Africa’s relationship with art is a complicated and tumultuous one. A commonality among European colonial powers was their attempt to achieve dominance over their colonised subjects’ creativity. This was done in a number of ways, including by destroying local art objects and by excluding African art education from being taught in Western-style schools.
This year South Africa is hosting two of the continent’s largest international art fairs, in Johannesburg and Cape Town. When looking at the Cape Town Art Fair, which took place last weekend, it is important to think about how the role of art has changed in post-1994 South Africa.
The apartheid era was a time when formal fine arts studies were not largely accessible to black people, but a few spaces opened up for them to produce and learn about art.
Among these were the Community Arts Project, Rorke’s Drift and Polly Street art schools, and the exiled Medu Arts Ensemble, a group of cultural workers, including Thami Mnyele, who supported the South African struggle from Gaborone.
Outside these institutions for black art production, people in places such as Crossroads used plays to raise awareness of their ongoing housing crisis, Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness movement used street theatre and poetry to spread its message, and many other groups used art to address problems in society.
But, with the end of apartheid and the crawl to democracy, a rainbow nation narrative swept across the landscape and cast its glow over the art world too.
The art we have today is a strategically constructed practice, ushered in during the late 1980s and early 1990s perhaps most effectively by Albie Sachs — former Constitutional Court judge, ANC member, spokesperson for the de-weaponisation of art in South Africa and one of the guest speakers at the 2017 Cape Town Art Fair. This is not a coincidence.
In 1989, Sachs’s speech Preparing Ourselves for Freedom attempted to put an end to art being used as a weapon of the struggle and urged creative people to start looking at other themes and dealing with subjects — and their own subjectivity — in more “nuanced” ways.
Sachs essentially ushered in what is now celebrated as contemporary South African art.
The effect of this speech was complex — abstracting art from everyday creative practice and stripping it of its radical imaginative potential, and simultaneously forcing it into a system of capitalistic exchange that continues to be to the detriment of those making resistance art.
The art fair is symbolic of this, working as part of a system that ensures that creative practice is not weaponised as a tool to dismantle structures of oppression, but is preserved as a “symbol” that represents a false narrative of liberation.
In this sense, we have had a radical shift in our art practice and it is becoming more and more evident that such a shift is not mirrored by material, economic and political changes for the vast majority of the nation.
It is difficult to distinguish one fair from the next but, in short, commercial galleries rent booth spaces, betraying, by the number of square metres of their booth, how well they are selling. These booths take up most of the space, although small spaces are allocated to art publications, nonprofit art spaces and “cultural platforms” as well.
Few curated shows and artists’ projects operate in the fairs that are independent of the galleries.
Art fairs are not made for artists, but artists need to make a living. It would be of great service if art fairs were to accommodate the micro-artist economy. This includes residency opportunities, more open-call exhibitions and educational workshops that would create better bonds between artists, collectors, curators, educators and gallerists.
A lot of money is being used irresponsibly and more emphasis should be placed on spaces that prioritise education, skills-based learning and collaboration.
Well-intentioned though his speech may have been, what Sachs proposed in 1989 was that the window of time in which to address issues of representation in the art world organically would be prematurely closed.
So now, with the ownership of “cultural commodities” firmly in the hands of colonial descendants, who continues to benefit from events like the Cape Town Art Fair?
Thuli Gamedze is a Cape Town-based artist and writer