The Johannesburg Biennale
A bomb attempt fails, with disastrous consequence. The intended explosion has been set up by one who is the pawn of someone else, who in turn, acts on another’s instigation. In this delegation, the relationship between power and responsibility is confused. The Secret Agent is Joseph Conrad’s story of an attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The Prime Meridian is located in a desolate suburb in the east of London: the measure of ‘all’ time is equated with this particular place, in this particular metropolis, and hence also with Englishness. 1 What better image than the attempt to explode this Point Zero could there be, as a metaphor for the invalidity of Anglocentrism?
And nowhere is more appropriate as a point of departure than the world of Joseph Conrad. Writing in a language that was not native to him, about cultures other than his own, Conrad was dealing with questions of identity. In his masculine world of adventure, exploration and espionage, the boundaries of race are addressed by Conrad in ways which draw together time and place. The temporal and spatial dimensions are spliced together through narrative devices which imply critique and distance: ‘once upon a time’ is indissolubly woven into ‘once upon a place’.
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad pits the Eurocentric attitude of the colonisers against a romanticised notion of a deeper, darker, ‘truer’ pulse. His unparalleled prose points always towards mysteriousness - a ‘heart of darkness’ - and crafts an analogy between travelling up the Congo and an inward journey. But in drawing this analogy between the heart of the African continent and the darker ‘more primitive’ impulses, Conrad is heir to a 19th century tradition which pits self against other in a need, finally, for some kind of reassurance. As Marianna Torgovnick has written, ‘Conrad’s contemporary British audience ... saw the tale as an indictment of Belgian colonialism, something quite different, they told themselves with only partial justice, from British rule’. 2 His use of the distinction between British colonialism and other forms of imperialism highlights a common form of defence, an excuse for a multitude of sins.
After decades of rarefied purism, contemporary art has finally, over the past few years, begun to address these issues, turning directly to the field of social anthropology for its terminology. It was in this field that a critique was first launched against the implicitly colonial museological system, inherited from the 19th century, which legitimises ‘the relations of power whereby one portion of humanity can select, value and collect the pure products of others’.3 Multi-culti can now be seen as the name of the 90s game. But this itself is not without problems. ‘Multi-cultural’ shows have become part of a hidden agenda for institutions to gain credibility, to pat themselves on the back for political correctness.
Into the context of this politically charged arena comes the first Johannesburg Biennale. The Biennale itself became a microcosm in which warring factions of divergent political hue aired their views. In the heady atmosphere of a new democracy, how could the notion of ‘consultative process’ not become a buzzword, standing for everyone’s desire and right to have a voice, to be heard, to be consulted. But of course Biennales are organised by someone, singular or corporate, and they serve particular interests, even if those interests are widespread: culture always stutters a little bit when it tries to pronounce ‘democracy’.
I did not go to the Johannesburg Biennale as a disinterested observer, if such a thing still - even theoretically - exists. I went, rather, as an observer with deeply vested interests: I grew up in Johannesburg, I went to school and university there, and much of what I learned and unlearned about art and its history began in that deeply divided society. ‘History’ was the way we spoke about it then; now of course, we are careful to say ‘histories’.
But I grew up in Johannesburg with an in-built sense of dislocation: having been born in Israel, I found that the first co-ordinates in the sense of identity I had pieced together for myself were a) as a female, and b) as a Jew. In this, I suffered only a little more acutely from what was experienced by many white South Africans: an uncomfortable sense of not knowing who they were. It is not insignificant that white people in South Africa were called ‘Europeans’. Perhaps growing up in South Africa as a diasporist is as good a way as any to problematise the sticky questions of identity in that place. The crossing and invasion of identities, the imbrication of cultures, is implicit in the South African way of life, then and - if in different ways - now too. So, schooled in the need to remember and memorialise characteristics of post-war Judaism, and schooled equally in the self-righteous, white, middle class liberalism of my adolescence under apartheid, I am constantly made aware of the extent to which we bring our cultural assumptions to bear upon such terms as ‘history’ and ‘histories’. And there I was, back in Jo’burg as - as what? As a Portuguese critic, an identity that sits doubly uncomfortably on me. So much for objective observation.
