Institute for Creative Arts
We start our first day in Cape Town with a visit to the ICA, the Institute for Creative Arts, located at the campus of the University of Cape Town. We are welcomed by its director, and curator of the Live Art Festival, Jay Pather, and introduced to Nomusa Makhube, teaching at the Fine Art department, and Nkule Mabasso, director of the Michaelis Galleries. For this report I focus on the first presentation.
The ICA, comprising different academies for the arts, is organized according the conservative UK university system. The challenge Pather identifies is how to get these different academies to speak with each other, use the political potential of multidisciplinarity.
The ICA aims for a shift from having discourse within the frame of decolonial projects, towards a growing understanding of the need and urgency to disseminate these projects so they can be seen. Whilst in the reconciliation project there has been “a lot of hugging, but not much exchange of wealth”, the process of appropriation and re-appropriation is still going on in the context of a topographically severely divided city. In Pathers view this calls for a repositioning of ideas about identity and urges contemporary art to propose ideas and methods for relocating (the) work, in order to create dialogue with the community.
For the ICA this means trying to go outside of/beyond both, the campus and university, and instead of window dressing, aim for more fundamental changes. Like multidisciplinarity in the arts questions conventions of form, the ICA wants to break with the compartmentalized university structure and resist its deeply embedded tenets, to present projects that are developed from artistic and art theoretical, as well as for instance anthropological and economical perspective. It also means, going into the city, and foremost, moving within the city, experimenting with how performance can relate to the different strata of a city and its communities, and being attentive to how audiences engage with the work and with each other. This “curating the city” is based on an itinerant way of being present, that hopefully will be “infective”.
The Live Art Festival has a biennial structure and had its first iteration in 2012. In resonance with the student protests Rhodes must Fall and the Fees must Fall, the festival is placing the body in the front. Currently the fourth edition is taking place. Curious to see some performances in the festival and witness the way they unfold in the city, Patricia Kaersenhout and I decided to attend two performances. We went to see the lecture performance Engaging the Archive: Creative Resistance Through Publication on the aesthetics and performativity of protest publishing by Leila Khan and Nombuso Mathibela.
The presentation took place in a vestibule like space in the Cape Town Central Library. The set up was simple (chairs for the audience, screen, sound system) and the lecture respectfully immersed in the library setting. It was a rich and intelligent report of a group of students that have joined forces to maintain the archive of Dr. Neville Alexander (Wikipedia: “a proponent of a multilingual South Africa and a former revolutionary who spent ten years on Robben Island as a fellow-prisoner of Nelson Mandela”) at The Interim, a space for live music, art and education, as well as to learn from the design and publishing forms and techniques from the past, for their publication series Pathways to Free Education.
Performance Zabebaleka Limbhumbhulu (They Were Running from Bullets) by Qondiswa James
After, we went to the square in front of Cape Town Station where the performance Zabebaleka Limbhumbhulu (They Were Running from Bullets) by Qondiswa James was taking place. On a triangularly formed plan covered with salt, demarcated with cordon tape that was held in place at two corners by bricks, and at the third corner by a drum kit, three performers were kneeling, heads and body covered by undyed cloth. The live drum score had a continuum rhythm, calm but persistent, with the performers initially static, though kneeling is an act (!), making gradually more crawling, shaking movements. At an unannounced moment a fourth male performer entered ‘the arena’, bare feet, proclaiming texts in a language I couldn’t identify. Casually dressed he didn’t overtly distinguish himself from the audience, which made me puzzled for a moment about his ‘status’.
The performance lasted for about an hour, with the audience slowly accumulating and grouping together around the performance in a circle. The general sphere was attentive, in most cases serious and curious, sometimes more ridiculing the performance. At one point a man from the public made his rather provocative entrance, and was gently ushered back by another audience member, the situation was taken care of from within. The rhythm and cadence of the drum score, the movements of the performers slowly evolving and becoming more frenetic, the audience members gradually sitting in their place – at some point there was this magic moment of the performance becoming an organism where performers, onlookers and setting become one breathing body. In front of the triangle three cardboards signs lay on the floor with the respective texts written on them, shouting, begging: “you are building the city” / “why are you not living in the city” / “take back the city”.
A4 Arts Foundation, Cape Town
The A4 Arts Foundation is one of the newly opened institutions in the Cape Town art scene, located in a three-storey warehouse in District Six. Director Josh Ginsberg explains how he endeavors to make a new contribution to the city’s cultural life. He describes how Cape Town’s arts ecology largely revolves around Universities on the one hand and commercial galleries that shape and sell the international narrative of South-African art on the other. The risk within this context (something which will also be voiced by others we meet later) is that artists have to make a leap from student work to the scale and expectations of gallery shows immediately. A4 wants to play a bridging role and help build better support structures for artists. Part of A4s support structure are an openly accessible art library and meeting space downstairs, exhibition spaces upstairs, and a collection as a shared resource.
