Who's a survivor?
by Ruth Sacks
It's the tail end of 10 year of democracy celebrations and the general public is far more interested in who won the rugby than the Brett Kebble Art Awards. A group of dedicated artists, reviewers and curators have been given the difficult task of creating a fully functional, vibrant art world in a setting of general indifference. Of course there is also the usual strategic plotting and backstabbing between players who are all jostling for attention.
So who came out on top? A few names certainly stand out. Unfortunately, despite brief forays into Durban and Gauteng, I've been immersed in the mother city's small art pond, so this Survivor summary is geographically challenged.
The beginning of the year provided one of the most difficult tasks - grappling with the representation of 'democracy' itself. It is a tricky, multi-faceted term that becomes especially slippery when one tries to represent it visually. Tribes at Iziko Museums of Cape Town were forced to work with this. The 'Democracy X' exhibition managed to use the obstacle course that is the Castle of Good Hope to make an impressive show that won a prestigious Western Cape Arts and Culture award.
Across the gardens at the National Gallery, another curatorial team raced to display their acquisitions from the last 10 years for the opening of 'Decade of Democracy'. They also managed to deliver the goods under extreme pressure and scrutiny, with a beautiful catalogue to go with it. Of the many exhibitions dealing with/in celebration of this event, a special mention should go to those who braved an art-saturated New York to try to represent South African art for the 'Personal Affects' show. Rewards came in the form of being listed as the best group exhibition in the city that season by the New York Times.
Extreme makeovers also featured this year, with art teams given challenging decorating and practical juggling acts to perform. The Ruth Prowse art school had to run a fully functioning art institution while undergoing external surgery. Students, staff and builders managed to work together to facilitate a gorgeous facelift. The Bell-Roberts managed to move an entire gallery and publishing house to Bree Street and are even threatening to install a roof garden and jacuzzi. Alongside these more conventional facelifts, Andrew Lamprecht managed to convince the board at the Old Town House to allow him to turn the highly respected, but rather sombre Michaelis Collection, inside out with his 'Flip' exhibition.
While I strongly doubt Gallerie Puta would ever make it through to any kind of finals before being thrown out, they deserve a mention. Some of their individual activities included Cameron Platter being unceremoniously bounced from House and Leisure magazine for being too pornographic. Ed Young took his unique brand of self-promotional Kentucky-fried art to a minimal extreme by going to a show in Ghent, Belgium to do nothing whatsoever. There has been criticism of this little troupe for unjustifiably hogging the media, but they have worked hard to get themselves there.
Ultimately, there is so little attention given to the art world outside of small, self-contained spheres, that getting people talking, whether they're in favour or not, seems a positive step. Brett Kebble merit prize winner Zen Marie and NSA curator Storm Janse Van Rensburg, against their better judgement, hosted a Puta expedition in sunny Durban. This seems definite grounds for some sort of award. Storm certainly was a true survivor in 2004, keeping the NSA afloat and still remaining enthusiastic. On this note, all galleries who managed to support their established artists, while still providing a platform for fresh faces, racked up serious survivor rewards. Estelle Jacobs at the AVA, Jo João Ferreira and the Bell-Roberts certainly performed this task admirably.
Addressing issues of race and identity is always tricky, and in 'A Place Called Home', curator Zayd Minty raised some important questions by focusing on South Africa's South Asian artists. Daimler Chrysler winner Guy Tillim brought some hard-hitting, but aesthetically breathtaking truths home from the Congo for 'Leopold and Mobutu' at Michael Stevenson Contemporary. Equally compelling was Pieter Hugo's documentation of people with melanin deficiency, exhibited in November in the same space. While some discussion and debate surrounding the ethics of documentary fine art photography was sparked by these shows, there is certainly a need for more input on this topic.
Some artists developed creative survival tactics, merging with practitioners in other genres for some highly successful hybrids. Highlights included a collaboration between clothing designer Richard De Jager and artist Matt Hindley. They joined forces to create new streetwear label Ha-ii. James Sey and James Webb 'exhibited' sound works on the airwaves, documenting the life of a fictional author on Bush radio. With artists taking over the radio, rapper Waddy Jones clearly felt the need to retaliate. He mounted an exhibition of not entirely cuddly toys and videos at the Bell Roberts in October.
A challenging task this year was to locate this year's Gross Trust Public sculpture commission, Come to Pass. The piece by Katherine Bull and Fritha Langerman, unveiled early in the year, interacts so well with the street that it's difficult to find. Survivor rewards should also go to everyone who had the stamina to sit through this year's Brett Kebble Art Awards ceremony. A less ostentatious event might have gotten a better response from the audience. The exhibition did, however, force people to question their own definitions of what makes a winning art piece.
Ultimately, the survivors have been all of those producing, exhibiting, writing, publishing and injecting energy into a jaded and harsh terrain. At the risk of repeating myself, to everyone that didn't get material prizes in 2004: Better luck for 2005. Don't take it personally.