Through the two weeks building up to the opening of the Biennale on 28 February, I talked to dozens of people - organisers, curators, photographers, artists, critics, academics - mostly informally. Some I had only just met, or sought out for the occasion. Many others I knew from the past, from a time which seems to belong to another life. From this, I built up a mental picture - collage is perhaps a more accurate term because of its fragmentary and uncohesive nature - of the event.
The Johannesburg Biennale was the brainchild of Lorna Ferguson who for 18 years ran the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermartizburg and built it up from a minor regional museum to an important national collection. A feisty person with a famous temper, she made not few enemies as she carried out her unenviable task. The idea came to her after visiting Documenta in Kassel, as a means of putting South Africa ‘on the map’, just as Documenta had been introduced in post-war Germany as a cultural corrective measure. The overall director of the Biennale Project was Christopher Till, Director of Culture for the TMC (Transitional Municipal Council). Bongi Dhlomo completed the triumvirate as a representative of ‘community projects’, responsible for the wide-ranging educational programme ‘Outreach and Development’.
To this end, after a consultative process later criticised for not being sufficiently democratic, two central themes were outlined: ‘Decolonising our Minds’ and ‘Volatile Alliances’. The themes served as guidelines for submissions of exhibition proposals. The first theme attempts to show colonialism as, above all, an attitude and, positing Africa as a focus of attention, aims to analyse the global repercussions of colonialism on representation. The second incorporates the concept of frontiers, both physical and mental, and how these might be expanded in allegiances which not so much dissolve as accommodate difference. Inherent to this agenda was the need to question the relationship between Eurocentric and Afrocentric interests, and to deal with broader issues of marginalisation (race, gender, religion, land rights and so forth). For all the organisers, the main question was how to avoid cultural re-colonisation, a re-appropriation by hegemonic powers. What sort of relationship might be established between Eurocentric and Afrocentric cultural discourses was thus a key note, struck more or less ubiquitously through the Biennale.
The pedagogic tool utilised to implement the two themes was a system of trainee curatorship. (This itself was problematic, as it was seen by some to be patronising.) Local and overseas curators were invited to submit proposals; 15 of the overseas curators volunteered to take on a local trainee curator, acting as a bridge between the organisers and the ‘community’. (As Bongi Dhlomo noted, both in her catalogue essay and in her confident statement at the press opening, ‘community’ is a much used and abused word in the South African context, its broader implications of consensuality of interests and occasion being frequently neglected in favour of a meaning which makes it synonymous with ‘black arts’, and hence maintains the distinctions between mainstream and marginal cultural products, and between art and artefact). 4
Overseas curators were invited to work with South Africans in an open-ended way, and this led to one of the most interesting features of the Biennale, a hybridisation of categories and a brave attempt to problematise the relationship between hegemonic and local culture. In some cases, the results were a disastrous and incomprehensible hodge-podge, like the Flemish show, curated by Bart De Baere and Simphiwe Myeza. In others, notably in the French show, curated (inevitably) by Jean-Hubert Martin, with trainee curator Clive Kellner, the exchange of work and the opening of boundaries was so effective that one lost any specific notion of where the show began and ended. The Spanish show, ‘Black Looks White Myths’ curated by Octavio Zaya, Danielle Tilkin and Tumelo Mosaka, inverted the terms of the brief and included only four Spanish artists, alongside 19 South Africans.
It was instructive to read artists’ name-tags as they set up their works, and see to which country they were affiliated. Most provocatively, the young South African Kendell Geers curated a show entitled ‘Volatile Colonies’ which included only overseas artists, all of ‘hybrid’ or complex ethnic identity, and all identified on their name-tags as ‘South African’. Commissioners from Canada, Denmark, Holland and Portugal all included South African artists resident in those countries (Trevor Gould, Doris Bloom, Marlene Dumas and Roger Meintjes respectively).
