Archive: Issue No. 71, July 2003

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Restate the focus to shape local polemic
by Ntone Edjabe

You are "looking at the condition of contemporary black visual arts in South Africa," you say. 'Condition' is a good word. Sums it up.

There is such a thing as an 'art world' in South Africa and contemporary black visual arts practice is generally located outside of it. So an enquiry by ArtThrob - from the steep hills of the 'art world' - into what's happening with black visual artists has the predictability of an ethno-gaze. Others have similarly wondered why the 'great South African novel' (by a black writer) is so late in coming. It still isn't here, they claim, or have investigated the 'new generation of black filmmakers'. One constant remains: all these enquiries originate from the establishment, and more often than not act as insurance policy in the status quo.

A more relevant question in these times would be on the role of visual arts in contemporary South Africa. As any casual observer would note, in this country there is a general lack of interaction between artistic creation and other areas of intellectual activity. How many writers, philosophers, mathematicians are interested in the paintings, installations, videos produced on their doorstep (or stoep)? And, conversely, how many contemporary artists are equipped with knowledge to participate in current debates? There seems to have been a brutal divorce between the creators of contemporary art and the intellectual elite - and I'm not talking about university graduates here.

Divorce because the role of art in the history of nationalist struggles in Africa tells us it wasn't always so. Which brings me back to the 'art world' and its self-proclaimed gatekeepers. That white South Africans dominate the local 'art world' is self-evident. What isn't often acknowledged is that it is only a local branch of the international 'art world', itself dominated by curators and gallery owners in the west (both black and white). And only artists who have acquired international notoriety can deal with the headquarters.

The struggle for young artists to enter the 'art world', i.e. the minds and dinner parties of reviewers, curators and gallery owners, continues to be frustrated by the expectations these connoisseurs have of "contemporary black visual arts in South Africa" at this time.

It is thus urgent to move discourse on contemporary art in South Africa beyond terms such as 'exposure', or anthropological studies on the status of black visual arts. We need a closer interaction between artistic creators and intellectuals in this country to scare away the ghosts of cultural domination.

Ntone Edjabe is editor of Chimurenga, a journal of new critical writing and thought published in Cape Town.