/ 27 November 2020

How the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation promotes ‘slow’ looking

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Bharti Kher’s Warrior with Cloak and Shield, 2008 and Wangechi Mutu’s A Dragon’s Kiss Always End in Ashes, 2007, form part of the Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South exhibition. (Photos: Graham De Lacy)

An innovative approach to museum programming and even its role, status in society and delivery of content has never been more needed. Museums and nonprofit art foundations were in a state of crisis before the Covid-19 pandemic turned the art world virtual. 

Decolonisation agendas, non-existent acquisition or exhibition budgets and outdated collections that don’t promote contemporary values have landed these art temples in a sticky place. 

Perhaps the long gestation period preceding the opening of the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF), caused by red tape and building delays, gave its director, Clive Kellner, time to plot how a non-profit art exhibition space could be different. Perhaps during his tenure as director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (from 2004 to 2009) he had toyed with alternative ideas. 

Certainly, the JCAF flies in the face of museum conventions. It doesn’t house a collection (it draws from one housed elsewhere). The end goal of exhibitions are journals, relaying research and dialogues prompted by the exhibitions. Whereas most nonprofit, public-oriented foundations measure their relevance by foot traffic, Kellner isn’t interested in attracting swarms of people. 

The modest dimensions of the Saxonwold building — an old-tram repair station sensitively transformed by architect Pierre Swanepoel of Studiomas — may have predetermined this approach.  Fortunately, JCAF doesn’t depend on entry fees — the institution is privately funded by art collectors Gordon Schachat and Adi Enthoven. 

Relying on wide public appeal can limit the content of exhibitions, although being “relevant” can shift museum culture. 

The modest dimensions of the JCAF’s Saxonwold building may have predetermined the minimalist approach to exhibition making. (Photo courtesy of JCAF)

Think of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art exhibition, Home is Where the Art Is. In this exhibition, the private-public institution has done an about turn on the hard gatekeeping established when it opened, through a focus on internationally validated artists. Any artist or Sunday painter has art on their walls now. This was part of an effort to endear the museum to locals — the only visitors it can rely on presently. 

JCAF doesn’t need to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Long before the advent of Covid-19 and small gatherings becoming the norm, Kellner declared that visitors needed to book in advance because no more than five people were permitted to peruse an exhibition at one time. This may sound like a way of promoting exclusivity, but Kellner asserts that it is motivated by a desire to promote the act of looking. In his opinion, although hordes may traipse through famous museums in Europe and the United States, and take selfies next to their favourites, they rarely spend time luxuriating in the artworks. 

Continuing in this vein, the act of looking at JCAF is cultivated through the presentation and exhibition mode Kellner has adopted. Only a few artworks are shown. Take the  opening exhibition, Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South. Despite its all-encompassing title, which may suggest a grand survey show, it includes artworks produced by only five artists: Bharti Kher, born to Indian parents in Britain; Nandipha Mntambo and Berni Searle from South Africa; Wangechi Mutu, the Kenyan-born, US-based artist; and the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, who is also based in the US. There are only 11 artworks to see. 

Kellner maintains this will innately increase the quality of the time spent gazing at them. To ensure that there are few distractions, no visible texts introducing the exhibition or indicating the titles or artists’ names are part of the presentation. An app supported by beacon location technology delivers information about the artists and works to your phone, or one of the available tablets. 

Visiting a JCAF exhibition demands something of both the viewer and the curator. If you only show 11 artworks they need to be pretty amazing. This is hard to achieve in such a capacious industrial setting. Mutu’s Water Woman (2017) — a bronze mermaid sculpture — probably drowns a little in the huge gallery.  

Wangechi Mutu’s Water Woman (2017), seen alongside Bharti Kher’s Mother (2016) and Berni Searle’s Snow White (2001). (Photo: Graham De Lacy)

Kellner’s focus is on creating a rich subtext between the works. As such, this less-is-more approach turns the screws on the act of curating — each decision is more weighted and more open to scrutiny, or contemplation.  

The first barrier to this curatorial endeavour for Kellner was tackling black female identity as a white male curator, and viewers’ perception of how this may affect the dialogue. Kellner says he doesn’t believe his racial and gender identity should prove a hurdle, given our society is trying to transcend these limits. He was deeply aware of each artist’s practice and they were supportive of him curating this exhibition, he says.

The exhibition is divided into three (small) discrete themes, which are reflected spatially and in the arrangement of the artworks. The Fall — said to be “a realm where the human and natural worlds meet” is vocalised through Mutu’s A Dragon Kiss Always Ends in Ashes (2007). A collaged female figure is pictured entangled with a serpent or the titular dragon.   

The emphasis in the exhibition is perhaps less about “defining” female identity and more about identifying how these artists, from such different contexts, share common ideas, themes or aesthetic responses driven by their gender or in relationship to it. Some of these overlaps feel awkward. How could they not be: Is it possible for all four artists to have produced works that would coincide across three thematic strands? In places, Kellner’s curating may be too tight — and more about visual than conceptual links. 

The hybridity theme, which manifests in the fusion of animal and human iconography in the second curatorial conversation, is the most successful. To South Africans, this is a well-known aspect of Mntambo’s art; however, it is interesting to revisit this in the context of works by other female artists — Kher’s Self Portrait (2007), a fusion of baboon and human features, and Mutu’s mermaid. Searle and Neshat’s practices don’t fit in with this leitmotif, although the notion of duality is present in their work.   

Ironically, the title of Neshat’s double channel film work, Soliloquy (1999) impedes an “external dialogue”. 

Shirin Neshat’s Nida (Patriots) (2012)

Images on two screens are in “conversation”, following a female character (played by Neshat), who is locked into a dual existence. She is seen exploring two worlds, Western and Middle Eastern, yet arriving in the same place. This is the most compelling work in the exhibition. It is clever, visually slick, exploits the film medium and is the most physically immersive. Do we need to be deprived of too much stimuli to really see? Maybe. 

Kher’s life-size sculpture of her ageing Mother (2016) — an imperfect naked female body laid bare — challenges the canon of sculpture that either monumentalises men or objectifies young female nudes, but it is right on the money for these times. 

Older women of colour are finally being “seen” and celebrated.  Superficially, this work appears similar to Searle’s Snow White (2001), a video work showing white flour falling onto her naked body. Does this work automatically deal with gender because she is naked? The dialogue about race is usually the focus. 

Does this small group of artworks prompt contemplation, the desired outcome of the exhibition? Do they prompt new questions? 

Certainly, the exhibition advances new relationships between artists from elsewhere that many South Africans don’t know well. Whatever the flaws or failings, JCAF — with Kellner at the helm — is at least trying something new. 

Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South is showing until February 2021. Book online at jcaf.org.za.  

This article was produced as part of a partnership between the Mail & Guardian and the Goethe-Institut focusing on various aspects of innovation