‘AFRICA WILL BE THE NEW CHINA,’ predicted Charlie Finch, writing on Artnet.com in January 2009. Fifteen months later, two years after the Beijing Olympics, and two weeks before the FIFA World Cup kicked-off in Johannesburg, the Cape Town survey show ‘... For Those Who Live In It’ opened in the Netherlands in a project space ironically named after a fictional sunken continent. This fortuitous timing provoked a possibly paranoid question: are art trends determined by the global agendas of sports cabals based in Switzerland? But this is an intrigue for another day.
‘... For Those Who Live In It’, which focused on contemporary art and culture in South Africa being made at a moment when the country is struggling to refresh its image, was critically complex, simultaneously naïve and sophisticated, idealist and cynical. But the clearest initial impression was a sense of complicity. Pop culture is a youth thing, which can devolve into voyeurism (or vampirism) when presented in galleries. Throw in exoticism and the dilemma intensifies: would you like some foreign spices with your fresh young blood? Without levelling charges, what I am trying to say is that hosting passport shows is a sensitive business; curiosity can become patronizing and a desire for pluralism can degenerate into tokenism. But perhaps I’m only discharging my own neuroses.
The opening was wild. MU flew many of the artists over, and they dominated the event, supplying a bizarro-diplomatic vibe to this Dutch/South African exchange. The gold-toothed representative of the artist group Gugelective, smartly attired in a cloth cap, suit and tie, and one half of the graphics duo Love and Hate, equipped with a Boer hat and an eye patch that made him look like a sheriff, both deserve special mention for sartorial excellence. But the indisputable star of the evening was the artist Athi-Patra Ruga, whose stunning performance work captured the whole problematic in 15 unsettling neo-primitivist minutes. His untitled work consisted of the artist standing semi-naked in front of a video projection of what looked like a horror film, violently knifing balloons that were taped to his body. The balloons were filled with liquid – when they split, it looked like gushing blood. The overwhelming impression was somebody repeatedly stabbing himself for our curiously disinterested aesthetic assessment, though it was also darkly humorous.
The racial undertones implied by Ruga were rendered explicit by the photographer Zanele Muholi’s earnest triptych Caitlin & I, Boston USA (2008). The work presents the pure binary statement with an unambiguous colour contrast: a white female nude, lying on a black female nude. Muholi, who describes herself as a black lesbian and an activist-photographer, is controversial in South Africa, where her work has been criticized as pornographic and her sexuality denounced as ‘un-African’. What’s the connection between race and sexuality? What does it mean to be an ‘un-African’ African? Together with Caitlin & I, Boston USA, three pictures from Muholi’s more studied ‘Miss Lesbian’ series (2009) extended this inquiry into zones of androgyny, jewellery and tribalism.
While Muholi’s interest in gender trouble complicates her treatment of the race question, comic book artist Anton Kannemeyer offered a more direct approach. The Afrikaner (who also works under the alias Joe Dog) is something of an underground hero for his work on the fearless satirical graphics annual Bitterkomix, which he has been publishing with Conrad Botes since 1992. In other words, he has made better work than what was presented here: a pair of large paintings of caricature ‘negro’ footballers, modelled after Hergé’s indiscretions (a Kannemeyer trademark) in Tintin in the Congo (1931). The paintings were the only works to directly touch on the World Cup (though Muholi runs an all-black lesbian soccer team) and I’m not sure that I got their point.
The politico-literary collective Chimurenga, primarily a twice-yearly pan-African journal, induced a more productive confusion with the show’s most impressive single project: a Borgeso–Bolañian (or Nkrumah–Mbembian ...) post-colonial library, consisting of a contingently (as opposed to systematically) conceived bibliographical index, an intriguing spiderweb diagram, Chimurenga back issues, and artist cards. The work was first pioneered last year at the Cape Town public library and aspects of it are available online.
Stacey Hardy, a contributing editor of Chimurenga in attendance in Eindhoven, offered the following comment on the project: ‘We made the map and the territory.’ This vertiginous statement, combined with the work itself, provoked a search for the suppositional centre of the Chimurenga labyrinth. The figure was finally identified thanks to the Harare-born Kudzanai Chiura, and his untitled installation for the assassination of Robert Mugabe, a simple but effective mechanism consisting of a desk, a bloodstained desk chair and two comfortable inclining leather chairs (2010). Theoretically, the installation could be reactivated at any time.