Invariably, there was work of the ‘ethno-chic’ variety; an easy Africanisation borrowed from the clichés of the curio market, a job-lot selling off of politically correct ideas to clean up a bad conscience. There was also, arguably, not enough South African artists outside of the white mainstream. But there were some memorable shows, and memorable individual works. The exhibitions of Angola, Benin, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Spain, Singapore and ex-Yugoslavia evinced multifaceted ways of approaching the question of identity.
The Australian show, curated by Anthony Bond, brought together four women, all dealing with experiences of mistaken identity - Brenda Croft (Aboriginal Australian) and Adrian Piper (African American) have ‘both affirmed their blackness although neither of them is chromatically black’ 5 while Destiny Deacon (Aboriginal Australian) deals with stereotypical views of Aboriginal people. Belinda Blignaut is a young South African whose piece involved putting up in public spaces throughout the city a provocative poster of herself in bondage, providing a telephone number linked to an answering machine in the exhibition space.
The French display intervened in various spaces and proposed the questions of inventories and the institution of the museum (Christian Boltanski, Bertrand Lavier) and multi-culturalism (Ben, Laurent Joubert, Sarkis, Thomas Hirschhorn, Maria Makhamele). Both the Cuban and Angolan shows addressed the questions of identity in terms of more pressing local politics: worthy of special note is the young Cuban artist Kcho, who showed a boat entirely constructed out of books: a succinctly eloquent image of the role played by culture in the fate of the Cuban people. A more humourous relationship to cultural production was evinced in the masks of Romuald Hazoumé, delightfully hybrid pieces with titles like Miss Abidjan, which seem to throw ironic light on the borrowings, by early modernists, of forms from African masks. Here, the western is re-appropriated into the African, and the ‘African’ itself is shown to be a bricolage of elements, of mixed provenance, thus going round full circle.
The Israeli show, ‘Unseen Borders,’ attempted to raise questions about the relationship between de-colonisation and a reappraisal of inherited culture. Curated by Meir Ahronson, the show’s title was exemplified by the interspersal of the work of the four Israeli artists (Beni Efrat, Yehudit Gueta, Lea Nikel and Simcha Shirman) and one South African artist (Freddy Ramabulana) among other exhibits. Beni Efrat’s project Ararat Express, first shown in Lyon in 1986, involved a caravan of horses mounted with video monitors (showing films on various situations of migration) parading through the city’s ‘unseen borders’, from the upmarket northern suburbs to Alexandra Township. Efrat steps out of the institutional frame of the museum into the streets, bringing the work ‘even to those who do not want to see’. 6 Simcha Shirman’s works functioned as an installation: using photographs of himself naked, as well as archival material (a dismal view of a concentration camp, photographs from manuals of forensic medicine, grainy portraits of the deceased, shocking alongside sensual portraits of the living) his work speaks about traces of events and the memories with which they are impregnated.
Questions of identity and memory were synthesised in the collaborative work of William Kentridge and Doris Bloom, representing Denmark. Both are South African, but Bloom has been resident in Copenhagen for the past 20 years. Entitled Memory and Geography, their collaboration resulted from a dialogue (conducted partly by fax) tracing the affinities and divergences of their early experiences and memories. The show was an assemblage of drawing (in white on black), along with a short animated film, seen through little peepholes in the main exhibition space but also screened in various places around the city. Two further drawings, one of a schematic heart and the other of an anatomical heart (heart defining both the centre of a space and the true seat of memory) were inscribed in the landscape itself. The first was a huge fire drawing which took place on the ground, against the urban backdrop of Newtown, Johannesburg; the second, the anatomical heart (measuring 130 x 70 metres) was drawn in whitewash on a fire-scarred veld in Walkerville, 25 km south of Johannesburg, and only yielded its gestalt as an image in aerial view. This work provided a stunning meditation on the interplay between inner and outer space, on the mutual inscription of the two terms described by the title of the show.
