Amongst the sometimes overwhelming and incredibly dense line up of themes and panel discussions at the third Black Portraiture[s] conference held recently at the Turbine Hall in Newtown, Johannesburg, were those which on the surface, and sometimes within the content, did not seem to achieve their purpose but perhaps missed their mark altogether — in the hope of being multidisciplinary in approach.
One such panel had to do with what was themed as “Art History and Black Empowerment” – a topic which given the recent and ongoing politics on university campuses around South Africa, particularly the calls to decolonise the curriculum within the universities, an immediate expectation would have been one of a rich and robust discussion regarding what it means exactly, to speak of black empowerment in relation to the field of art history.
It came as no surprise then that during the brief and heated questions and answers session at the end of the panel presentations, a member of the small audience asked, “what’s the point?”. It was a harsh question, especially given how it was likely directed at one of the panellists whose presentation was around the quantitative aspects of the art market and how race and gender play into the way the market functions.
I, however, interpreted the question as directed to the whole panel itself as it was within that context that I found it difficult to understand what the panel aimed to achieve. I had attended with the expectation that the various politics and issues that play themselves out in the field of history of art would be discussed and debated but there was not a single art critic, historian or head of an art history department on the panel, local or international.
There were two sociologists – African-American Patricia Banks (she of the aforementioned art market focus) and a white German, Cornelia Knoll, whose paper was on intersectionality within arts practices in Germany and South Africa especially where white curators are concerned.
The third panellist, Elizabeth Colomba, who thankfully, was an artist, presented on the “beauty canon” and the redefining thereof by speaking to some of her own work drawn from but simultaneously critiquing western classical paintings and their representation of white beauty and the notion of the ideal aesthetic form.
Colomba was the closest in my opinion, to realising the theme of the panel discussion but even her presentation could not live up to what was implied and promised by it. That none of the panellists was South African only made things that more disappointing because it meant that we, the audience, could not get a sense of what is contemporarily (and locally) happening within history of art in relation to the theme at hand.
Topical issues such as the continued Western ideological domination of the field, even in the face of dealing with contemporary African art and arts writing, what is meant by decolonising art history amongst other academic fields and of course the transformation of institutions of art and art history were never raised. It was, in many ways, a let-down to experience that panel discussion amid a conference that was about highlighting not only the creative expressions and assertions of blackness but the experience of it.
The conference, for all its ambition and significance could have surely been better structured and aligned in some of its content and panels. For example, Patricia Banks could have been on a separate panel about ‘art, race and capital’. Knoll on one dealing with curatorial challenges and problem areas of representation and lastly, Colomba’s presentation could have been better reinforced and given greater breadth with presentations by a black art critic and art historian dealing, from their own perspectives, with the very issues that she was raising – challenging and redefining existing structures, ways of seeing and ways of being seen – essentially adding substantial meaning to black portraitures in their various manifestations and localities as the conference (we were told) entails.