

The details

X-CAPE is an artist-led programme of activities by artists and cultural practitioners from across Cape Town, set to coincide with the CAPE 07 art event that runs from March 24 to May 2. X-CAPE showcases more than 280 artists in 60 venues across 14 suburbs in the Cape Town Unicity. The programme has 86 visual art exhibitions, 50 films, 15 new media/multimedia works, five workshops, 25 performances and 30 participating collectives.

There are three Open Day Circuits. The first starts at 10am on Saturday March 31 and includes venues in Langa and Gugulethu, where there is work shown under the banner Gugulective, and an after-party including performances by DJ Planet Earth, hip-hop and spoken word by Elnino and up-and-coming poet Khanyisile Mbongwa.

Exhibitions in Khayelitsha include Damien Schumann’s Dialogues, and in Stellenbosch see Lien Botha’s Landscapes of Love. The open day also features roving performance interventions.

For details, maps, addresses and the full programme, visit www.capeafrica.org/xcape_programme.html or Tel: 021 488 3064.

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