Archive: Issue No. 85, September 2004

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It's worth negotiating the space
by Kresta Tyler Johnson

If you have a made a recent visit to the Johannesburg Art Gallery you will immediately be struck - quite literally - upon entering, by a hanging scroll, with a miniature projection appearing on it along with Arabic script. On the floor appears writing that seems to take tongue-in-cheek that you are passing from the inside to the outside or vice versa.

Exploring the traditional galleries beyond, it is clear that something is afoot, but just what, is not clear. A new hanging that is reminiscent of a ribbon of skin flows in the main foyer, but when I look to find out what this new piece is and who made it, I find nothing.

Continuing through the permanent galleries I am constantly met with new amendments to the space, things adhered to a door or a door closed off, yet still what is happening remains a mystery.

Upon walking downstairs I pass a trunk that links to a website and here receive my first clue as to what exactly this intervention into the traditional space of JAG may be. The title 'Negotiate' looms down from a screen, directing me into the realm of this project.

Further downstairs, a film crew from Kunskafee is busy inspecting a police jacket and helmet before moving on to a piece outside by Nicholas Hlobo. Hlobo's work is Xhosa text cut out of plywood and installed in the fountain.

I am intrigued by the crew and assured that this must be something important for them to take notice. Of course I am equally disappointed because my inability to speak Afrikaans will prevent me from watching the segment they are filming.

Observing the crew and waiting to be interviewed is Hanli Becker, one of the individuals involved with the project. The current installation is called 'Intercession' and is the first of four exhibitions that will showcase work by a collection of prominent and emerging young artists in honour of a decade of democracy.

Initially I am extremely impressed by what is happening with 'Negotiate'. From the moment I walked into JAG I was forced to think, consider and not given any supporting text to help guide me. How novel a concept!

Far too often we are spoon-fed everything we are supposed to gather about a piece or an exhibition and the mind numbs. Suddenly I had to formulate my own impressions and trust them and not be bothered that the traditional installation space was being invaded.

Becker and a team of curators and artists were approached by JAG who sought to create a novel way of 'dealing directly with 10 years of democracy'. The curatorial group wanted the resulting project to show 'artists from democracy not apartheid, and rather than rehashing experiences that aren't there' exhibit experiences that are theirs.

The shift was away from the ubiquitous retrospective and the 'past' that major museums are fond of, towards the future. It was also a chance for some unknown, young artists to have a shot at 'breaking into' a gallery space.

However, my initial inspirations began to diminish upon further investigation. Inherent problems that seem to plague many areas of the South African art world began to reveal themselves. For example, while there is one artist included who traces their roots back to Israel, Nicholas Hlobo is the only black artist.

When I asked Hlobo why other black artists did not want to be included in the exhibition he was not sure, but felt it related to a larger issue of 'one leg in the future and one leg in the past'. The result is 'problematic and doesn't really reflect' the current amount of freedom that prevails in the arts.

Hlobo's work in the exterior fountain is one of the more interesting and upon enquiry, Becker told me it is a well-known expression translating as 'Freedom is like water, it flows like blood through our bodies'.

Ironically, in a later meeting I had with the artist, when the topic of this piece emerged, he clarified that the phrase is actually his own. Of course he meant it to be viewed as something more universal, but it is disconcerting that one of the main curators of the show failed to comprehend its true source.

'Negotiate', even with some pitfalls, is charting new terrain and I am look forward to the next three instalments. They will be held on the first Saturday of each month starting with 'Intervention' on September 4. Set to follow are 'Arbitration' and 'Conciliation'. According to Becker, the work will become progressively stronger and more adversarial, and we shall see who understands what and which artists choose to speak out.

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