‘Of Blood, Sweat and Data’: Everyone goes to the mall

Throughout its many iterations since 2008, Johannesburg’s leading art fair has maintained its prominence on the local contemporary art calendar. It was rebranded as FNB Art Joburg in 2019 under the leadership of entrepreneur Mandla Sibeko, and boasts a selection committee comprising the country’s most prominent galleries — whose collective share of the art market looms largest. These factors mean making the annual pilgrimage to Sandton Convention Centre seemed almost mandatory for many art world insiders. 

The overtly capitalist construct of the art fair model itself is widely accepted and a critique of its proliferation in the global art ecosystem is no longer pertinent. It is what it is. Artists make art objects for consumption. The art market functions as a point of encounter with, and the dissemination of, said art objects. The art fair is the marketplace, in which artists, gallerists, consumers and collectors participate enthusiastically. As such, it seems futile to imagine a discursively elevated notion of the art fair and its tropes.

But something interesting happened to the model itself during the economic anxiety brought on by the pandemic. As in many other industries, the word of the moment was “pivot”. Suddenly, there was no such issue as the “digital divide”, at least not for those engaged in the global art market and its machinations. Curators became social media strategists and galleries became virtual environments, in which the art object was rendered through the online zeitgeist of viewing rooms and digital exhibitions. 

This year FNB Art Joburg has taken on a hybrid form that attempts to activate new audiences beyond its online iteration. The Open City programme, which will run from 28 to 31 October, aims to encourage a wider public to visit participating galleries and arts organisations, mostly based in the suburbs of Rosebank, Hyde Park and Parktown North. The idea is that pop-up contemporary art exhibitions and other curated content will be peppered around various locations in this well-resourced part of the city. 

Jordan and Nadine, 2018. (Photo: Lindokuhle Sobekwa)

This, of course, raises the question of what exactly is meant by this proposition of an “open city”? The politics of access can barely be unpacked in the context of an art fair, given the limits of criticality that the model tends to perpetuate by design. Whereas previously, the fair’s traditional location was firmly ensconced in the commerce hub that is Sandton City, one has to wonder to what extent this new formation is intended to make the art event economy more accessible to a more diverse public.

This was one of the questions I posed to artist and curator Musa Nxumalo (founding director of Studio Nxumalo) who was invited by the FNB Art Joburg team to present a pop-up photography exhibition that will form part of the Open City programme. Developed in collaboration with his long-time mentor and art educator, Michelle Loukidis (of Through The Lens Collective), the exhibition Of Blood, Sweat and Data: On People, Place and Photography is being shown in the former Puma clothing store at The Zone in Rosebank Mall. It will feature portraiture by 10 South African photographers who are at different stages of their careers. 

Thematically, the curators aimed to “consider the social significance of documentary portrait photography — and its power to shift perceptions through the simple, and yet layered act of seeing and portraying each other”.

Both Nxumalo and Loukidis express a genuine desire to elevate photography as contemporary art practice. Loukidis recognises the challenges of introducing the work of a current generation of photographers to the local art market. For her, what becomes of real value is “the education of the viewer … a lot of people still look at photography as secondary to traditional art or fine art”.

Yenza Kwenzeke, 2019. (Photo: Nonzuzo Gxekwa)

Photography is apparently perceived to be a difficult medium to sell, given our social relationship to image-making and its ubiquitous consumption. Thus, the formal exhibition of photography specifically, offers an opportunity for viewers to experience the image more reflexively.

Additionally, as Loukidis emphasises, the works put together for this exhibition offer a moment to think through “how photography looks at Johannesburg”.

So what does an exhibition presented in the context of a mall do? I’m intrigued by Nxumalo’s perspective on this, noting as he does that “there’s a certain level of bravery that we had to show in our selection of artists”. 

Rather than showcasing a well-known, established photographer whose sale of works would be assured in any context, for Nxumalo it became more meaningful to introduce to the market a group of photographers whose work may seem less prominent, but whose persistent and prolific exploration of Johannesburg wrestles with its sociopolitical complexities.

Njabulo S., 2018. (Photo: Tshepo Moloi)

It would be disingenuous on the part of the curators — who both head independently run arts organisations — to ignore the dominance of the commercial market in the South African art ecosystem. The long-existing critique of the lack of sustainable alternative and artist-led spaces remains central to any conversation about the problem of access and the conditions of artistic practice in Johannesburg in particular.

For many early-career artists hoping to catch a break, representation by one of the top-tier local galleries continues to be the primary aspiration. It offers a kind of legitimation of their practice in a market that applies all kinds of seemingly disparate criteria for accreditation. It is a value system that few artists can sufficiently comprehend, let alone navigate. Categories such as “emerging”, “African” or “contemporary” are used as specific markers that denote the lens through which the material saliency of an artist’s work should be perceived. 

The heightened relevance of art organisations such as Studio Nxumalo and Through The Lens Collective is self-evident in the ways in which they function as spaces of disruption and interrogate the existing hierarchies with which artists have to contend. They are necessary counter-spaces in which artists, curators and thinkers can imagine new ways of working.

As Loukidis puts it: “There is this amazing freedom in that we can work with our photographers in a particular way that is really punk … It has an attitude and it has a bit of anarchy in it … it has a bit of a simmering protest about it.” 

The “punk” reference is used rather loosely when we consider the organisations’ current participation in the commerce-facing construct that is the aforementioned art fair model. But that’s precisely the kind of ambivalence, and even discomfort, that occurs when working outside economic and institutional power. There is a push and pull in the degree to which organisations locate themselves in proximity to the market. The terms with which such organisations and the people who run them participate in the market become the real moment of negotiated criticality. Ultimately, everyone goes to market — and everyone goes to the mall.

Of Blood, Sweat and Data: On People, Place and Photography will run from 28 to 31 October at Shop NM10, The Zone in Rosebank. Visiting hours are: 10am to 7pm, 28 to 30 October; and 31 October, 10am to 4pm.

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