/ 15 September 2017

Rookie review: I’m made out of plastic here

Self-esteem for Girls by Chemu Ng'ok was showcased in a stand-alone booth put up by her gallery
Self-esteem for Girls by Chemu Ng'ok was showcased in a stand-alone booth put up by her gallery

I support the commodification of art because artists should be able to earn a living from their creations. It’s the only way art can be taken seriously by the likes of my parents, who always ask: “How will you survive, doing just that?”

That said, I think this idea has messed me up. I have planted a seed that makes me believe that art consumption is a privilege, one held exclusively by those who can afford to buy it. No one told me to feel this way. I just thought it was a thing because no one from a background like mine was interested in the arts.

Until I attended the 2017 FNB Joburg Art Fair last Friday, my experience with fine art was secondary. I know what I know through basic Google searches, Instagram posts and what friends tell me. I’m a middle-class black young ’in, living in The Orchards, a predominantly black suburb in northern Pretoria, with my parents and siblings. I have always wanted to involve myself with the arts with the same intensity and depth that my family devoted to their professional fields.

Applying for an arts internship at the Mail & Guardian earlier this year became the key to some kind of hands-on learning. Until now, I had stayed away from such spaces because I felt as though I did not speak the right language, know the artists and understand the work. I believed this was reserved for the elite.

So at my first art fair I convinced myself that the only way I would survive was by putting up a front. I attempted to look confident, intrigued, aware, nonchalant and important like everyone around me. I’m an expert at bending and conforming to fit into people’s preconceived moulds of who I should be, because I grew up in a home with conservative parents and domineering older brothers. That taught me how to censor myself and adapt to my family’s version of Zaza to keep the peace at home.

When I enter the intimidating new space last Friday, the more plastic I wrap myself in, the safer the real Zaza feels.

The first thing I feel when I enter the Sandton Convention Centre is how cold the room is. Whoever is in charge of regulating the temperature probably knows that my plastic would melt in a warmer setting.

No one seems to be making use of the fold-up Art Fair guide we’re all given at the door so neither do I. Instead, I follow my editor Milisuthando and colleague Kwanele’s lead. On entering, we turn right to see the work of Peju Alatise (this year’s winner of the FNB Art prize) only to be met by an empty white space. I thought I was too early to see the showstopper but later learnt it was being held by customs at OR Tambo airport.

The next sense to demand my attention is smell. The strong fragrances of white wine and paint dance in my nose as I take in what is to be my territory for the next four hours. High, white walls section off a number of open-plan booths. You would think this would make navigating around the space easier but it does nothing for me. I lose count of how many booths there are. There is so much to see with very little direction on how to do it.

Like the houses in The Orchards, each booth has its own way of doing things. Some offer me wine on entry but others are guarded by hosts who do their best to ignore my existence. And, because of the lack of a pattern, I am unsure about how to enter each space.

I am drawn to the booth of the London-based Tyburn Gallery because it showcases Fire with Fire by Lady Skollie, who I am familiar with through my best friend and Instagram, but the reception I receive does not match my enthusiasm. Compare this with my reception at Lalela, which works with at-risk youth in educational arts. I have an opportunity to write down my thoughts on a sticky note to help to reveal the project’s hidden message on the canvas in the centre of the booth.

[The Lalela booth at the FNB Joburg Art Fair (lalelaproject Instagram)]

The only thing that outweighs the galleries present and artwork on display, in number, are the conversations I watch people take part in. Almost everyone I come across is shaking hands, making small talk, arguing about the meaning behind a painting, clinking their almost empty wine glasses and exchanging contact details — except me.

Other than a few uniform-clad schoolchildren in groups, it feels as though everyone here knows that this is my first time. Maybe I’m overdoing it. I think it has something to do with my clothes: a sheer black dress over a black T-shirt dress with black platform sneakers and more make-up than I would comfortably wear on a Friday afternoon. They all know I don’t know what I’m doing, at least it feels that way.

At some point, I make a turn that results in me losing my colleagues. Being officially alone forces me to make an effort to be present, to take something away from all of this, because it’s what I should do. I keep chanting: “Soon my plastic will expire and the courage to do this will leave with it” in an attempt to build up the strength to start a conversation or ask a question. This does not help. Instead, I fall deeper into the abyss of plasticity.

I do my best to hide this by making my way through the passages, always looking left then right. Looking for something to catch my eye, a point of exhalation, a reason to sit down and collect myself. On my second attempt at going through the entire space, I find Self-esteem for Girls by Chemu Ng’ok, a Rhodes alumnus, in a stand-alone booth put up by her gallery, Smac.

In her painting, The Boundary Wall, she makes use of multiple colours and what seems to be different frames of the same subject. The painting and her other work illustrates how my internal conflict is subtly causing an external tension.

I lose sense of who I decided to be that day. It is no longer about Plastic Zaza at the art fair. It is about being allowed to view products of artists’ intimate thoughts. The chatter becomes meaningless buzzing and my plastic protection melts off me. It feels okay to be alone. It becomes okay not to know what I am doing and to be doing this on my own.