Gule: While thinking about Chika’s provocation I was reminded of a cartoon I saw some time ago which was done in the style of Tintin in the Congo. In the cartoon a “native” upon seeing a white man approaching, says to another “native”: “here comes the anthropologist. Quick, hide the books.”
I am invoking the anecdote in order to point out the danger of relying too heavily on our own “interpretive language” to delineate between art that is contemporary and art that is not, especially in a context where the label “contemporary” denotes a certain currency in the global art market. I also invoke it because, in my view, the fact that the observer felt a “loss of power” or that the object of his investigation can “talk back” might be function not of the ability of the observed to speak but of the limits in the observer’s interpretive framework and at worst a misplaced sense of entitlement.
Having said that the point should not be lost that the ability for artists to travel, attend conferences and inhabit different discursive spaces does indeed disrupt some very deep-seated orthodoxies and just plain racism in the West. But I don’t think these orthodoxies have entirely disappeared, perhaps they have changed the languages they use. I can’t help feeling that sometimes what defines the contemporary for many actors on the continent, including artists, scholars, curators and critics, has much more to do with one’s relative proximity to the global centers of influence (museums, publishing, biennales etc.) and individuals than it does with the actual work in question.
In the same way, other art forms are defined by their relative distance or perceived distance (which often involves visibility and recognition) to such centers of opinion and, let’s admit it, money too. From a jaundiced point of view it might be said that in that context curators exist merely to put a veneer of criticality and respectability while perpetuating this system of privileges which mirrors neo-colonialism.
An alternative view would be that using the term contemporary indicates a departure from conservatism within the art establishment, crass commercialism, ill-conceived ideas of Africanism and various forms of state-sanctioned art that have stifled creativity in many African countries. According to that view the term contemporary denotes a tendency towards greater contestation of ideas and a multiplicity of forms of expression and diversity of critical tools and platforms that allow for a greater movement of ideas.
The question of audience is clearly an important one but I think that it can be over-simplified if one assumes that the audiences are uniform and that they all are already primed for the reception of works of art in general, and specifically, contemporary art. My experience with the recent Tracey Rose exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, which I co-curated with Renaud Proch, was that a number people visiting the JAG, including art professionals were put off by the sexually explicit content of the work and were not able to see beyond its provocative surface.