A South African Accent
by Clare Butcher
Recently I attended the Vans/Aica (Visual Arts Network of South Africa/Association Internationale des Critiques d'Art) conference - Structuring Africa(s): Cultural Policies, and their differences and similarities or How to deal with needs and desires' - held at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at UCT. The cumbersome title itself alludes to the unwieldy nature of the conference agenda, if one could successfully deduce what that indeed was. The scope of grappling with critical art practice or the practice of art criticism in South Africa is broad enough, without even beginning to speak of the continent or continent(s) at large.
This reality became most potently obvious during one panel seminar addressing critical art writing in historical and contemporary perspective, sensibly limited, for the purposes of this discussion to the South African context. The presentations came from writers in the field already - activist, Mario Pissarra, Stacey Hardy and newcomer Zimbabwean, Tambudzai LaVerne Sibanda - but also extended to voices such as that of the media's favourite renegade Ronald Suresh-Roberts posing as Ed Young/Robert Sloon (who were 'both' in absentia). The exclusive in-joking provoked by this final character I will not allow to distract me from the crux of weightier matters, as occurred during the session itself. It suffices to say however, that despite the discerning fielding of various comments by chair Thembinkosi Goniwe, personal gripes and incestuous 'art world' banter proved an unnecessary distraction from the panel's topic.
Each presentation revealed that the national rhetoric of transformation has become well integrated with academic and critical art discourse. Rightly so, the issue of engaging new audiences in the dialogue around art appreciation was at the forefront of most of what was said by the speakers. Stacey Hardy's concept of 'Corpse Tours' was inspired by the recent morgue field trips carried out in Detroit's inner city, showing children the real effects of the glamourised, sanitised physical violence seen on television. She incited the need for art writing in South Africa to do the same - to embrace the corporeality of flighty abstract art concepts in the embodied, messy reality of the geography around and outside of the art gallery. Transgressing previous 'how-to' methods of art writing could have been addressed more coherently by LaVerne Sibanda, however, much of her hypothesis was 'Lost in Translation'. This said, her presence as a recent graduate was significant and the general questions she posed concerning whether or not art critics should abandon artistic terminology and academic register in their writing were apt. For whom are we writing? And who is the 'we' in question?
Ronald Suresh-Roberts, sans side-show, addressed the poignant issue of self-censorship in critical writing within an African context at large. The polemics of his personal 'schtick' were not always constructively relevant to the debate around how best to transform art writing on the continent. Perhaps a more pertinent issue would have been the art community's own censoring of young critical voices, recently emerging in the Spring, 2007 edition of Art South Africa. In this, a letter to the editor had literally stripped down a young critic's review of a photographic exhibition by an established South African artist, and had re-written what they thought she should have concluded about the show. Surely this kind of situation exposes the need for art practitioners, academics and critics to move beyond the easy targets of government's disinterest in funding cultural projects, or the tiresome in-fighting between South Africa's 'arterati'?
While remaining wary of these concerns it is the elitism being born within ironically, uncritical art circles in Africa which warrants a good deal of panel discussion airtime. The new 'centre' of postcolonial study is the 'we' assumed by the cultural 'it' hubs within Southern African metropolises themselves. With the advent of internet and new media, African art criticism is no longer on the periphery of Western discourse and speaking about it in these terms distances current writers from the insipid closeness of exclusivity entrenched in understanding and speaking about contemporary art in the country and on the continent. Writing of this kind often forgets its locality, its accent, as it aspires to the diction, not of 'Western' artspeak, but to the pontifications of art establishments within our own borders.
The 'Chalk and Cheese, or Yam and Potatoes' delivered by Pissarra at the Aica conference could thus be transposed from the colonial vs. postcolonial to the established vs. experimental modes of speaking about art in South Africa. One example of the latter, through which the Southern African accent carries loud and strong, is a recent 'vox pops' review published in the Sunday Times of Marlene Dumas' current 'Intimate Relations' at Iziko SANG. Rather than deconstructing Western-African binaries or attempting to mask the language of ordinary viewers with pseudo-academic art terminology, the writer chose to include the insights of individuals (one would like to believe, picked at random) on various pieces in the exhibition. These opinions came from fitters, designers, company directors - no art critics. While this approach is not necessarily sustainable, its agenda is refreshing as it embraces the need for artistic translation in accents the 'we' who operate outside the gallery's confines can appreciate and respond to. As Goniwe wisely reminded the seminar audience, in the process of translation, there is always something lost and gained. It remains for current art writers in Africa to marry the lingua franca of global contemporary art conversation with the dialects of their localities - losing the pretension of artistic elitism and gaining new audiences.
Clare Butcher is currently studying History of Art at UCT