AICA Conference Report Back
by Carol Brown
A seminar called 'Structuring Africa(s): Cultural Policies and their Differences and Similarities, or How to Deal with Needs and Desires' organised by Aica/Vansa was held at the Michaelis School of Fine Arts at UCT, Cape Town from November 8 - 10. Aica, the the International Association of Art Critics, was founded in 1950 in Paris and operates as an NGO. Aica comprises various experts anxious to develop international co-operation in the fields of artistic creation, dissemination and cultural development.
Its membership stands at about 4 000 art professionals from some 70 countries all over the world and is particularly well represented in all parts of Europe, Australia, North and South America and the Caribbean. It has very active National Sections in Middle Eastern and Asian countries (Israel, Singapore, Japan, Hong-Kong, Pakistan) and a number of African Sections have been formed in recent years. In the past ten to 15 years, Annual Congresses have been held in places as far apart as the Caribbean, Hong-Kong, Ljubljana, Macao and Tokyo, as well as in Europe, and the most recent international conferences to be organised by Aica were held in Dakar (July 2003) and Istanbul (September 2003), and, recently, Addis Ababa (January 2006). This was their third conference on the continent which was organised in association with Vansa (Visual Arts network of South Africa). Vansa has been very active, particularly in the Western Cape where they organised a successful Curators' Workshop on Robben Island a year ago. Their assistance in facilitating this event was essential to its success. The event was mainly open to official delegates although a few members of the public also attended. The format focussed on workshopping ideas and ways to bring African organisations closer. Delegates came from South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, France, Holland and England.
The programme was arranged around the following sessions:
- A look at the countries in Southern Africa with their different and similar histories, current differences and similarities through their existing structures and institutions, followed by an attempt to evaluate these histories in objective terms.
- Critical art writing from a historical and contemporary perspective, drawing on the experience of the delegates, with a particular focus on South African writing.
- An examination of the kind of art training that is available in these countries and of the infrastructure for providing this, including museums, art centres, galleries, agencies, magazines and the educational system in general. Ths included an assessment of the ways in which choices and decisions are made, or impeded, and how they vary from one situation to another.
- A discussion of national and international events, including biennials and other large-scale exhibitions, in particular those on the cutting edge of mediation, recognition, Diaspora or resettlement and of how to deal with these realities.
The majority of the speakers were from the African continent and most brought in the chequered histories of their countries where art is generally not given much priority. There was a strong feeling that the principles of Sadec should be brought into play and that there should be more co-operation and exchange between the different areas of Africa. Thembinkosi Goniwe's articulate and stimulating paper made an argument for art history to move from the present axis of the Northern Hemisphere and reminded the audience that there were places such as Latin America which had a rich and powerful history which could be fed into our educational systems. He also made an important point which was picked up in several other papers and that was that we have become so serious about art and artmaking that we have lost the ability to find the joy in art. He stressed the importance of pleasure and play.
Stacy Hardy's dynamic presentation also brought us into the present context where she felt that art writing was too hermetic and did not engage with real life. Some of the qualities she felt should be brought into the writing of art were intimacy, autobiography, the sounds and sights of life outside of the gallery spaces. She also mentioned words like passion, sexiness and embodiment. This emphasis on life and enjoyment was also an element of the paper delivered by Heeten Bhagat of Zimbabwe who has recently taken over the management of the Zimbabwe National Gallery and whose impassioned address stressed that the gallery and the arts were at rock bottom in his country. He viewed this with a sense of optimism in that it could only improve and he saw art as a mechanism to bring hope and joy to an embattled community. These ideas were all optimistic and seemed like beacons for a new direction in art practice and writing, where the audience becomes more engaged.
A panel on Biennales and large scale events also drew much debate and interest. Yacouba Konate's well researched information on biennales and their history produced some fascinating facts - for example, a Biennale opens somewhere in the world every four days. There are currently 200 biennales happening worldwide although only three take place in Africa (Dakar, Cairo and Bamako). These biennales are institutions of their own with curators, artists and administrators making full-time careers from them. There was some discussion on the formats and their successes and failures which included the role of the curator/organiser. Some felt that it was necessary for one person to hold the reins whereas others thought that teamwork was more important. Khwezi Gule noted that the fuss about curatorial decisions often marginalised the artist's role and the actual work was not given enough attention.
The papers on the South African large scale exhibitions were somewhat depressing. We were reminded that Johannesburg only managed two Biennales, whilst Mirjam Asmal (CEO of Cape 07) gave an honest overview of the problems which had arisen with the various manifestations of the Cape initiative. There has been a great deal of speculating about this non-event and her explanation was timely. She questioned the relevance of these large scale events and put the ball in the court of the audience to consider whether they were in fact important. Henry Meyric-Hughes, President of Aica stressed how important they were particularly in the African continent and urged their continuation.
Bassam el Baroni from Cairo spoke about the 'Glocal' in the Egyptian context, reminding us that Egypt was the only African country with a pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This convergence between global and local came up constantly in debate.
The education panel saw an emphasis on adult and public education and it seems that, in Africa, audience development needs to be given much stronger emphasis and that we must focus not only on training young people to be artists but also on lifelong learning and public exposure for the arts.
My paper concentrated on the dilemma of contemporary artists leaving the country for foreign shores mainly due to lack of financial and institutional support so it was coincidental and a treat that three of the top international contemporary South African artists were in town and present for some of the sessions. These were Lisa Brice and Moshekwa Langa both exhibiting at the Goodman Gallery, and Marlene Dumas whose retrospective is on view at the SA National Gallery, delivered a most stimulating presentation on her work to the delegates.
The final deliberations led to a resolution to take forward the process of forming a Southern African branch of Aica. This will be steered by Botswana delegate, Neo Matome and Cape Town-based Andrew Lamprecht who will head a steering committee formed from existing South African Aica members.