Joburg Art Fair
by Carol Brown
Well, the booths are down, the galleries have gone away and, better still, the artworks have left the walls and have found homes in many important private and public collections. I have recently been bemoaning the fact that continent's best contemporary works have been leaving our shores, but the Joburg Art Fair proved that there is a great deal of interest and money to purchase, even if the beleagured museums are not in the game any more. It looks as though we are going back to the pre-museum days where corporate sponsors are the patrons of the arts. This, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing as it does give a certain freedom from 'official' art which can and has happened with museum collecting in all parts of the world through the last two centuries.
The Fair was the first ever to be held on the African continent and for a newcomer it did well. I haven't seen a buzz like that around art since the days of the Jhb Biennale. As I worked at the Fair, I cannot claim absolute objectivity and maybe my views are coloured by being an 'insider', but having spent about ten hours a day at the venue, I had a good overall picture and I can say that I hardly ever saw the entrance without a steady stream of people coming in and out. Visitors numbered 6 500 over the four days and an estimated R20-30 million was turned over. Collectors, artists and socialites rubbed shoulders with families, and schools gave up their Saturdays. Even ex-Springbok rugby captain Francois Pienaar turned up!
Another criticism which was floated around was that the Fair was commercial. What do people think an art fair is about and what's the problem with selling art? Art is now a system of production which includes galleries, marketing, sponsorships and money. Commercialism can be a negative when art is churned out purely to make a quick buck and pander to a certain market, but the quality of the work on show at the Fair was unquestionably high in anybody's terms.
Local artists such as William Kentridge, Santu Mofokeng, Zwelethu Mthethwa and Willem Boshoff have all achieved international acclaim and are represented in the best African collections in the world. Some highlights for me were taking groups to Boshoff's Blind Alphabet at the Michael Stevenson Gallery where they had blind people explaining the work to the sighted, as was Boshoffs intention.
Artists from the rest of the continent included Ghanaian Owusu Ankomah, whose work is on most international large scale African art shows and represented in major international contemporary collections. Two of his works went to a corporate collection and will be accessible to the public. El Anatsui, whose bottle top fabric 'curtain' graced the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice last year, was represented by a small work which was shown alongside some magnificent Sandile Zulu fire-based canvasses at the same gallery. One of the most powerful bodies of work for me, was that of Malam, a Cameroonian who has recently come to international notice with his bold critiques of contemporary society.
There were exciting newcomers such as Hasan and Husain Essop, at the Goodman Gallery, whose photos were snapped up by museums in the first hours of the show. Lawrence Lemaoana, at Art Extra, also made waves, showing some original and exciting works. The Avant Car Guard Performance at Whatiftheworld - a choir singing around the tombstone of 'Die Verlore Seun' Kendell Geers - marked the older generation conceptual artist/enfant terrible and his departure from the country in cynical fashion. It drew the comment from a woman in the audience whose husband was trying to drag her away, 'No, let's stay - this is much better than the art!'
So, art is in the eye and mind of the beholder and there was plenty to debate, discuss and purchase during those four days. There were also talks, parties, great book displays and an ArtThrob stand. Hopefully this venture will be repeated next year.