Archive: Issue No. 112, December 2006

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The VANSA Robben Island Curators Workshop

Brief notes from Sue Williamson

Holding a curatorial workshop on contemporary art on a heritage site so redolent with struggle history as Robben Island leads to some interesting tensions. The Robben Island Museum staff still seem to be in classic �you�re all so lucky to be here, and we don�t have to try very hard� mode. The guest house was double booked, participants were forbidden any wine or other alcohol in the evenings, and on the day I visited, the second of the workshop, the key to the projector cupboard could not be found.

It says a lot for the organizing skills of Storm Janse van Rensburg and the general enthusiasm of the participants that these glitches were not allowed to mar proceedings, but it did mean that visiting international curators Bisi Silva and N�gon´e; Fall had to forgo showing the visual components of their presentations. Both gave deeply absorbing speeches in spite of this, and the value of having such experienced art world personalities share their insights with all of us is inestimable.

Silva made the point that 60% of the success of any curatorial endeavour is the rooted in the critical writing that goes into setting it up. Her focus is on young artists a few years out of college whose work interests her. On behalf of such an artist, Silva sees her role as getting the right exposure, a catalogue, and funding support. Talking about her home country of Nigeria, Silva said there are no less than 40 art schools, but little or no government support and gallery system. Young artists either stop working soon after they leave art school, or leave the country, whereas in Cameroon, a country with very limited resources, artists are making much more interesting work, about their daily life. Part of the real value of a workshop like this one, is learning more about the art world in other parts of Africa.

N�goné Fall from Senegal, co-author of the authoritative An Anthology of African Art in the XXth Century talked about her country as �a kind of French laboratory of black/white culture�, a tradition that has led to the largely French backing of the art biennial, Dak�Art, for all its faults, Africa�s only continuing international event. However, �between biennales there is absolutely nothing�, says Fall. Talking about the difference between curating in Europe and Africa, Fall said �When you�re invited as a curator in Europe, everything is in place � the funding is there � you�re just the curator. If I�m in Kinshasa, I kiss my passport at night, and say, �Oh my God, I�m glad I was not born here.�

Fall is an advocate of open source software as an improved method of communication � making it possible to have webcam conversations with artists in their studios from any part of the world. �Wherever I am, I�m just a click away from Dakar, so don�t bother me about who is an African artist � it�s about how I react to a certain piece of art. I don�t want to have those kind of debates any more.