Archive: Issue No. 71, July 2003

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Presenting art through black eyes
by Sipho Mdanda

When I was asked to assist in curating 'The Sondela Show', to be held in Boston next year, I felt very honoured and nervous at the same time. The reason: it is about time black curators are given the chance to showcase their skills and knowledge of South African art, particularly as this art is seen through their 'black eyes'.

Curatorship has traditionally been an exclusive domain of white privilege in South Africa. Whites still dominate educational art institutions, museums, art galleries and cultural shows, to the exclusion of the majority of black people. This behaviour has created an ''them' and us' syndrome. When are we going to cross this unpalatable divide?

This raises a question: to whose advantage are this small elite monopolizing the art and cultural activities of a multi-racial country? In 1996 the education minister compelled tertiary institutions to employ more black academics with the aim of transforming the very institutions that have discriminated against the black learners. This was rejected by the white academics as a disaster with unparalleled consequences. They claimed the quality of education would go down and so forth.

To me personally, the debate had nothing whatsoever to do with the standards of education being compromised. Individuals had to protect their jobs at the expense of a national overhaul of an education system that had historically disadvantaged nearly 90% of the population.

This is the scenario (a very real one) many black artists and academics must live and work with, a society that is constantly at each other's throat. I live and work within this society, one characterised by an element of distrust. When I got the call to curate a show of this magnitude, I had to transcend the great divide and think of the best way of presenting a positive and professional show to American communities.

The issue of the centralisation of activities within the major cities has been hotly debated. This is important as there is discontent within the smaller cities of South Africa. Artists there feel left out when major events like this take place. Artists based in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town always getting exposure and being represented on international cultural events. Equally deserving and hard working artists from the other cities and towns are often simply left out of the equation.

How does one address and redress this imbalance without letting the situation explode as it has in the past? Does one carry on the job at hand irrespective of the unpalatable feeling that this scenario leaves many less fortunate cultural workers out of the picture?

Pair this with the attitude of South African artists towards internationally curated shows and you have an explosive situation. To a select number of artists an international show means international exposure, paired with the possibilities of earning foreign currency. However, not all artists get these opportunities. This is due largely to the unscrupulous curators and organizers of these events.

International curators come to the country with little knowledge of South African art scenario. They tend to rely heavily on their country's embassies and the local tourism centres for direction to big-name galleries, many of them still employing white personnel with very little knowledge, if nothing at all, about local art and artists. This tendency has proven to be detrimental to a number of well-intentioned artists who are not in the service of the said galleries. They simply get left out and it is left to a small band of over-exposed and privileged artists to receive these opportunities, thus defeating the objective of unearthing new talent.

A case in point is the artist Pitso Chinzima. He was invited to the Sao Paolo Biennale last year. Subsequently his work was trashed in a review, yet Chinzima was invited to participate in this year's 50th Venice Biennale. If his work was that bad, why was he invited again to such an important event? To me this demonstrates the nefarious attitude of international curators, particularly with regards African artists.

This is not good for the country, nor is it for artists in general. A lot of good work is produced in South Africa, and not only in the big cities of South Africa but in the small villages and towns. The lack of credible curators knowledgeable of these artists is a big problem.

As it is curatorship (as a profession) is a very recent thing within the black community. Most black curators enter the field by chance or are invited to suggest new names that could be featured on an exhibition. When black curators are given a chance to participate in major exhibitions, it is often as a guide to a foreign curator. This relegates the black curator to the role of translator, nothing more.

Sipho Mdanda is an independent art historian working on a project documenting artists based in rural areas. He is a former academic and publisher with Macmillan. This text has been excerpted from a draft of the catalogue essay that will accompany 'The Sondela Show'.