Best of the Decade

Founding editor Sue Williamson sums up the best - and worst - of the past decade.

Trying to name the best artists, exhibitions and galleries of the past decade across the country is a tricky task and one which is clearly full of pitfalls. Nonetheless, here goes:

Event which attracted most attention from the international art world:

The Joburg Art Fair under the direction of Ross Douglas opened for the first time in March 2008 at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg. Art fairs have become a staple of the international art world, and although a Johannesburg Biennale this was not, it did not pretend to be either. The Fair staked out a healthy position for itself on the art fair circuit, with a number of foreign galleries participating on the first edition. Work by artists from across the country was well displayed and well lit, ex-pat artists like Robin Rhode came back to give artists’ talks, there were side exhibitions and events, and there was generally a good feeling of something important happening.

Most significantly, there was some continuity – a second art fair in the same venue followed in 2009 and the third will open in 2010.  

Event which attracted most popular attention within the country:

There seems to be something about convention centres that attracts a wider public than the known art institutions. On a single Sunday there were 1600 visitors to The Brett Kebble Art Awards 2004 (the second and last before Brett Kebble was murdered) held at the International Convention Centre in Cape Town. Curated and expertly installed by Clive van den Berg, the show featured 243 artworks chosen from open submissions across the country. ArtThrob’s Kim Gurney referred to it as ‘a far more coherent effort than last year’s inaugural show’.

Best major exhibition featuring local and international artists:

Although ‘Africa Remix’ at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2007 might justly be considered as a strong contender for this category, my vote goes to ‘Dada South?’ which opened at Iziko South African National Gallery last December and can still be seen till the end of this month.

It is a rare privilege to be able to view works like Hannah Hoch’s beautiful collages, and one is once again reminded of her strong influence on contemporary artists like Wangechi Muta. But Hoch is only one of an extraordinary range of artists of the Dada period showing alongside South Africans whose own work reflects some of their revolutionary (in art terms) approaches.  All this is accompanied by in-depth documentation.

Most triumphant return by an ex-pat artist:

Marlene Dumas’s ‘Intimate Relations’, curated by Emma Bedford at the National Gallery and at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg gave South Africans the first in-depth look at the extraordinary painting of this artist, who is today acknowleged to be one of the world’s most celebrated painters.

Biggest damp squib on the national scene:

With a run-up of several years of conferences and planning, Trans Cape 2006, under the direction of Gavin Jantjes, was billed as the international event which was not a biennale (implying, to a South African audience, that unlike the short-lived Johannesburg Biennial, this event would be an ongoing event). With an overly ambitious agenda and a huge budget to be raised in a very short time for a start-up event, the Cape Africa Platform organizers invited a number of international artists to participate. Predictable lack of funding caused a very late cancellation (too late to prevent a number of overseas artworld people to cancel their travel plans) and a postponement to early the following year.  The international artists had to be disinvited.

In February 2007, Jantjes sent an email to participating artists announcing his withdrawal, citing lack of funding, and the event changed its name to Cape ’07.  Though definitely not a biennale in scope and depth, there were a number of art events across the city and some visiting artists, like Godfried Donkor arrived for the occasion. In 2009, there was a smaller follow up event, Cape ’09. Since then, the sad tale of how Jantjes has sued Cape Africa Platform for non-payment of certain days of his contract has been told elsewhere, followed by the demise of the entire organization.

Oh dear.

Most interesting developments on the gallery scene:

When Linda Givon decided to take on Michael Stevenson on his own turf, Cape Town, and opened the Goodman Cape on the top floor of an old clothing factory in Woodstock in 2007, it didn’t take too long for much of the rest of the art world - including Michael Stevenson - to relocate to the same complex. Then Bell-Roberts came too, though they have unfortunately closed down in the past year. Blank Projects, South and the SA Print Gallery are other newcomers to what is now Cape Town’s hottest art area.

Joburg acted to grab back some of the art area limelight by opening Arts on Main at the top end of town in 2009, a complex of old factory buildings that now houses galleries like the Goodman Project Space and David Krut. Resident artists include Willam Kentridge and Mikhael Subotzky. A pleasant grass courtyard in the centre of the complex and a restaurant provide an ideal meeting point.

