Are We Celebrating or Are We Saying 'I Told You So'?
If you don't have an opinion about the unexpected, even shock announcement of the postponement of the much anticipated and much-vaunted Trans Cape exhibition (which I still maintain is best described as a biennale-type exposition, despite its organiser's insistence that it is not) and the very important and extremely promising official fringe event, X Cape; well if you do not have a view then you either A) do not live in Cape Town and have no interest in the state and status of South African and indeed African art at present or B) you were probably looking for a tattoo site and got to this page by mistake.
The simple fact of the matter is everyone interested in Fine Art in the Cape, from school learners through to university students, from 'art fans' to major corporate collectors, as well as dealers, writers are affected in some way. Also tour operators, hoteliers, transportation companies and goodness knows how many other ancillary industries all having to adjust as a result of this decision. Wait. . . have I left anyone out? Oh yes, artists (from Sunday painters to what I imagine Gavin Janjes would describe as 'artists with an international profile') may have to make a few adjustments. To be fair, there can be no doubt that the news was met with universal disappointment.
I am not going to go into too much detail about what happened, when and by whom, except where I have an opinion that differs from what has already appeared in the media. The editor of ArtThrob has already taken the very unusual step of issuing a 'stop press' when the news was announced and the full news story can be found elsewhere.
Aside from the Cape Africa Platform organisers who, to judge from those that I bumped into in the days following the announcement, all expressed relief at having a much longer time-frame to meet the demands and complexities of putting this whole thing together in the astounding short period that was originally (and very proudly) advertised as the scheduled dates; I have heard more than one fringe artist admit, after the initial shock had worn off, that they could also use the extra time. It is a very rare thing for anyone not to be able to 'do with extra time' in any endeavour in life. This, I believe, is utterly irrelevant, and is a disingenuous red herring when presented as a 'positive' that has come out of this postponement: it is a little like saying to someone for whom one has promised to cook the evening meal and then neglected to do so: 'but now we can go to a restaurant; you like restaurants don't you?'
Perhaps before going any further with my opinions, it would be best to briefly explain my situation as it pertains to the Trans/X Cape not-a-biennale. I had planned to be involved in three fringe events, all of which had spaces booked for them. I have adapted one (which was going to directly reference the event and simply could not have gone ahead) and shall be having an exhibition later this month. Another exhibition, one which affects a class of over 40 students, and impacted upon their curriculum, had to be cancelled as they will not be in the same class next year; the other will be shifted to March although everyone involved has indicated that if the event is postponed then we'll just go ahead. In addition a curatorial collective I am involved in has decided to do something that we probably would not have done had Cape not shifted the boundaries. I guess what this means is that I am more affected than many ordinary members of the public, but not more inconvenienced than every other artist who had juggled their schedule to somehow take advantage of / celebrate the confluence of activities, visitors and public attention that was promised (and there seem to be very few Capetonians in this category to whom this does not apply).
As far as the Cape Africa Platform and its project is concerned I have attended virtually every public or 'stakeholder' meeting that they held; have had meetings with its executive (at their invitation) on a couple of occasions; presented at their very interesting and important conference last year (though I must admit to ducking out of the last day-and-a-half in frustration and irritation at things I was witnessing there). Again, this sort of engagement with this project is typical of any interested member of the Cape Town art world at the moment. More importantly in terms of 'putting cards on the table' my views of Cape have gone through a number of quite radical changes from time to time. In short, over the last few years I have, at different times, and on more than one occasion each, been a vocal, active supporter, happily participating in its programmes and other activities, as I was when planning my participation in X Cape and at the time of the announcement. I have also been a very vocal detractor of certain tendencies I saw in the organisation at one or another time and a general critic and 'Cape Sceptic' in my day. To be honest I - how shall I say this - invested more energy in my criticism than my praise, that is to say my praise was civil but perhaps a trifle faint while my barbs had a definite sting to them.
Now I realise at this juncture I have already used up the stipulated word length of this piece and have neither outlined what happened at Cape nor given many opinions. Nevertheless I think the issue of setting the scene in this particular case is very important, as is declaring your hand. Indeed it was the alleged failure of Cape Africa Platform CEO, Susan Glanville-Zini, to 'explain what her agenda was' in being the driving force in setting Cape up that one heard very often in the Research Phase of the project and, for all I know, may still be heard in places where I don't listen.
Okay, here goes: when I was told of the postponement at an opening on the Wednesday before the public announcement as a 'piece of skinner' I was quite shocked and yet, even though I really didn't see it coming (and who really did?), was also strangely unsurprised. Almost everyone felt that the time-frame presented was far too short, and Cape did postpone the Conference last year; something forgotten by many but not me who was actually very inconvenienced by that particular postponement. Then, as I heard how people had been affected by this 'strategic decision' on the Cape Board's part, and I realised that my plans would have to change; and, more importantly as I played through what this postponement could mean in terms of the reputation (that is the already pretty bottom-of-the pile bad reputation) of the Fine Arts sector both to our international peers and to potential partners and sponsors within our borders, I grew angry. Then I read the press release.
