Archive: Issue No. 127, March 2008

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Big money, big stakes: the Joburg Art Fair rolls into town
by Michael Smith

The question of whether art and money can coexist has long been put to bed: the gnarly hippies that ran the SA art world in the eighties and nineties seem to have faded from view, giving way to a slicker, better-smelling caste of gallerists, dealers and artists. The question thus becomes, can art and money coexist productively, without art having to compromise its critical edge?

The global boom in art trading, in both first sales and resales, has in recent years filtered down to South Africa, where artists here have begun to shift units for more than ever before. The recent Bonhams auction house sale of SA modern art, reported on by ArtThrob last month (see news), revealed considerable European interest in the 19th - and 20th century masters of SA art. Perhaps surprisingly, the big drawers of the SA modern art market remain Irma Stern and J.H. Pierneef. Despite spending the last 30 years losing ground in academia, an arena that tended to foreground the links between both Stern�s and Pierneef�s iconography and the divisive, racist ideologies of the country at the time, works by these artists remain hot property.

On the contemporary front, the likes of Candice Breitz, Robin Rhode, Kendell Geers and of course William Kentridge have seen the values of their output rise steadily, to the point where one unnamed SA gallerist, upon returning from London, was breathless about the attention Breitz is achieving, and called Geers �bigger than Jesus� in Europe. Little needs to be said about Kentridge: anyone unconvinced of his superstar status needs to ease up on the absinthe: he has attained a level of near-ubiquity that is unrivaled by an SA artist.

Into this mix comes the March�s Joburg Art Fair, which seems keen to emphasize the collectibility of contemporary African and especially SA art, downplaying the politics that has remained this country�s default position for so long. Not that the Fair is opting for soft-focus participants: the galleries represented, like Goodman, Michael Stevenson and David Krut, have established track records of showing important, often uncomfortable, art on their respective walls. Nevertheless, from the Joburg Art Fair�s copy (a website is up, and numerous bits of printed stuff are available), one senses that the organizers are mindful of distinguishing their party from large-scale curated shows, like �Ten Years of Democracy� and �Africa Remix�, and even biennales like Cairo and Dakar.

At an Art Fair press breakfast in mid-February, multitasking Carol Brown (she of ArtThrob Durban Editor fame) made an interesting point about the sudden surge in demand for African contemporary art. Brown suggested that the collection of so-called �historic�, �classic� or �functional� African artworks inevitably became difficult as the sources of these began to dry up: urbanisation, globalisation and the diaspora all seem to have shifted societies away from the producing the kinds of objects Western collectors sought. Linked to this was a concurrent shift in the politics around collecting objects from imploding social structures: even a cursory knowledge of African politics over the last 60 years will reveal that to collect objects representing the �halcyon�, pre-colonial days of African society is disingenuous at best, morally treacherous at worst.

Brown�s point was made to explain the shift in market interest. Yet, one could argue that despite its fiscal soundness, an endeavour like the Art Fair may have the net result of forcing some powerful critical images into the public forum. The lure of classic African art was always that it represented �Africanity� (to steal Simon Njami�s term) at its most neutered, most passive: despite the compelling aesthetics and even violence of many African art objects collected and displayed in what was essentially an ethnographic mode, their very presence in Western collections came to represent the disempowerment and decimation of the cultures from which they were culled. They functioned like trophies, symbols of Western cultural dominance, and correlating African defeat.

An event like the Joburg Art Fair would be committing critical suicide if it chose to focus on retrogressive or politically sterile art: thus, we are inevitably going to see (mostly) strong works by artists with high levels of critical credibility. In this sense, because collectors of African art are, by virtue of simple supply/demand dynamics, having to look to contemporary African art, they are being forced to deal with challenging content, and engage with debates that reflect the myriad African realities those on the continent face. If �Africa Remix� is anything to go by, there is plenty powerfully critical stuff happening in the realm of visual art here.

Furthermore, the trade in works by (mostly living) contemporary artists establishes an industry that sustains and rewards the practices of artists who, for the most part, remain critical of power. The old paradigm of critiquing the paradigm from the outside becomes, in a very real way, obsolete as artists like Rhode, trio Avant Car Guard and Johannes Phokela get to take swipes art�s holy cows from within the booths of the Art Fair.

In an OPINION piece on ArtThrob this month, Tracy Murinik suggests that Art Fairs are places that can create stars of artists, gallerists and galleries. I for one hope that the Art Fair makes some stars of the right people: the line-up looks exciting, and the dynamic of the event has the potential to separate the wheat from the chaff.