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Art Born Free of Politics?

By M Blackman on 18 December

Installation shot of the work of Mitchell Messina, Rose Mudge and Molly Steven

Installation shot of the work of Mitchell Messina, Rose Mudge and Molly Steven, 2013. Installation

An edited version of the article was originally published in the Weekend Argus

Making predictions is a fruitless exercise; even economists who are paid to do it are, rather predictably, bad at it. But after walking through the Michaelis School of Fine Art’s final year exhibition I felt like I was formulating one. It was set-off by a feeling of absence. Where, after all, was the politics, the cause, the environment, where was process and queer theory? Some fried eggs stuck on a wall, a life-size yellow diving board, a pile of old televisions with post-teens singing love songs, the University’s chairs piled disorderedly in the gallery - this didn’t seem like the stuff of the art schools that I once knew.

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Ten, even five, years ago this work, with its sentimentalism, its middle-class underpinnings, its irreverent failure to confront our socio-political problems, would have been refused entry. ‘No, a tube of "No More Nails" nailed onto the wall is not good enough. No, you simply can’t make an "infinity hotdog with chips". And you can’t make fake ice cubes, bendy straws and hula-hoops. Derrida, Foucault, Freud, apartheid, Judith Butler for goodness sake.’   

But this kind of thing has been happening at Michaelis quite a bit over the last few years. And these works are not those of the drop-outs who are clutching at straws - some of them, from two years ago, are already represented by top galleries. Of course this is not to say there isn’t politics on offer at Michaelis. The top prizewinning student, Mawande ka Zenzile, makes work that is supposedly confrontationally political, with his portrait of Patrice Lumumba and his pointed attack on colonial rule – however, exactly what contemporary politics he is confronting, remains unclear to me. And certainly the history of that prize has, barring the odd exception, not been a particular yardstick of anything.

Having trailed around the exhibition several times, I went home and started to ask myself some questions. If art in South Africa is changing then what is it heading towards? If identity politics and resistance art have run their course, then what will replace it? Some people, gallerists in particular (who see the profit in it no doubt), are backing the re-emergence of painting and the much-vaunted return of abstraction. Certainly these people have their eye on overseas trends where this is the current.

But South Africa has always been behind the times. Or to be slightly more positive about it, it has worked to its own rhythms. As William Kentridge said about starting his own practice: ‘Europe of the '60s and '70s seemed distant and incomprehensible… The impulses behind the work did not make the transcontinental jump to South Africa… I remember thinking that one had to look backwards.’

Certainly looking at some of the work at Michaelis there is something of the so-called Young British Artists (the YBAs) of the late eighties and nineties about it. Looking at Mitchell Messina’s work, for example, there is something of Gavin Turk’s personal dig at the art school that trained him. In Rose Mudge’s, with her tents, telephones and TVs, Tracey Emin seems to be trying to communicate with the video artist Phil Collins.

But these students, and others, on the show bear further resemblances to those British artists. For although YBAs were a disparate and eclectic group, largely speaking they were impishly apolitical and consciously egotistical. Tracy Emin, although often thought to be some kind of feminist, largely made work about herself. And Damien Hirst was far more obsessed with his own death than with any politics. In fact few YBAs made work that was either anti-Thatcher or anti-Major, although some may have had strong personal views. Far from rejecting politics, many embraced it. When Thatcher’s doppelganger, Tony Blair, took power and named (rather embarrassingly) the cultural movement ‘Cool Britannia’, many YBAs willingly jumped on the bandwagon.

The nineties was a furiously creative time in Britain, but most artists’ political and social compasses had their needles missing. And, to be fair, by the time the nineties came around, your regular middle-class art student in Britain was deeply alienated from any coherent and relevant political ideology.  

And this apolitical stance seems to foreshadow what is happening in South African art schools today. Largely born after the release of Mandela, having grown up on a historical diet of politics that was mostly foreign to them, while at the same time divorced from current politics by their class, many young South African art students are experimenting with ideas that are closest to them: the effects of popular culture, the ‘curse’ of having grown up middle-class, the ‘politics’ of the art school they have spent the last four years in, and their own emotions. Whether this movement will take root though, is anybody’s guess – that is to say, it’s mine.