The cavalier manner in which the art community was mentioned at the end of the last sentence of the last paragraph demonstrates a complete lack of understanding as to their centrality in this project. In an interview with Gavin Jantjes it became clear to me that for him at least, financial backers are taken far more seriously than anyone else who provides capital of any other kind to this project.
There can be no doubt that Cape has dropped the ball with this announcement but to continue this analogy the question I really want to ask is whether 'the art community' was really ever playing on the same team? Have we really been fully supportive of the venture? It is easy to say that many in the art community have been put off by Jantjes's very European manner of doing things. For example he made no friends at what was advertised as an academic seminar at UWC when he arrived an hour and forty minutes late, failed to apologise for his actions but found time to single out Zayd Minty and Sue Williamson in the audience for personal greetings, and then proceeded to give what can only be described as some sort of press statement cobbled together with a dull anecdote about map projections of Africa. In general artists I have spoken to have characterised the shift in the organisation since his arrival as one that tends towards arrogance. Many cite his 'Don't call us; we'll call you' comment to artists at the meeting where the name of the exhibition was launched. Also the Iziko SANG perhaps had some cause for complaint as he repeated at one event after another with never-lessening glee the 'statistic' that most visitors to the Company's Gardens thought that it was a courthouse. A 'courthouse' that was giving him half its galleries free of charge for his exhibition.
But how many people in this community are really giving him credit for using the connections and influence that that he has enabling such a stellar line-up to be assembled for the 'official' show? Yes, yes, I know there were inexplicable absences: a Goldblatt and no Mthethwa; a Kentridge but no sight of an Alexander; a Bester with no Williamson, etc. These are interesting to speculate about (I have theories of my own) but it strikes me that an anecdote about Winston Churchill would be of use here: visitors to his home would be shown a shown a small brick wall that he and his daughter had built together. 'Well, what do you think?' he would ask. The usual response was to say that there were a few bricks missing in one part and that it was a bit uneven across the top and the left-hand section seems to be hanging over rather precariously. Angrily he would bark back: 'any damn fool can see what's wrong with it; it takes a genius to see what's right with it.
I don't think it takes genius to see what's right with Cape but it does take some generosity. And the South African art community is frequently and (in my opinion) increasingly becoming, ungenerous.
So then here it is: my revised opinion on the Cape debacle: I think this postponement will cause some long-term damage to our reputation but potentially, if it comes off, it will be of inestimable benefit to South African art, far outweighing this mishap. I think Gavin Jantjes took on a very difficult task in the face of scepticism and ill-will and has shown perseverance and fortitude. How many are really prepared to recognise that he has not failed in his original promise to have the exhibition ready by September? I have confirmed that the catalogue was in press at the time of the announcement; that almost all the artist's were lined up, consulted and confirmed; that had the funding come through the show would have gone on. Jantjes could probably have legitimately resigned his position and possibility even sued the Cape Africa Platform for breach of contract. Where would that have left us all? The whole thing would probably have folded; no March show, no fringe, nothing. Instead he stood by the programme he set up and has stood his ground.
And what of the much maligned Susan Glanville-Zini? I will admit that she began her tenure here with something close to a public hostility to Cape Town but this has softened to what to me seems a genuine affection for the rich culture and people of the place that gave its name to her Section 21. I have heard the most astonishing rumours and speculations about her motives for launching this project; most of which have been demonstrated to be unfounded. I have never heard one of her detractors (and I have been amongst that number in my time) ever publicly or privately retract or amend their views about her.
If you are or have been a Cape sceptic ask yourself this: have you any doubt that we would be hosting a not-a-biennale programme of this magnitude and ambitious scope were it not for this initiative? If the project is so utterly flawed why have so many people attached their hopes and dreams to its fringe? And as to the fringe itself: rarely has there been such open and generous support for such an initiative (something that Jantjes insisted upon as part of his acceptance of the position of Director).
There is much perhaps to be critical of, and goodness me, have we not heard every last bit of criticism in every variation. Now let's give it some support because like it or not, everyone who is involved in the arts needs to see this project succeed and grow. I'm tired of us poisoning our own waters constantly with selfish spite. I still have my problems with some aspects of Cape but I know this: I want the event in March to be kick-ass. Good luck Su, Gavin, Gabi, Khwezi, Storm, et al. And to the National Lotteries, NAC or whoever it is that haven't coughed up: pay the bloody money, you bastards!
Andrew Lamprecht writes this opinion in his personal capacity. If he has any friends after this, he'll be at Lola's later today.