Gatekeeping, knowledge and access to resources deemed main issues in black art

Nelson Makamo says he neither wants to be named the poster child of anything nor is he forming a movement. But still, a fallout emanating from general comments the artist made in the media about the relationship between galleries and artists has forced a kind of resolution about how he sees himself in the art space.

“One of the things I got to understand is that when you get to any industry, you have either got to be on the left side or the right side of it,” he says from a restaurant in Parkview, Johannesburg. “Obviously it was a shocking experience and more than anything else I do not want to find myself in a situation where I am working with someone and they feel compromised by me.”

The artist, known for his large-scale portraits depicting young black children in a variety of expressions, has parted ways with the Everard Read Gallery. In an article in Destiny Mag, Makamo was quoted as saying that contracts between artists and galleries amount to “exploitation,” although in the quote he was careful enough not to name any galleries by name.

Still, it is a situation Makamo is not willing to dwell on, steering me instead to his life outside of the gallery, which consists of a number of philanthropic projects involving schools. “I just felt that it’s about time that we as artists do something outside of the studio,” he says. “I have always used kids as the subject matter of my work, so I felt that it would be appropriate to [work with them], as someone fortunate enough to make a living out of something I am passionate about.”

Makamo says that he and some art collectors he has built relationships with over the years, have set up a philanthropic scheme that involves building murals, libraries or even playing facilities. “One of the interesting things about the art world is that you meet all sorts of people.”

A graduate of Artist Proof Studio, Makamo says he has got to the position he is in terms of his commercial success by looking to improve his own work rather than using other artists as a reference. “I would say it was studying my own work and also listening to the comments of people, be it on Facebook or wherever, but people who were not in the art world.”

Makamo also has a mentor, an art advocate with a career outside of the art world, whom he regards as a fatherly figure. “He always says to me that when you approach your concept, always approach it with respect,” he says.

While others have viewed Makamo’s work as innocuous, there are those who have pointed to the political underpinnings of his insistent “normalising [of] the black image.”

While Makamo consideres his work somewhat apolitical, it is interesting that his words have thrust him in the sphere of parallel statements about a need for a realignement of forces or structural adjustments within the art world.

Speaking in his personal capacity, Black Mark Collective member Khwezi Gule says recent talks such as the Black Artists/White Labels panel discussion held by the organisation a few weeks ago in the wake of Black Modernisms, a controversial exhibition recently held at the Wits Arts Museum and curated, chiefly, by Anitra Nettleton, will not amount to a severe dent in the status quo, as the problems faced are systematic in nature.

Art critic Lwandile Fikeni, writing in the City Press, pointed out that Black Modernisms amounted to the erasure of black artists by commission or omission. Nettleton in her response agreed that she may have neglected some pivotal artists and then proceeded to speak of how, in her view, she had played a large role in transforming the arts curriculum at Wits University.

“The problems we [as black art practitioners] confront in the art world are those of knowledge, access and resources,” says Gule. “Problems of knowledge are epistemic, dealing with how we approach subjects to come to an understanding of them. In some cases you find the proliferation of pseudoscience, based on prejudices around gender, race and ethnicity.

“Around access, there are problems of gatekeeping, where people set up mechanisms to exclude. Around resources, you find that it is not necessarily the case that people in institutions have resources. What they have is access to resources. So you won’t get funding for projects unless you have access to funding bodies. If we as Black Mark had those resources we’d have conversations and publications every day, for instance.”

Sharlene Khan, the most forthright speaker on gatekeeping at the Black Artists/White Labels panel discussion, said that further work needed to be done, including foundational work and interventions at all levels in institutional systems as the above issues needed multiple interrogations.

“A number of black scholars have added their voices and support to this debate and that creates pressure towards the acknowledgment of the problem. Acknowledgement is not solution though. These debates can be traced in written discourses since the late 80s and since 1994, little has changed fundamentally.”

Khan says these debates reared their head in 2004 when 10 Years 100 Artists came out. “In the curatorial discussions that the book hosted, the racial dynamics of such projects were dissected, and the fact that most white curators went with white artists was ‘invisible’. “The myth used to be that there were not enough black scholars and artists but in the past two decades so many black scholars, curators and artists have come up that its pure fallacy to claim one doesn’t have enough expertise and that white interlocutors and categorisations are still needed. But that myth has come up strongly again in that exhibition [Black Modernisms].”

Khan says the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements have given a different impetus to these debates as there is added pressure from students, whereas in the past, it was largely black academics calling for systems of whiteness to change at universities.

Professor Anitra Nettleton, curator of Black Modernisms, refused to comment, saying she did not want to sound defensive.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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