For emerging artists, A4 aims to function as a lab, where new work can be tested and developed. This concept can be seen at work in the exhibition on view, entitled ‘Parallel Play’, which was inspired by the way children play side by side in the same room, and see each other play. Josh invited a group of artists to work side by side in the gallery space, using it as a shared open studio and testing ground. We see, amongst others, how established artist Jo Ratcliff has been sketching ideas for a retrospective exhibition, models for new work by Kyle Morland, and Bad Paper collective at work on their editions.
Josh sees the shared open studio concept not only as fruitful for artists, but also as a strategy to connect artists with collectors. In a context where there is very little state support for artists, Josh has innovative ideas about how collectors could not only be stimulated to buy artworks but be enticed to be part of the support structure for artists in a wider sense. The gallery as lab and studio could facilitate conversations about the relationships between the artworks and the processes and conditions of arts production. While many (potential) collectors sometimes find art somewhat inaccessible, Josh strongly believes they can easily relate to the business of being an artist. He would like to seize the opportunity to engage collectors from his network in conversations about the need for proper studio and storage space, financial planning, etc, and to develop ideas about patronage in terms of both money and expertise from this wider perspective. The gallery-as-studio is intended as the setting where such conversations can be held.
The A4 foundation was funded through artist, collector and philantropist Wendy Fisher and the Kirsh Family Foundation. A selection from Fisher’s private collection is an integral part of the A4 concept. Adjacent to the library of books on the ground floor, A4 houses a modest storage space with an impressive and inspiring stock of works by South African artists. Josh calls it an ‘art library’, which is accessible by appointment and available as a working collection to the artists and guest curators involved with A4. A brief peek reveals gems by Wim Botha, Moshekwa Langa and many others, David Goldblatt’s iconic image of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement and a deeply moving photographs by Santu Mofokeng of an improvised church ceremony on a commuter train, made in the apartheid period, when black citizens were forced to spend so much time traveling from their segregated townships to their work location that they had to carve out the spaces for the important rituals of life in these ways.
A4 Arts Foundation has been welcomed as an alternative in the Cape Town arts scene. Yet the connection with the Kirsh family’s capital has also led to a controversy, because of its apparent historical entwinement with the apartheid economy and current connection with Israeli politics against the Palestinians. This controversy seems to point to a question that became acute for A4, but in some way pertains to many of the endeavors in the Cape Town artworld (and elsewhere, for that matter) enabled by private benefactors and tainted capital: can money rooted in questionable politics and economies be rerouted to make a difference?While some artists have decided to keep their distance from A4, some of the institutions we meet during the week do confirm the important role A4 is playing. At Blank gallery, we recognize the huge sculptures by Kyle Morland, which we had seen as sketches and models in A4’s ‘Parallel Play’. Blank’s team confirms how A4 is functioning as an important and new kind of patron for the gallery’s artists, not only by buying risky genres of art for its collection, but also by fronting money for artistic production and experimentation.
District Six Museum
District Six Museum next to A4 is an institution that plays a bridging role in a very different way. It is a pity that both neighbours do not seem to be affiliated. In comparison to the contemporary arts scene that is currently taking shape, the District Six Museum seems rather under-resourced, yet it is deeply significant in the way it tells the gripping, moving and thought-provoking story of District Six. This area has become a symbol of the racial spatial politics of apartheid, formalized in the 1960s in the Group Areas Act, which banned ‘black’ and ‘coloured’ groups from living in ‘white’ areas, forcing them (amongst others) to commute long distances to work, providing they had the proper ‘Pass’ that allowed them to enter their white-owned workplace in the first place. Cape Town was the model city of apartheid’s spatial politics. When District Six was declared a white area in 1966, more than 60.000 citizens were forcefully removed and relocated. Their homes were bulldozered.
The museum sketches this violent politics and its impact on the district’s geography in its entrance area, but its strength is that its real focus is not the white apartheid regime and the ways the regime victimized (and continues to affect) unimaginable masses of black and coloured citizens. Instead of affording the apartheid regime the status of the main subject, the museum gives central stage to the cultural life that existed in District Six before its erasure. Shops, restaurants, dubbeldecker busses and tramlines, hairdressers that would whip up the latest hairdos so local clubbers could go out in style, lots of live music and a beautiful cinema form but a glimpse of this. It is the focus on this vibrant culture that, at least in my limited perspective, hits home hard. I am amazed about the existence of this rich cultural life. And I am confronted with my own lack of knowledge and inability to imagine it before I saw the evidence. This too is the lasting impact of racist logic and its nasty power to make negative affects ‘stick’ (in Sara Ahmed’s words) for so long: the deeply ingrained racist preconception that a black modern culture could not have existed in such a place and time – a preconception that exactly buys into everything the white suprematist argumentation of apartheid would have the world believe. This important museum does not have the internationally renowned art that the new Zeitz MOCAA and other arts institutions are showcasing, nor anything near their budgets and prestige, but it tells its story with (often anonymous) community art, guided tours and conversations, and especially with photographs, drawn from the private albums of District Six inhabitants. It is important to know (as professor Premesh Lalu later tells us) that these pictures were not assembled as a mere museological project: they were the evidence the evicted inhabitants brought to the table when after 2003 they were allowed to reclaim their land.