By all accounts, Arts on Main is attracting an increasing flow of visitors.

Most memorable debut by a young artist:

Nicholas Hlobo’s 'Izele' (something or someone has given birth) at Michael Stevenson in 2006, in which the artist’s works on paper, sculptures and installations ‘engaged the viewer in conversations about sexual identity, masculinity and ethnicity’. Hlobo demonstrated a sureness of touch, a conceptual strength and a technical ability which boded well for his future.

Most technically sophisticated yet poetic installation:

William Kentridge’s Black Box/Chambre Noir,  which alighted at the Johannesburg Art Gallery for a while, was a remarkable microcosm of the artist’s international theatrical productions – a small miniature theatre with an animated 23 minute play, complete with music (Philip Miller), video projections, texts from diverse sources and ‘actors’ made of the simplest materials. These little figures, often little more than black silhouettes, came on and off stage driven by a complex and delicate computer programme.

The theme centred on the German genocide of the Hereros of South West Africa/Namibia in 1904-7, and was commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim.

None of these facts convey the power and lyricism of Kentridge’s moving work.

Most mysterious work of the decade: Did they or didn’t they?

Did Christian Nerf and Doug Gimberg row to Robben Island and back in early 2007 for their project 'Escape to Robben Island'?

Workhorse of the decade:

Artist / creator of public sculptures / curator of the second Brett Kebble Art Awards / curator of Spier Contemporary 2007 / designer of museums at Constitutional Hill / exhibition designer of Freedom Park/ … the list goes on and on for Johannesburg-based Clive van den Berg.

Best print art publication of the decade:

Thank goodness when the Bell-Roberts Gallery closed down late last year, Suzette and Brendan continued the publishing arm of the business, with the important publication of South Africa’s only glossy art journal – Art South Africa under the steady editorship of Sean O’Toole.

Art Times, a free art newspaper made its appearance a few years ago, and always has some interesting news –  though the images seem geared to a very middle of the road audience on the whole.

Most consistent business sponsor for the visual arts:

With the demise of the FNB Vita Art Award in 2002 and the shortlived Sasol Wax Art Award in 2008, the winner of this category is undoubtedly Standard Bank, which has been sponsoring their Young (under 40) Artist Award since 1981. The latest recipient is Michael MacGarry, whose award show will open at the 2010 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

Most consistent arts coverage online:

Thank you, thank you. Never offline since its inception in 1997, will take a bow.

Best Of Gauteng for 2009

by Anthea Buys

Best Solo Show: Colin Richards ‘Parrot Parrot’

Colin Richards’ exhibition at Art On Paper, ‘Parrot Parrot’, was streets ahead of any other solo I can remember seeing in 2009. I don’t have a very good memory at the best of times, making this a particularly difficult exercise, but I think that even if I did, ‘Parrot Parrot’ would possess a rigour, coherence and clear technical care far superior to any other solo effort. It did take Colin Richards, of all brains, six years to make, after all. Read more here

Worst Group show

Rebelling against my editor’s request for the ‘Best Group Show’ in this slot, I submit instead the alternative category of ‘Worst Group Show’, and nominate in this category ‘Self/Not-Self’, shown at Brodie/Stevenson in two phases in February and March 2009. The first installment of this show opened with an assortment of self-portraits and other works that quite clearly dealt with self-identity and the body. Fine so far. That was the ‘Self’ part. But the second exhibition in this two-part project – I’m guessing the ‘Not-self’ part? – was a motley mix of unrelated works demonstrating, for want of any coherent message or motif, the who’s who of Brodie/Stevenson’s impressive stable of artists.

Some gems on this show were Avant Car Guard’s photograph Perpetually Trying to Find a Cure for Art and Nicholas Hlobo’s modified lounge suite, Bhaxa, Iqinile and Ikhiwane. Both nice works, and both not about the self, I guess, but what on earth do they have to do with each other? I hate lucky packet group shows, and even more than these, I hate pretentious titles about binary oppositions. Yes, this show’s title came from Rothko, who said, ‘I don’t express myself in my paintings; I express my not-self,’ but it’s still awful.

