BY Sean O'Toole in Reviews | 12 SEP 07

Motive is crucial to understanding CAPE 07. A multi-venue art event that briefly occupied a host of far-flung venues across Cape Town’s dissonant urban landscape, CAPE 07 was defined by two objectives: rehabilitation and tourism. Despite the visibility of its artists internationally, South Africa’s art scene has been in remission ever since the demise of the Johannesburg Biennial. A useful image to hang onto here is that of a bellicose Soho Eckstein lying prone in a hospital bed, from William Kentridge’s film History of the Main Complaint (1996). Underscoring the point in an interview last year, the artist Willem Boshoff tersely summed up the loss: ‘The sinking of the Johannesburg Biennial left many artists without hope.’

Given the swift uptake of Cape Town into a globalized tourist economy, it was perhaps fitting that this city of 3 million take up the defibrillator and administer the charge. Unfortunately, CAPE 07’s organizers bungled their resuscitation efforts. Arrogance and incompetence were equally to blame. While the initial seed capital for CAPE 07 was generated on the premiss of developing an off-season tourist event with cultural significance, its organizers consistently tiptoed around this fact. Instead, they set about promising big things (new work by 60 artists from 19, mostly African, countries), also indulged in hubristic showmanship (‘The biennial format has run its course’, asserted artistic director Gavin Jantjes) and callow theorizing (‘What is contemporary Africa?’ Jantjes asked rhetorically).

Originally scheduled to open in September 2006, the event was controversially postponed at the last minute. By the time CAPE 07 was launched in March this year, Jantjes (quite reasonably) had resigned his position. The organizers nonetheless pressed on, retaining Jantjes’ model of a scattered exhibition plan; the artist list was, however, scaled back and the quota of South Africans upped as key international artists, Yinka Shonibare and El Anatsui among them, withdrew. Predictably, PR spin was used to cover up the yawning cracks: emphasis was placed on the fringe, the language of size also replaced by the moderate promise of a ‘cultural soup’.

‘In spite of its dumb name, Bigness is a theoretical domain at this fin de siècle’, wrote Rem Koolhaas of New York in 1994. ‘In a landscape of disarray, disassembly, dissociation, disclamation, the attraction of Bigness is its potential to reconstruct the Whole, resurrect the Real, reinvent the collective, reclaim maximum possibility.’ Cape Town is not New York, obviously, but Koolhaas’ words are nonetheless apt. In the benign tourist economy of Cape Town’s inner city, CAPE 07 looked to the edge. It was a clever strategy: to get to the various outlying exhibition venues visitors had to negotiate the city’s visible ‘landscape of disarray’ and inequality. Perhaps more so than the eclectic art on offer, this was CAPE 07’s defining achievement.

The idea of locating CAPE 07’s central exhibition at Look Out Hill, a modest community centre in the impoverished township of Khayelitsha, also constituted an audacious move and became the symbolic focal point for the show. Outstanding work here included Nicholas Hlobo’s sculptural installation Umthubi (2006), a camp, heretical re-envisioning of a kraal, or traditional cattle enclosure. The subversive heft of his circular construction, assembled using exotic and indigenous wood, which the artist binds with steel and wire, is suggested by a loose weave of pink ribbon covering the inner area that is meant to evoke a trampoline. Like El Anatsui, Hlobo has shown himself adept at intuiting mesmerizing new uses for random junk; his tactile piece of sculpture concludes with a testicle-like object made of rubber inner tube, placed near the entrance to the kraal. Slyly funny and erotic, Hlobo’s work also speaks of the regenerative potential of ancestral wisdom.

The diverse selection of portraiture installed nearby offered a mixed bag. Togolese artist El Loko’s simple but forceful installation Africa Down (2006) comprised a scattering of headshots of African faces, which visitors could walk over – a gesture very distinct from observing, at eye-level, four uninspired lithographs by Marlene Dumas titled The Fog of War (2006). Not even an impassioned text accompanying these monochromatic meditations on ‘dying in a foreign land’ could salvage the work: it was bereft in all senses.

The photography of South Africans Nontsikelelo Veleko and Zanele Muholi offered a counterbalance. Both graduates of the Market Photo Workshop, founded in 1989 by fellow exhibitor David Goldblatt, Veleko and Muholi use photography as a celebratory and self-defining tool. Directly inspired by Japanese street fashion photographer Shoichi Aoki, Veleko creates (rather than simply documents) winsome portraits of Johannesburg’s urban hipsters. Forsaking her typically strident manner and defining subject matter (black lesbian culture), Muholi showed a series of stagy portraits of young black gay men. But quality was not really what mattered; the periphery was now at the centre.

Sean O’Toole is a contributing editor of frieze, based in Cape Town, South Africa.