Cape Town, Monday September 3
I spent last week in Johannesburg working with co-curators Bie Venter and Dorothee Kreutzveldt on my part of the Joubert Park Project, which will open on October 13. Working with a great group of students from Wits, we are extending the 'From the Inside' series, in which people living with AIDS write short, signed messages which are transferred to public walls. More about that soon when I go back up to Johannesburg.
I am leaving for Bielefeld in Germany tomorrow, where I will be presenting a survey of opportunities, educational and professional, for women artists in Cape Town at a conference at the University of Bielefeld entitled 'Art Spaces in Gender Perspective: An international comparison of professionalization strategies by women artists and their presence in the art world'. Trouble is, I have very little time to get ready. On Saturday, I visited the three main commercial galleries in Cape Town - João Ferreira Fine Art, the Association for Visual Arts and the Bell-Roberts Art Gallery - asking each for a breakdown of exhibitions by gender. Took slides. Today, my first interview is with Marilyn Martin of the South African National Gallery. Marilyn believes there is no discrimination against women in the art world here, but cites a very different situation in Europe and the States, where all the major art institutions are headed by men.
Next stop is the Community Arts Project in Woodstock to interview the four young women students who make up half of the Foundation Year course. CAP is a Cape Town institution, the one place where it is possible to get a tertiary art education no matter your educational background. The students pay for their annual fees by putting in 100 hours of work like cleaning and cooking at nearby community shelters. A drawing class is coming to an end, and I talk to and photograph the four, asking each about their aspirations and expectations of life as an artist. At Greatmore Studios nearby, I meet and talk to the artist in residence from Durban, Gaby Ngcobo, and local artist Janet Ransome.
Tuesday September 4
Luckily there is an empty seat next to me on the Cape Town to Johannesburg leg of the flight, and I am able to spread my things out and go through the three sheets of slides and clip, mounting the ones I will use for my presentation.
Bielefeld, Wednesday September 5
Transfer at Amsterdam for a Dusseldorff flight. Such is the boring nature of air travel that it is quite exciting to be given breakfast in a calico bag rather than on a plastic tray. At Dusseldorff, the myth of the ever-punctual German train service is punctured immediately when it is announced that the train for Bielefeld is running 25 minutes late. Once on board, I gaze out at the green countryside through the rain. Closing my eyes for a second I wake with a start as the train stops, and see the board on the platform reads 'Bielefeld'. Grabbing my luggage, I practically fall off the train as the doors are closing. Prior information sent out to conferees has informed us that the hotel Movenpick is directly opposite the station. Where, exactly? For half an hour I plod around trying to engage someone who can tell me where to find this seemingly non-existent hotel before going back to the station and discovering this is not Bielefeld but Hamm. The platform board merely indicated the direction of the line.
Some hours later, it is a relief finally to be settled in the Movenpick. At six that evening, all the delegates will meet downstairs and travel to the Kunsthalle for the first event on the programme: Dr Suely Rolik of São Paulo will talk on the Latin American artist Lygia Clark, an artist who died in relative obscurity but whose work is receiving increasing recognition on the international circuit. Her video shows Clark in a performance ritual with an eminent young art critic, who is made to undress and lie down as she subjects him to the stroking and rubbing of his body with blown up plastic bags and other bits and pieces, transformed by the power of the artist into shamanic objects. At the end of the performance, he scrambles to his feet looking chastened and a little nonplussed.
Thursday September 6
In her introductory paper, conference organiser Dr Irene Below sets out the purpose of the workshop: there has been a shift in Germany from a Western perspective to a more global one, yet there is still ignorance about what goes on away from the centres. This research project is intended to make an international comparison of the situation for women artists. Katy Deepwell, founder and editor of n.paradoxa, "the only international feminist art journal" (check it out at http://web.ukonline.co.uk/n.paradoxa/index.html) gives an extremely dense paper which sets an intellectual tone for the workshop. The title: 'Cultural knowledge, genealogies and the problem of geo-political location(s) producing ethonocentrism(s) in feminist theory'. "Art criticism has the most crucial role to play in securing knowledge," says Deepwell, adding that "the language of art criticism continues to discriminate against the work of women". Setting a definition for a "professional artist", Deepwell cites being included in biennales and international shows, having work acquired by international institutions, and most importantly having one's work engaged with in art journals by respected critics.
Barbara Schmidt and Manuela Barth from Munich in 'The Global Art Player' point up how terms such as "globalisation" get subverted as new hooks for the media. Dr Eliana Simone discusses the situation in São Paulo, and I give my paper on Cape Town.
In the evening, we visit the current exhibition at the Kunsthalle, 'The Mysterious Woman - Surrealism and Femininity'. Curator Angela Lampe's choices have stretched from Max Ernst and Man Ray to Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas. Most people are familiar with Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined teacup and saucer in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A discovery here is Oppenheim's pale grey suede gloves, laid side by side and face down, carefully stitched on the back with pink raised threads indicating all the veins of the hand.
Friday September 7
Most of the day is given over to discussion of the situation for women artists in Europe - Susanne Albrecht on Bielefeld, Fenja Braster on Dusseldorf, Dr Joanna Hoffmann on Poznan in Poland. Living and working conditions in Poland sound quite similar to South Africa - there is little discrimination against women, but the situation is very difficult for all artists. Dr Anda Rottenberg speaks on Warsaw, and Dr Anna Marie Freybourg on Berlin. In the last paper of the day, there is a change in tone when Sheila Pepe gives a breezy rundown of the New York scene in a paper entitled 'Notes from New York: The City of Ambition'. In New York, it seems, connections are everything when it comes to getting on in the art world.
This evening there is a visit to Artists Unlimited, an artists' collective which provides living and working space for artists, and where Cape Town artist Bridget Baker spent time in residence last year. A highlight is a presentation by ART AT WORK, performance artists Janis Somerville and Pip Cozens who travel the world involving large crowds in simple performances about issues such as racism, or ecology.
Saturday September 8
The final part of the workshop - a round-up and evaluation. Organiser Vera Schorr has prepared a lengthy questionnaire for women artists to fill in, calling for details of education, experience, exhibitions and support in the art world. The discussion of this questionnaire and its ultimate value takes up much of the morning - I am on the side that thinks artists get impatient filling in questions when there is no clear idea of how the information will ultimately be beneficial. Dr Below takes all challenges in a good spirit, however, and the workshop ends on a positive note. It was extremely inspiring and stimulating to meet the other women who have come from so many different situations. Plans for future action will take time.