Best Reviews: 'Three Essays on Photography'

Nearly all reviews I read, including my own, are boring. Some are even depressing. With others, and these actually border on pleasant reading, I can feel my brain cells fizzling out one by one. Robert Sloon’s reviews, however, do not have any of these effects on me. Chad Rossouw’s are also quite good. I guess maybe this section should be titled ‘Best Reviewer.’

However, if forced to pick a favourite piece of art writing for the year, it’s not a review, but a collection of essays on photography by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, Ruth Simbao and Sarah Nuttall in the Summer 2009 edition of Art South Africa. These essays all consider, with greater or lesser loyalty to Sontag, the politics of regarding the other and the place of spectacle in photography.  Maybe we’re all a little tired of reading about other people’s readings of Sontag, but isn’t it a joy occasionally to read an erudite essay, especially on a topic as frequently badly written on as photography? I think it is.

Leaving the small and almost uninhabitable province of art writing, however, there is a bright star with the by-line Brandon Edmonds. He writes – and how - on film and popular culture for  His is a difficult name to google, there being possibly several other Brandon Edmondses in the ether, but just go to Mahala. And then go back to your thesaurus.

Best Curator: Julia Rosa Clark

I pick Julia Rosa Clark for her curatorial effort ‘Sing Into My Mouth’ at Whatiftheworld/ Gallery in May 2009. The premise of this exhibition was for Clark, as curator, to avoid imposing a theme or thesis on the project at the outset, and rather to allow works and paraphernalia she encountered to suggest poetic trails for her to follow. Through this itinerant process of finding and following threads of relation between works, Clark ultimately assembled an exhibition that cohered oddly, according to its own existence.

I enjoyed her approach and the resultant show because it struck me as brave to abandon an armature of external reference as she did. I admire her project also because she treated curating as an organic, intuitive process that is sensitive and responsive to objects, whether or not they are artworks. I suppose the important questions this show raised for me are, firstly, to what extent do intellectual and intuitive impulses vie or comply with one another for expression in the curatorial process? And, secondly, what determines the inclusiveness or exclusivity of the curatorial eye?

Newcomer of the year: Alexandra Makhlouf

Although she hasn’t arrived on the scene with the fanfare and the peer circle groupies that usually accompany the emergence of an art starlet – in fact she gags at the prospect of fame – recent Wits graduate Alexandra Makhlouf is certainly someone to watch out for. Having under her belt two Martienssen Prizes, won at the university’s annual senior student competition, and a solo exhibition in Brodie/Stevenson’s project space, Makhlouf is still at the very beginning of her career. But what she has that most don’t is fierce intelligence and uncommon discerning. An ardent bibliophile, her works to date (mostly nest-like drawing and text installations) are imagined three-dimensional bookscapes. Even more captivating than her weepy ink drawings are her text fragments, all of which she crafts herself. For the 2009 Martienssen competition she sewed a pair of two-person body suits from quilting fabric, which could be worn by the public on the opening night of the exhibition. These suits were real-life manifestations of a drawing she produced earlier in the year, and represent a fascinating area of enquiry in her work: the interpenetration of fiction and reality. 

Library of the year: Johannesburg Art Gallery Library

I would like to propose this category for inclusion in ArtThrob’s 'Best Of' lists because I believe that more time spent in libraries, with actual books and text archives rather than the e-variety, would do us all a world of good. I have nothing against e-books and web archives; it’s just that some things – for instance, the Johannesburg Art Gallery’s archive of textual and photographic documentation of the early days of the collection – just don’t exist in digital format. To see these things you have to take yourself to the basement, strike up a conversation with the magnificently encyclopaedic Jo Burger and rifle through boxes and boxes of history. So for library of the year, I nominate the JAG library.

Best Venue: Concourse at Park Station

In Johannesburg the best venue, without question, is the Concourse at Park Station. This cavernous Art Deco palace was used in November 2009 as an exhibition and concert hall for the charity event ‘Night of 1000 Drawings’. It has strange pits sunken into the floor (possibly once water features?), which were transformed on the night, a little creepily, into massage dens. You have to see it (but not for the pits).