In the Portuguese show ‘Arrivals/Departures’, curated by João Fernandes, Roger Meintjes’ photographic piece Sample Collection was particularly strong. Meintjes is a South African living in Lisbon, and his recent work has dealt with the colonial links between Portugal and Africa. The present piece has all the apparent cool of the ‘objective’ collection of data; yet the appropriated material he uses (photographs of samples of products brought to Portugal from the African colonies and kept in little glass flasks at the Customs House of the Lisbon Harbour) and the vast amplification of the original scale suggests all the heat of a passionate argument. This is a cogently articulated piece, showing the extent to which all ‘scientific’ research is built on an ideological foundation. Angela Ferreira’s work, based on a Portuguese cultural icon, the murals at the Lisbon Docks painted by the Portuguese modernist, Almada Negreiros, pits the emotionally charged notions of arrival and departure against the apparently neutral, displaced aesthetics of modernism. A more quirky and ironic glance at the relationship between modernism and identity (and more specifically, gender identity) is evinced in the two pieces by Ana Jotta, where the geometry of post-cubist abstraction is stitched onto a table-cloth in the one instance, and the cloth cover of an ironing board in the other.
The question of the vicissitudes of the diasporic identity was not directly addressed but was implicit in several of the exhibits. It is perhaps a lead which might be more fully explored in future Biennales. In this, the Latin American contribution was particularly strong. Tony Capellan’s Mercado de Almas (Dominican Republic), with a mixture of humour and drama, highlights the fetishisation of the body, its parts and vestments, in the context of forced expatriation. The photographic piece Creencias by Maruch Santis Gomez (Mexico) pits local, ‘superstitious’ belief systems against the (implicit) rationalised knowledge of the ‘scientific’ west.
Outside of the central Biennale precinct (the Museum Africa and the Electric Workshop), two shows, ‘Outside Inside’ and ‘Laager’ are especially worthy of mention. The former, intelligently curated by Julia Charlton in the Johannesburg Art Gallery, invited eight South African artists to work with and around the Gallery (as a space, a collection, an institution). Here, Leora Farber’s intervention, employing kitsch tableaux, lenses, mirrors, plastic, holograms, magnifying glasses, cameras and distorting mechanisms amidst the 17th century Dutch painting, supplied an elaborate, baroque play on the optical illusions which inform that epoch of painting. Willem Boshoff showed part of an ongoing project entitled Sculptures for the Blind. Taking the alphabet as a point of departure, this is a rather extraordinary morphological dictionary. Carving a wooden piece a day for over a year, Boshoff has given tactile form to ‘difficult’ words related to the form or texture, rather than the ‘look’, of objects. The wooden ‘words’ were each placed within a mesh box (rendering them not directly accessible to either touch or sight), on top of which a Braille definition of the word is inscribed on aluminium, thus remaining inaccessible to most sighted visitors. The ‘words’, both as plastic presence and as sign, thus remain only partially accessible to the blind and sighted alike. Despite its rather pious challenging of the museum or gallery as a space that privileges the sighted, Boshoff’s project is particularly interesting in the way that it teases the loops and circuits implicit in codes and puzzles of all sorts.
‘Laager’, curated by artist Wayne Barker (who showed several works in the Spanish show, ‘Black Looks, White Myths’) brought together a group of artists excluded from the official selections, but considered by Barker to be important in their continued investigation of the themes which the Biennale pertains to address. Especially noteworthy were the works of Barend de Wet, Guy Brett, Lisa Brice and Barker himself. To each artist was allotted a corrugated metal container, of the kind used for shipping and transportation. These alternative spaces were ranged in a laager-like circle. ‘Laager’ is, of course, shorthand for any mentality which seeks to entrench itself in defensive conservatism. Barker’s ironic title points an angry finger at the official selection of the Biennale, implying that it too is informed by a ‘laager mentality’.
Is this justified? Well, not entirely. It is inevitable that an enterprise of this scale, and in this political climate, should be riddled with logistical, organisational and funding problems, and a fair pinch of internecine conflict. Besides the sticky and contested problem of ‘community mandates’ and the all-inclusive policy of ‘consultative processes’, there were other issues that were felt to be problematic and not adequately addressed here.
