One of the ineffable truths about Johannesburg is its penchant for a robust intellectual life. This city, which boasts two universities, has a myriad of cultural spaces that give home to complex dialogues pertaining to the lives of ordinary folks and, indeed, the loftiest topics that occupy the minds of artists and cultural producers alike.
One such space is the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), which has, during this precarious time, developed a winter and summer school. Conceived by the curator and arts administrator Khwezi Gule, alongside myself and policy researcher and cultural historian Njabulo Zwane, the school was formed with the intention of fomenting a set of dialogues among a disgruntled community of thinkers.
It is a community that occasionally engages in disparate conversations to do with some of the curious visual cultural practices unfolding in South Africa’s contemporary art scene. These conversations often ponder the state of art, in its different manifestations, in relation to the political economy. These are discussions that cannot exist in conventional academic institutions, for they critique these very institutions and their colonial inheritances, while attempting to produce a lexicon that gives form to the imagining of structural and epistemic shifts.
One can see this kind of forum resonating with what is already happening in the city: spaces such as the Centre for the Less Good Idea, in Maboneng, or the more elusive NGO (“Nothing Gets Organised”), in Doornfontein, have strengthened the pulse of Johannesburg’s intellectual life. On the summer and winter ‘ founding principles, and their function as an ongoing forum, Gule says that, for him, “The idea was to simply create a space to ground our many discourses that have to do with black life — to understand where we are presently, our history and what conceptual tools we have available to construct our imagined futures.”
Of course, putting flesh to this idea demanded some serious thought — particularly about who would participate in this school and who would be willing to facilitate a session.
The immediate thrust was to suggest a diverse cohort of young practitioners in the arts who are doing interesting work or are simply yearning for rigorous engagement, such as Thuli Gamedze, and get them in conversation with an equally diverse group of art historians and critics, among them Mpho Matheolane, Thato Mogotsi, Kholeka Shange and Athi Joja, to see what kinds of issues call for urgent deliberation.
In the first iteration, which took place in the summer of December 2020, a series of conversations around black futurity, ideas of queerness and intersectionality, the aesthetics of insurgency, black art writing, and the photographic archive, among others, were presented and reflected on. These reflections yielded something: at the very least, they evinced the productiveness of such dialogues in enriching people’s practices.
This year’s iteration was undertaken with the same steam: it brought together more participants and facilitators who converged towards understanding some of the complexities underlying the endless states of violence pervading the country — particularly the violence that is gendered in its orientation. Although this iteration was short, taking place over two days, it solidified a truth: we need to keep thinking in communion to make sense of the volatile climate we are living through. The state of art practice in this country needs constant reflection.