Best Of Eastern Cape for 2009

by Rat Western

When compiling a 'Best Of' list of the previous year’s events, I find I have to consider why it is that there is so little that really stands out. Am I jaded, hypercritical even, or is there really so much random stuff out there?  

This past year I have been living in Grahamstown, and as a result there has been less to see than when I have lived in a major metropolis.  In G-town I went to see pretty much everything, and was pleasantly surprised to see quite a lot of unusual, inventive things, less predictable and less driven by trends evident in the work of artists from major economic hubs.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a certain amount of parochial cross-pollination; yet it seems that the geographic isolation has its positive influence if only because, in such a small community, aesthetic and conceptual links that border on the plagiaristic are immediately apparent and most artists endeavour to create an individual voice.  

Best Solo Exhibition: Lindi Arbi’s ‘Unearthed’

This exhibition made in completion of Arbi’s Masters in Fine Art at Rhodes University really stood out, for several reasons. The first was her inventive use of two unusual and difficult exhibition spaces at the Gallery in the Round. Secondly, Arbi’s ability to broach a painful, personal topic (widowhood) made this a memorable show. Her particular take on this personal trauma impressed me because it is an exploration of the process of grief rather than a maudlin wallowing in the state of grief. Arbi managed to engender empathy rather than pity, not an easy thing to achieve.

She is a prolific worker and I also admire her ability to self-edit, with much work created for this exhibition ultimately not included. This self-reflexivity is all too often a rare quality, and in this case became an element that professionally elevated what was essentially a student exhibition.

See a review here.

Best Group Show: 'Construct: Beyond the Documentary Photograph', curated by Heidi Erdmann and co-curated by Jacob Lebeko

I saw this show as part of the National Arts Festival and whilst the exhibition space was far from ideal (certainly no fault of the curators), this did little to detract from a successfully different take on photography as an artistic medium. In recent years, the bigger names in South African photography have arguably been synonymous with documentary, and so a show such as this which considered photography which veered more towards art and less towards narrative and journalistic exposé, is overdue. Especially impressive was Dale Yudelman’s work.

Newcomer of the Year: UCA Gallery

Sadly, my newcomer of the year has been short-lived, as the UCA gallery closed at the end of January 2010. Over the past year, UCA exhibited an impressive array of work, including a number of excellently curated group shows. These exhibitions followed unusual and interesting curatorial themes, bringing together unexpected combinations of artists. It was this demonstration of the art of curatorship that truly made the space a breath of fresh air.

Best Of KZN for 2009

by Peter Machen

Solo Exhibition of the Year: Vaughan Sadie's 'Situation' at Bank Gallery

Vaughn Sadie's Masters show, exhibited at the now sadly dormant Bank Gallery, was one of the most immaculate bodies of work I've seen in the last decade. So thorough is Sadie's vision and so rigorous his execution that 'Situation' could easily have come from an artist decades older than Sadie. Working within an immaculately refined aesthetic populated by found objects and readymades, 'Situation' revolved around the notion of light, in all its infinity of meaning.

Sadie continues many of the key artistic conversations of the 20th century into the 21st, recalling a range of references from Duchamp and Warhol through to Foucault, but always with his own devilishly dialectic voice. Not afraid of making difficult work but also capable of conversing within a highly rarified but nostalgically joyful pop idiom, Sadie is a major talent to watch. As well as the production of 'Situation', Sadie also contributed lighting design to Jay Pather's epic dance work 'Body of Evidence', and co-exhibited with Bronwyn Lace in the astounding installation-based work 'Unit of Measure', which is still on show at the Durban Art Gallery.

Group Show of the Year: 'Not Alone' at the Durban Art Gallery. Curated by Carol Brown and David Gere

The group show 'Not Alone: An international project of Make Art Stop AIDS' was a remarkable collection of work that felt like an emotional cross-section of life on earth. 'Not Alone', which shuffled its content as it moved around the world, felt profoundly global, reflecting not simply the pulse of the international art world but the pulse of the planet.

