Archive: Issue No. 51, November 2001

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SUE WILLISON'S DIARY

Kay Hassan and Antonio Ole
Installation view
'The Short Century', Chicago

Salah Hassan

Salah Hassan and Ghada Amer in Chicago

William Kentridge

An advertisement for William Kentridge's "Short Centuary" exhibition.

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh
The Yellow House, 1888

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh
Self-portrait dedicated to Paul Gaugin, 1888
Oil on canvas

Paul Gaugin

Paul Gaugin Self-portrait with a portrait of Bernard, 1888
Oil on canvas



Tuesday October 2

Fly to New York via Chicago. Am not anxious about flying until I am asked at Heathrow check-in for the first time ever to give a contact phone number of someone who should be called "in case of an emergency". Flying backwards through the hours, I reach New York in the late afternoon. The sight I have seen so often lately on CNN - the Manhattan skyline without the WTC towers - looks all wrong.

Wednesday October 3

An appointment with Barbara London at the MoMA today means a trip into Manhattan from Brooklyn ... There are flags everywhere - four mounted on silver aerials stuck onto the back of a police car; others hanging from high windows, or draped massively in the foyers of buildings with giant blowups of faces of the missing. Little ones are pasted in heart shapes in street level windows, with the message 'THANK YOU, NY FIRE DEPARTMENT'. I think about going downtown to the site of the devastation, but ... not today.

Thursday October 4

Take a train ride to Washington and spend the day with Elizabeth Harney, curator of contemporary art at the National Museum of African Art, and other key staff members, discussing the installation of my work The Last Supper Revisited, which will open here on January 12 2002. The piece consists of a round "table" covered with clear cast resin blocks containing fragments picked up in District Six in 1993, 12 years after the demolition of the last houses. There are also three windows/light boxes to be sited.

The National Museum of African Art, which originally collected traditional African objects (of which there are many splendid examples on view), has moved towards a policy of incorporating contemporary art into its holdings over the past few years. The current exhibition, which will run until January 2002, is called 'Encounters with the Contemporary', and includes work by South African artists Kim Berman, Willie Bester, Garth Erasmus, Gavin Jantjes, William Kentridge, Ezrom Legae, Karel Nel, Berni Searle, Mmakgabo Mmapula Sebidi, Gerard Sekoto, Cyprian Shilakoe, Durant Sihlali and Vuminkosi Zulu. The work on show, all part of the museum's permanent collection, is extremely diverse, ranging from an exquisite burnt orange ceramic vessel by Magdalene Odundo of Kenya to mixed media drawings by Godfried Donker, who recently exhibited at the Venice Biennale, and a typical three-dimensional wall piece from Willie Bester incorporating small painted wooden figures, wire mesh, tin cans and a whole lot more, entitled The Notorious Green Car (1995). The general impression given by the show is of a vigorous and energetic continent with a rich artistic heritage.

Friday October 5

Back in New York, I go over to the Axis Gallery in the Chelsea area where Berni Searle's work is on show. The work is quite well known to me but it looks great in the space. Gallery directors Gary and Lisa tell me the opening, postponed from September 11, was relatively quiet, but that it has led to an invitation to Berni to have a solo show at a major West Coast university. We talk about the attack on the World Trade Center, and Gary shows me an old invitation card from the artist who died in his WTC studio, Michael Richard. The card shows a golden sculpture of a black man in a flying suit, standing upright, his body being penetrated by small planes. Richard's subject was the way the role black fighter pilots played in World War II has been ignored, but in hindsight the image is chilling.

Monday October 8

If it's Monday it must be Chicago, and I am ensconced in a large suite in the Raphael Hotel, courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Tonight I am to give a lecture on contemporary South African art at the University of Chicago, and I spend most of the day sorting through slides. The bombing of Afghanistan started yesterday, and looking at slides of a Penny Siopis installation, which featured scatted domestic objects against a backdrop of Umtata, a reference to a botched SADF cross-border raid in which the wrong people were killed, I reflect that the students may well find some interesting parallels with current events. Regrettably, when I get to the university, neither of the two slide projectors I have requested for my presentation is working, the media department has already closed for the day, and eventually the lecture is cancelled.