Greatmore Street Studios
Greatmore Street Studios is located in two former homes in Woodstock, on a road that once formed the border between the segregates ‘white’ and ‘coloured’ zones. It was founded in 1998 as a studio facility and workshop programme for artists across the divisions of background, training and generation. In a context where government funding for individual artists is very limited, Greatmore Street Studios has managed to raise funding to offer twelve sponsored studios. South-African artists can apply for 3-year residencies; artists from elsewhere can apply for a 3-month stay. Artists are selected on the basis of their portfolio and motivation. Not making academic training or familiarity with a certain discourse a criterion, has been a deliberate strategy to welcome artists from a range of backgrounds and to include self-taught artists, who did not have the privilege of formal training or have found their artistic voice through other routes. This inclusive approach was crucial at the studios’ inception and remains crucial today.
Maurice Mbikayi’s studio
One of the 3-year residents we meet is Maurice Mbikayi (born in Kinshasa, now based in Cape Town), whose amazing installations and performance photographs involving costumes sculpted out of keyboard keys, reflect on technological advancement, exploitative labour and digital aliens.
Greatmore Street Studios not only offers studio facilities but also a programme of two-week workshops to residents and others, allowing artists to meet and learn from each other, and to develop a range of tools, from technical skills to how to document or theorize work. The two-week model had a strategic function during the international boycott of South Africa, when it was difficult for South-African artists to engage in international exchange. Two weeks were long enough for a productive workshop, and short enough to avoid attention: by the time authorities would realise what was going on, the foreign artists would already have returned home.
Founding member Jill Trappler and current managing director Loyiso Qanya explain how, like it’s sister organisation Bag Factory in Joburg, the studios find their origins in the activities of British businessman Robert Loder. He supported black artists and mixed-race venues since the late 1950s, at a time when black artists were prohibited access to education and exhibitions. With Anthony Caro, he also founded Triangle Arts Trust, an international network of artist-led workshops and residencies, which started in the 1980s New York and found its first spin-off in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Jill tells us that Loder’s engagement with South African art was strongly influenced by his encounter with anti-apartheid activist, priest Trevor Huddleston, and that his philosophy was to redirect the money he earned in the oil and mining economy to foster African arts. As part of this endeavor, he bought properties in Cape Town and Joburg and made them available to Greatmore Street Studios and Bag Factory for a symbolic rent. The Triangle Network, in which both organisations take part, has now become a global network, including artist-led organisations across Africa, South Asia, Australia and the UK, with Gasworks in London as the network’s main hub. Greatmore Street Studios also connects with its immediate surroundings through engagement with local schools and a ‘Great Walk and More’ festival.
Centre for the Periphery
Across the road an important new organisation is building its home: the Centre for the Periphery, an initiative of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of Western Cape. It will house a Laboratory of Kinetic Objects, The Handspring Puppet Company and a residency programme for artists and academics. And it will also provide a home to the archival collections of the University, which include the most important documents, campaign materials, artworks and films relating to the Contra Apartheid struggle – crucial collections, director and UWC professor Premesh Lalu tells us, to revisit, study and make available for the public in the current struggle to build a democratic public sphere in South Africa.
Our first day in Cape Town ended with a stunning tour of Zeitz MOCAA – the record setting and truly jaw dropping museum, showcasing exclusively 21st century African art. The museum opened at Cape Town’s Waterfront area only one year ago, as the continent’s largest art institution and world’s largest museum dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its Diaspora. All set in British architect Thomas Heatherwick’s impressive industrial blade runner take on a marked but disused 1921 grain silo. Once used to redistribute south africa’s grain; today divided into nine floors (!), hosting 100 galleries (!). Wau, indeed!
The museum’s collection is centred around the private collection of German business tycoon and avid art collector Jochen Zeitz (known for instance as the former CEO of Puma sportswear).
He allegedly purchased more than 80 artworks at the 2013 Venice biennale, counting the entire Angolese pavilion, which won that year’s golden lion for best pavilion.
Many of these works incl. the pavilion are now part of the Zeitz MOCAA, matching the museum’s district profile: all collection works are from 2000-2018 and all works are by African and African diaspora artists.
(No smartphone photos do the building justice, so while I add some here for authenticity (I was there!), I recommend you all to find professional photos online as well as video talks and walk throughs online.)
We were met by Director and Chief Curator Azu Nwagbogu and Curator Tandazani Dhlakamat who gave us a nuanced introduction to the institution’s many current programmes and its ambitious plans for the future.
One such future plan is a bus transporting youth and children from and to the townships as well as an entire exhibition directed at children as the primary audience group.
Image text: Zeitz MOCAA also hosts a curatorial “laboratory” currently focussing on LGBTQIS, aiming to provide both a safe space and a reference library. Here Curator Tandazani Dhlakamat is introducing the project and Swazi artist Banele Khoza’s work.
To be continued…
List of artists in the Zeitz collection