Archive: Issue No. 74, October 2003

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Reading Room reviewed at the SANG
by Lauren Shantall

"Dis Nkosi ...", the woman comments as she draws the volume from a shelf and hands it to her companion, "...die klonkie wat Aids gehad het!"* This 'bookish' pair are situated within Joseph Kpobly and Thomas Mulcaire's 'Reading Room', currently installed at the SANG.

The context has provided a moment of unexpected, lowbrow hilarity. The kind that can only be afforded by unashamed political incorrectness in the face of a project that declares its own hefty ideological purpose. 'The installation is a continuously expanding archive of literature on Africa and by Africans. It is a long-term project that situates itself within the larger Pan-African struggle and aims to wrest control of Africa's imaging from the West," states the written introduction.

But not everyone is able to take the library so seriously. The gaps which can and do exist between this artwork's inception and its possible reception should not serve to detract from - and may, arguably, be largely irrelevant to - its intentions. The 'Reading Room' is a work whose validity hangs on a specific political and theoretical agenda. Its contents - an ever-expanding collection of books that can never be termed "light reads" - are certainly not designed to please or interest Everyman.

Yet the levelling humour provided by audience comments will probably amuse readers of this review, like:

"I thought she was part of the sculpture, but then she moved" (an elderly husband to his wife);
"Are you the artist?" (the elderly wife);
"Yuck. It smells like the dentist!" (a surly teenager);
"Are we really allowed to sit and read the books?" (a British tourist).

About 500 visitors traverse the hallowed halls of the SANG on a daily basis, and their various reactions to the installation do speak volumes. The work incites curiosity. By encouraging readers to select titles from the shelves and make use of a designated area, 'The Reading Room' invites viewers to flaunt the sacred commandment: Thou shalt not touch. Naturally, this confuses momentarily, and then delights.

The installation is the sole occupant of a darkened gallery wing. From a distance the viewer is confronted with a burnt sienna cube the size of a large hut, the exterior of which is theatrically lit by two spotlights. The brightly lit interior, visible through an open doorway and several window-like apertures, glows an unearthly cornflower blue. To enter the space one traverses a gangplank. Space-age housing, suspected UFO landings on the Serengeti , adobe and scenes from early Star Wars spring unbidden to mind.

It's a dramatic approach, no doubt thanks to the sensibilities of Benin artist and set designer, Kpobly. On the interior, the disembodied floor appears to float freely from seamless, rounded walls. A stylish couch, an armchair, a beanbag and a hammock, all upholstered in an array of sumptuous African textiles, beckon.

Were it not presented as an artwork, The 'Reading Room' would be successful as merely a formidable library - a "good place", according to a German traveller, where one could easily spend hours absorbed by the collection of books. In fact, reckons a gallery custodian, many people do precisely that.

Also known as the 'Library of Congress (1998-2003)' the 'Reading Room' was first presented at the 1998 S�o Paolo Biennale (Mulcaire co-wrote the Africa catalogue text with curator Lorna Ferguson). There, the room displayed texts concerning the role of Africans in Brazilian identity. It then travelled to the Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris, where it re-exhibited the texts obtained in S�o Paulo along with new books that explored the relationship between contemporary France and its former colonies. The South African instalment looks at the influence of local oral traditions on the liberation struggle. Members of the public are invited to donate books to the archive.

Assembled and presented as it is, the installation has a two-fold impact. On one hand, it invites direct engagement with its theoretical standpoint, and on the other, it becomes a fairly self-referential, self-critical piece that encourages us to question the ways in which readers consume texts and how the very sites at which those texts are acquired, can function in the much larger social and cultural context. But it doesn't shoot itself in the foot, so much as add a loaded gun to the arsenal.

I guess I have not been harping on, albeit amusingly, about audience reception/ interaction with this piece for no reason. For transmission - of 'knowledge', of an ideological standpoint - is crucial here. It was imbedded in the former processes of colonialism and post-colonialism that the work so sincerely shows up - and somehow wishes to overturn, so that Africa can place itself at the centre of perspectives of and about Africa.

Of course, there are fathoms that can be said about such an endeavour. But if, as S�o Paulo curator Paulo Herkenhoff writes, we are indeed "searching for an art that touches on the political emancipation of language and the constitution of a painful reflection on the process in which Africa recognises itself as a critical subject of its own history," then the efforts of 'Reading Room', no matter how ambitious, can be lauded.

* Editor's translation: "That's Nkosi [Johnson]... the darkie who had Aids." (Nkosi Johnson was an adolescent Aids activist who passed-away in 2002.)

September 7 - October 10