Tuesday October 9

Today is the big day - the reason which brought me to the States. The Okwui Enwezor curated show, 'The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994', opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art last month, and tonight, as part of the programme around the exhibition, there is to be a panel discussion, with three artists showing slides of work. The other two are Ghada Amer of Egypt and Ibrahim El-Salahi, originally from Sudan, now living in England. The moderator is to be Salah Hassan of Cornell. Together with Suzanne Lampert, events co-ordinator for the museum, we meet in the morning, over coffee, to discuss the format of the event. The focus of the evening is to be a consideration of modernism and post-modernism in an African context.

The MOCA is an airy building with glass paneled walls overlooking Lake Michigan. The travelling William Kentridge show opens here later this month, and one of Kentridge's procession murals of enormous silhouetteures rendered in roughly torn black paper has already taken possession of the foyer. I am extremely curious to see 'The Short Century', which has already been shown in Munich and Berlin, and goes from here to PS1 in New York. Here, it occupies the mezzanine third floor and the whole of the fourth floor. And apparently this is only one third of the show - the rest is in storage, and will be seen only when the show reaches its final destination at PS1. Will the exhibition ever come to Africa? Apparently this is under consideration at the SANG in Cape Town, with the major problem, as always, being the vast expense incurred in moving the show from place to place.

A local academic told me over drinks last night that it was the most political art exhibition she had ever seen. The introduction to the show, on the third floor, is mainly documentary with photos by David Goldblatt, many from the Bailey archives, and old films of the handing over of power in countries such as Ghana. Political? I suppose it is, but in South Africa we long ago blurred the boundaries between culture, daily life and politics.

The right wing has been turned over to contemporary work, and in one long gallery, a Yinka Shonibare wall piece of small squares of African fabric interspersed with same size paintings flanks one of Shonibare´┐Żs headless figures from Victorian paintings, dressed also in African fabrics. At the end sit the inscrutable Butcher Boys of Jane Alexander. In another gallery, a collage piece by Kay Hassan runs down one wall which terminates in front of a wall constructed from found building materials by Antonio Ole. I think for American viewers, this show will serve as an important introduction to contemporary African art.

The evening panel discussion is well attended. Salah Hassan gives as erudite dissection of modernism as it occurs in Africa and contextualises the exhibition, and we panelists show examples of our work. Questions from the floor are more practical than theoretical - what are the opportunities for black artists in galleries in South Africa? In what way is my work African? My answer, that my work grows from my daily life, and I live in Africa, so that makes my work African, silences the questioner, but leaves me with the feeling I could have done better.

Wednesday October 10

Last day in the States. Ibrahim El-Salahi and I take a long walk down Michigan Avenue to the Art Institute of Chicago, where there is an extraordinary exhibition entitled 'The Studio in the South', the recreation of a period in the working lives of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin when Van Gogh persuaded Gaugin and Emil Bernard to join him in Arles, so the three might paint together in harmony in an atmosphere of mutual inspiration. Needless to say, the harmony was flawed from the start, and the great pleasure of this exhibition is tracking through room by room the development of the friendship between Van Gogh and Gaugin and the ensuing paintings. Comments - Van Gogh, for instance, complains that a particular Gaugin landscape is badly observed and lacks form - give a very human framework for the paintings, borrowed from collectors and institutions around the world, a collection which after this show, will surely never be hung together again. I feel privileged to have been here.

DIARY ARCHIVE

10.10.01
A visit to South Africa House in London


11.09.01
Joubert Park Project; Art Spaces in Gender Perspective, Germany


26.09.01
'Homeport' collaboration; Joubert Park Project; Omar Badsha

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