TransCape (24.3.2007 - 2.5.2007) www.capeafrica.org
by Iolanda Pensa
Cape Town is preparing for a biennial. Planned, postponed, desired and much criticised, 'TransCape' is now to take place from March 24 to May 2, 2007. But will it? It doesn't matter; it already exists. With its five year history, 'Cape' has invented itself. An idea, a murmur, an echo, a communications project with winning graphics alongside even a trailer, indispensable for deciding whether or not to see the film. 'The world has become a global village', announces the narrator, 'where nations converge, engage and celebrate culture.' At this point in the video, Venice, Dakar, Cairo, Istanbul, San Paolo, Havana... explode on a global map, followed by interplanetary arrows that point towards South Africa and the dawn of 'Cape: Not Another Biennale'.
In 2002, Susan Glanville-Zini began research sponsored by the Airports Company of South Africa in collaboration with Cape Town. No earth shattering discoveries, just the consideration that a new event - after the premature demise of the Johannesburg Biennial (1995 - 1997) - could promote tourism. The first public presentation aroused more suspicion than enthusiasm. People asked themselves: What will it bring? What will it involve? What is someone from Johannesburg doing in Cape Town preaching about a biennial inscribed in the local context? But, just as its subheading underlines, 'Cape' is not another biennial. It proposes a conference that alternates with a large exhibition organised every two years, a rich array of collateral exhibitions, a permanent programme of art awareness and particular attention to the African continent.
Things began to move in December 2005. International artists, curators and intellectuals came together for 'Sessions eKapa', a debate enlivened with presentations, shouts, insults, complaints and demonstrators painted black who pulled faces at the event's logo. 'It was transformed into a political issue,' comments Peet Pienaar, creator of the graphic design and member of the group Daddy Buy Me a Pony (www.9november.co.za). 'The image was analysed beyond measure and used to talk about other problems. We simply looked for an icon that carried an idea of contemporary Africa and hip culture. There was no discussion, no room to explain our reasons and no support from the organisers who had actually approved the design.'
Khwezi Gule, one of the demonstrators and joint curator of 'TransCape' explained: 'The logo for "Cape" was offensive. We asked ourselves what an event would transmit with this image that many people saw as provocative. I don't think that the organisers questioned themselves enough on the meaning of the logo or on whether it made sense to hold debates at the International Convention Centre (www.capetownconvention.com) or charge an entrance fee for the participants.'
The issue of access seemed to reawaken the tensions provoked by the Johannesburg Biennial in 1997 curated by Okwui Enwezor. It was an event received with great enthusiasm by the international public but harshly attacked by South African artists and curators. 'The Johannesburg biennial opened while the city was declaring itself bankrupt,' recounts Stacy Hardy, writer and collaborator on 'Cape'. 'Of course, financial problems can't be blamed on the curator, but the event certainly had its weak points. After the opening, the centres were half empty. There was hardly any local public and many South African artists felt alienated and excluded. Looking back, perhaps one of the mistakes of "Sessions" was not wanting to reopen the debate on the Johannesburg Biennial. We wanted to look ahead but evidently many of the questions had not yet been digested and had not yet found room to be analysed.'
Aside from the attacks, the debate brought to light the potential of 'Cape': the possibility to build different relationships with the so-called West, to try out new strategies for representing African work, to promote the birth of infrastructures and observe the South African reality with a new eye. 'We have to stop accusing the West and start asking ourselves what we can do. We have to think and act as if we lived in a state of emergency.' These words from curator N'Gone Fall during the conference have spread from mouth to mouth, becoming the most quoted slogan regarding the future of an event that wants to look at Africa from Africa, attracting the gaze of the world onto Cape Town. On the last day of 'eKapa', at great request, the presentation programme was modified so that Susan Glanville-Zini - principal promoter and manager of the event - sat in front of the public to clarify 'Cape' and explain how it works.
The picture remains cloudy. The only thing that seems clear is that Gavin Jantjes - the artistic director chosen from only four candidates who responded to a public appeal - has the task of curating a contemporary African art and culture event of international standing that involves the entire city. It's a pity that in seven months, with highly-criticised organisation and a weak financial strategy, it is impossible to expect much. Two additional curators - Khwezi Gule and Gabi Ngcobo - have been nominated and have begun research with a visit to the Dakar Biennial. Cindy Poole has set up a programme of arts awareness with weekly meetings, lessons and conferences; Storm Janse van Rensburg has coordinated 'X-Cape', the collateral events for 'TransCape'. More staff has been taken on and the city is preparing to receive the highly praised international public.
Twenty-one locations and over 60 artists have been chosen. 'We have concentrated on works that are somehow irritating,' explains Gavin Jantjes, 'that can stimulate the senses. Structuring an exhibition in various spaces allows a time interval to be generated between one work and another, along with more articulated understanding and interpretation as well as the creation of a series of itineraries around the city.' But as pointed out by architect Iain Low, lecturer at Cape Town University and editor of the annual Digest of South African Architecture, 'The interaction with the city requires more of a choreographic approach.' 'TransCape' runs the risk, like many biennials, of producing interferences that are exhausted with the design.
While the office has received over 70 proposals for collateral exhibitions, a clear sign of a new enthusiasm and involvement on the part of the town's institutions, a change of date has been announced: the event is postponed until March 24 2007. 'Postponing the event seems to have made people aware of what this kind of event can bring,' explains Gabi Ngcobo. 'I don't think that the organisers fully realised what postponing the event meant for many institutions in Cape Town', counters the critic and curator Andrew Lamprecht, 'and as Sue Williamson highlighted in ArtThrob, the success or otherwise of the event will affect everyone's image.'
With disappointment and confusion continuing to nourish the souls, on September 27 'Cape Art Circuit' was organised, a journey around the city's galleries and art centres that, with or without 'TransCape', continue to hold exhibitions and debates. 'Projects like "Cape" are born out of a responsibility to change things,' concludes Mokena Makeka (www.makekadesigns.com), architect and member of the event's organising committee, 'But "Cape" is just a match. The inferno will be produced by the people who respond to what we are doing.'
Rather than fire, it would perhaps be more appropriate to talk of smoke. The 'Culture Biennial' is not just made of events but also ideas for events. Projects like 'Cape' - like the Luanda Triennial conceived by Fernando Alvim in Angola (March 2006) or DUTA, the Douala Biennial directed by Samuel Nja Kwa (second edition March 2007) and SUD (Salon Urbain de Douala) promoted by Doual'Art in Cameroon (December 2007), to name just a few African examples - are communications projects that feed off the image of biennials and possibly (if luck and financing are on its side) mega-exhibitions. But conceiving a biennial can be more successful than producing one, generating a debate and visibility that is concentrated not just on an event but on a context that is more complex than we think. And that is also good for tourism.
Iolanda Pensa is an art critic and researcher. Founding member of the iStrike Foundation in Rotterdam The Netherlands (www.istrike.net), she is an art producer and consultant for international cultural and environmental projects. She is currently a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the EHESS in Paris and in Urban Territorial and Environmental Planning at the Politecnico of Milan conducting research on the impact of international grants on culture, in particular in Africa. She has worked with several magazines, including Domus, Flash Art, Teme Celeste, universes-in-universe, Nigrizia and Africa e Mediterraneo. She has also worked with the Doual'Art art centre in Douala Cameroon, and with the research agency Multiplicity in Milan. http://io.pensa.it. email@example.com
Previously published on Domus, n. 898, December 2006.