Archive: Issue No. 71, July 2003

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Transforming the chambers of secrets into beehives of creativity
by Veronique Tadjo

Entering the Sasol-sponsored Wax In Art 2003 competition was like trying to enter a chamber of secrets. The key was nowhere to be found and only the initiated had access to the chamber. I am referring, of course, to the chamber of conceptual art, or postmodernism as it is sometimes referred to, that BIG thing, the weapon of mass destruction.

Admittedly, the Sasol competition is very specific in its brief. It is all about wax, something that one doesn't readily think about as an artist. However, it won't be too far fetched to say that the competition is in many ways representative of what is happening in the inner circles of the local art world, where important decisions are made and directions shaped.

The Western world continues to have a deep fascination with conceptual art. Western art critics love it, and they want the rest of the world to love it too. These critics tend to define what is good and memorable in art all over the world; they have the money, the infrastructure, the theory and the jargon to do it. Take it or leave it.

The big international art biennales and festivals offer a good insight into the predominance of an often bleak and confused vision of conceptual art. In its extreme forms we are talking about exhibitions of dead bodies, cut up animals and overly clinical images of life coupled with violent videos. It's enough to make you immediately suicidal.

Is this what we want to emulate on the African continent? Is it a direction our art should follow in order to be taken 'seriously'? I found myself asking these questions as I walked around the exhibition space showing the works selected for the forthcoming Wax in Art exhibition. Despite my best attempts to try and understand how the judges had rationalised their decision, I could find no coherence in their vision.

The selections ranged randomly, stunning pieces clashing noisily with self-satisfied and gratuitous works that had a definite sense of deja vu about them. Looking at these latter works I found myself wondering where the art was in 'creations' that patently mimicked reality, that were in fact bleak and plain copies of it.

But what has any of this got to do with black South African contemporary art? A lot. There are still many black artists who earn a livelihood using paint. They are regarded as contemporary artists and as such are invited to exhibit in established galleries. But chances are many of them are under serious pressure to adopt the postmodern style. The pressure from gallery owners and curators is in fact so strong that I would liken these exertions to a form of religious fanaticism.

It is almost impossible these days to go to an exhibition without having to view the required central piece, either an installation or a piece of conceptual art in one form or another. It is as though black artists are under obligation to prove they can create conceptual works in order to be accepted.

But the key question remains: Do black South African artists really want to make conceptual art? Do they really want to alienate themselves from the public to such an extent that their audience will become disillusioned, as art audiences have become all over the world?

When I went to retrieve the piece I had entered into the Wax in Art competition, I met a young black artist. This local artist was also collecting his submission. I discussed my concerns with him. "You know, the members of the jury are all academics, intellectuals," he remarked. "So what?" I replied. He smiled and quietly added, with sincerity, "That's the way they think."

Conceptual art is a cultural tool of globalisation; it imposes a one-way understanding of art for everyone on the planet. Fortunately, anti-globalisation protesters across the globe are demonstrating against what they believe is an attempt to dominate their lives economically and culturally. But, are African artists going to confront the globalisation agenda? And will they in turn confront big business, that is to say the corporations, the sponsors, the art galleries, the curators and all those involved in the promotion of art in South Africa, challenge them to accept diversity in contemporary art in favour of its current claustrophobic approach?

By the sheer nature of South African history, black South African artists have been in a particularly disadvantaged position in the art market. It goes without saying that they have had very few opportunities to be exposed to conceptual art. As it is you don't simply become a self-taught conceptual artist from the township. Township people don't do conceptual art. It is hard enough for well travelled affluent art experts to understand.

Conceptual art is inherently exclusive because most people will choose life over death, hope over despair. It needs to be looked at again, reworked with a more generous spirit. In this sense, conceptual arts only salvation (if at all possible or desirable) will come from outside influences. Let's hope I am terribly wrong. Let's hope this is just a phase, an obsession with the morbid that will disappear in due time when art collectors around the world realise that it has reached its sell-by date.

Art is about opening doors rather than keeping them closed. It is about speaking a human language, about exploring diversity and listening to different voices. Art is about turning the chambers of secrets into beehives of creativity.

Véronique Tadjo is a writer and artist from C�te d'Ivoire based at the Bag Factory studios in Fordsburg, Johannesburg.