Lorna Ferguson herself noted that land right issues are central to the preoccupations of the ANC, and asks if there are people making work related to this: ‘it is an issue that is specifically South African: this is dynamite, so why don’t we see it?’ 7 She pointed to the difficulties of working within an artistic community fraught with internal conflict, with its inherent divisions between the black ‘community’ artists, mostly self-taught, and the white artists, who have passed through the mill of the art schools or faculties, and have had the economic ability to gain access to ‘international’ art. 8
Art critic Ivor Powell, whose curatorial project (with gallerists Rayda Becker and Ricky Burnett) could not be realised owing to lack of funding, thought that as an event, the Biennale was too anxious to gain credibility through the inclusion of big international names, when it might have focused more specifically on Africa and thus realigned the problematic relationship between centre and periphery. 9 Art historian Sandra Klopper outlined the political factors involved in the organisation, and the extent to which radical and conservative elements made their way into the organisational body: ‘somehow the centre got left out, and the whole enterprise went limping along’. 10 It was also patently evident that the South African art establishment was primarily white, and that Johannesburg, and the Gauteng region in which it is situated, were favoured over other regions of the country (though not to their complete exclusion).
Other issues were less clear-cut. The exhibitions put on by Britain and the United States were certainly not what those countries would have chose to represent them at the Venice Biennale: while giving so-called marginal work an opportunity to circulate, these selections, in relation to this specific venue, seemed somewhat patronising. 11 The question of the ideological framing of any museological undertaking was implicit in the whole venture. Underlying the whole enterprise, lurked the suspicion (disguised but undoubtedly present) that, despite globalisation, if the periphery wants to be anywhere at all, it must at least borrow its discourse from the centre, or come to the centre for legitimation.
Despite these criticisms, the overall picture was, for me, one of extreme optimism: the lifting of an embargo, the beginning of dialogue. If it was still informed by a somewhat ingenuous earnestness, that, in my view, is secondary to the excitement and climate of goodwill generated by this event, and to the opening out of the ‘unseen borders’. Principally, putting aside the logistical and methodological problems that were stumbled upon along the way, the Biennale should be seen as a symbolic affirmation of the redefinition of the political boundary-lines in South Africa, an artistic legitimation of the country’s transition to democracy. 12
1. See Robert J.C. Young, ‘Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race’, Routledge: London and New York, 1995
2. Mariana Torgovnick, ‘Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives,’ University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 142.
3. James Clifford, ‘The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth century ethnography, literature and art,’ Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 213
4. Bongi Dhlomo, ‘Emerging from the Margins’, ‘Africus, Johannesburg Biennale’, Catalogue, 1995, pp. 26-27
5. ‘Africus, Johannesburg Biennale’, Catalogue, p. 112
6. Meir Ahronson, ‘The Unseen Borders’, catalogue for the Israeli exhibition, Johannesburg Biennale, p. 117
7. In conversation, February 1995
8. See Lorna Ferguson, ‘Reflections on the question: why a Johannesburg Biennale?’, Africus, op. cit, pp. 9-11
9. In conversation, February 1995
10. In conversation, February 1995
11. The British exhibition was entitled ‘Sometime/s, Brief Histories of Time’ and was curated by Sunil Gupta of the OVA (Organisation of Visual Arts), including work from Mohini Chandra, Joy Gregory and Yve Lomax, as well as the South African Clive van den Berg. There was also a British Council show entitled ‘Syrcas’, of work by Maud Sulter. The show from the States was obviously a ‘third world biennale’ package deal, having travelled previously to the São Paulo Bienal - Betye Saar and John Outterbridge. To this was added work by South African artist Noria Mabassa. Its rather overreaching title was ‘The Poetics of Politics, Iconography and Spirituality’!
12. See Sandra Klopper, ‘The art of transformation: iimbongi and the transition to democracy’ in South Africa, catalogue, Africus, op. cit, pp 42 - 47
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