Featuring a huge range of work, from some of the original responses to the AIDS crisis when it was concentrated in metropolitan America to Gideon Mendel's heartrending images of Lusikisiki, the exhibition was unlike anything I've seen before. It reminded me more of the brilliant global album 'One Giant Leap' (recorded in the homes of artists around the planet) than of any other group show. And so it's not a stretch to say that 'Not Alone', with its multiple religious and spiritual resonances, was an exhibition that felt more like a hymn to humanity sung by a choir of glorious and diverse angels. Despite the massive human suffering left in the wake of the pandemic, the show emphasised the human response and the solidarity that has resulted from the crisis.

Retrospectives of the Year: Andrew Verster at the Durban Art Gallery; Penny Siopis at the KZNSA

Although Andrew Verster's post-apartheid retrospective broke some of its own rules by showing a few of the artist's seminal works from the '70s, the show nonetheless succeeded in properly expressing the emotional and political freedom within which Verster has been working for the last decade and a half. Curated with remarkable sensitivity by Carol Brown, who is probably more familiar with Verster's work than anyone else, the show functioned both as a celebration of one of Durban's greatest treasures and of a country that, despite all the darkness and scepticism that surrounds us, is still filled with the vibrancy and multiplicity that continues to feeds Verster's heart.

Penny Siopis's survey show at the KZNSA was something to behold, a body of work that read like its own rich art history, overflowing with Siopis's intense take on a broad spectrum of conceptual concerns. Interestingly, for a city in which the public are often dismissed as disinterested philistines, Siopis's genuinely challenging work garnered more responses and critical fervour from the general viewing public in Durban than any other show in the last few years. (The other major success in 2009 in terms of public consciousness and response belonged to Andries Botha – see below).

Newcomers of the year: Amy-Jo Windt and Zorro

Amy-Jo Windt was my favourite discovery at the DUT student show at the end of 2008. Windt's work is remarkably striking, using familiar collage techniques to radical effect in her exploration of representation, fashion and identity. In the few works of hers that I saw in 2009, she continued to refine her output and expand her conceptual canvas. While the influence of Wangechi Mutu is obviously evident in her work (made all the more so by Windt's comments on Mutu's Facebook page – ah Google, the things you can tell us), Windt's idiom is entirely her own and is strengthened by the fact that her work in media other than collage is equally left-field and immaculate. Sadly, I missed this year's DUT student show (I was globetrotting at the time) but I'll be making a point of getting a private viewing of Windt's works in the coming weeks. She's finished her degree now, and is looking for work, but it would be a shame if she were to get a day job.

The shy but passionate Windt has her yang in the idiosyncratic King Zorro. Zorro, who is often seen in tennis shorts and tight-fitting t-shirts accompanied by a blazer and super-smart shoes, has a relationship with his work in which the line of separation is constantly in flux. The multi-talented and slightly crazy Zorro is everywhere in Durban, his mere presence lending an automatic air of ‘art-event’ to proceedings. During a city walkabout that was one of the events linked to the 'Not Alone' exhibition (see Group Show of the Year), the charismatic Zorro took photographs of the walkers on the steps of the Durban Art Gallery. Instead of asking us all to say cheese, he had the crowd chanting ‘Zorro! Zorro! Zorro!’. A performer and poet, he has taken to photography with deftness and enthusiasm in the last year, exploring issues of gender, body representation and African modernity. It's likely that in a few years' time, a lot more people will be calling Zorro's name.

Elephants of the Year: Andries Botha's Lux Temba and Nomkhubulwane at the KZNSA

As well as the Penny Siopis show, the other events in Durban that crossed over from the art scene to the mainstream was the showing of two of Andries Botha's elephants, both of whom spent some time at the KZNSA Gallery. These life-sized animals, constructed from African wood and recycled tyres respectively, are remarkable on many levels, not the least being the most obvious – that they seem so much like real elephants. More sentimentally – but no less importantly – it's hard not to believe that they don't have a soul, particularly when talking to Andries and his fellow workers, all of whom have been utterly bewitched by these creatures of their own creation. So moved has Botha been by the journey, that he's started the Human Elephant Foundation, which will use his remarkable sculptures to raise funds and consciousness for environmental projects.