Julie Belcove 2017-11-30 21:49:26
South Africa’s vibrant contemporary art scene, steadily growing for the last decade, just got another boost with the openings of Zeitz MOCAA and the A4 Arts Foundation. "There’s only one art history. It’s about writing more people from Africa or the African diaspora into that history.” The words belong to Liza Essers, who bought South Africa’s legendary Goodman Gallery nearly a decade ago, but the mission is one that countless artists, curators, art historians, and collectors have undertaken with fierce determination in recent years. The list of influential artists of African heritage dominating the conversation today—El Anatsui, William Kentridge, Kara Walker, Mark Bradford, Hank Willis Thomas, Kader Attia, Nicholas Hlobo, Zanele Muholi, Mikhael Subotzky—goes on and on. Their output is not purely for Western consumption either. Local art scenes are thriving on the continent, arguably none more so than those of the South African cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town. These metropolises have long had a bit of a New York/LA dichotomy, with Johannesburg the kinetic, business-oriented creative cauldron and Cape Town a coastal haven of such jaw-dropping physical beauty that perhaps it neglected to develop its cultural side. Although Johannesburg had something of a head start, Cape Town has been catching up, with a thriving network of galleries in the gentrified Woodstock area, new nonprofit spaces springing up and artists increasingly opting for the Mother City’s more low-key atmosphere. The most attention- grabbing development has been the opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa this past September. Founded by German businessman and collector Jochen Zeitz in partnership with the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, it’s the first major museum on the continent dedicated exclusively to contemporary art of the region and the African diaspora. “The enormous creativity I experienced in Africa—I just didn’t see that represented anywhere in an institution,” says Zeitz, who spends much of his time on his Kenyan estate. So about a decade ago, he set out to build an art collection featuring artists who spanned the continent, from Morocco to South Africa, with an eye toward making it accessible to the public somewhere in Africa. The museum stands on the V&A Waterfront, a bustling shopping destination. British architect Thomas Heatherwick oversaw the stunning transformation of a gigantic grain silo complex, a landmark that was once the city’s tallest structure but had sat dormant for years. It boasts 65,000 square feet of exhibition space spread over nine floors, but the museum’s architectural showstopper is a soaring central atrium, modeled on a single kernel of corn. Among the 11 inaugural exhibitions (most of them still on view) are the first museum survey for Nandipha Mntambo, known for her arresting cowhide sculptures referencing the human body; Michele Mathison’s meditative installations on agriculture from the Zimbabwe Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale; and “All Things Being Equal…,” which offers a broader taste of Jochen Zeitz’s collection, featuring such artists as Ghada Amer, Rashid Johnson and Wangechi Mutu, who is also an artist trustee of the museum. “It’s adding a whole other layer to the ecosystem,” says Joost Bosland, a director of Stevenson, one of South Africa’s leading galleries. “It will be interesting to see how they wield that power.” Like Goodman Gallery, whose artists include Kentridge and Sue Williamson, Stevenson has outposts in both cities and represents internationally recognized artists, including Subotzky, Hlobo, and Muholi. Such artists have not only flourished in Western markets, but have found local collectors, too. When Bosland joined the gallery in 2006, roughly 10 percent of sales were to South African buyers; now that figure is about 50 percent. Other recent arrivals in Cape Town include Blank Projects, SMAC (Stellenbosch Modern and Contemporary) Gallery, and Gallery MOMO, whose flagship is in Johannesburg. Nonprofits such as the nascent Maitland Institute play a role in Cape Town, too, showcasing influential artists like Subotzky. South African-born sculptor and collector Wendy Fisher, who is also president of the board of trustees of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, formally inaugurated the A4 Arts Foundation in September with a group show featuring Malick Sidibé, Glenn Ligon, and Yoko Ono, among many others. The goal, according to A4 director Josh Ginsburg, is to give artists a place to experiment while drawing more of the public into the art conversation. The city also boasts the Iziko South African National Gallery. The museum remains best known for its Dutch, French, Flemish and British pieces from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but it holds works by Kentridge, Hlobo, and Mntambo as well. It wasn’t all that long ago that black artists showing their work at the groundbreaking Goodman Gallery, founded in Johannesburg in 1966, during the brutal apartheid era, were forced to pose as waiters at their own openings if police were nearby. “Very consciously, the DNA of Goodman Gallery was to work with art to change the power structures,” says Essers. Though equal rights are now enshrined in the South African constitution, political institutions remain fragile. As recently as 2012, the gallery was faced with a criminal inquiry for displaying a satirical painting of President Jacob Zuma by Brett Murray. “Even today,” Essers says, “we’re still in a precarious position with a young democracy.” It’s a reality that pervades much of the art being produced and exhibited in the country. “Things are really politically loaded, still, after all this time,” says Claudette Schreuders, a Cape Town-based sculptor, who recalls being amazed during a New York residency early in her career that artists in the U.S. “felt free to make work about anything— materials, whatever. South Africans have felt burdened to make work about history.” That searing history of colonialism has helped make Zeitz MOCAA something of a flashpoint. There are those who lament that a wealthy white European has spearheaded the museum and appointed another white man, Mark Coetzee, as executive director and chief curator. Jochen Zeitz somewhat awkwardly defends the move by proclaiming, “I’m color-blind.” But he also notes that the museum has two dozen curatorial trainees. “You fast-forward 50 years and I would hope there would be more institutions across Africa.” The museum has also taken heat for slapping Zeitz’s name on itself, despite the fact that he has merely granted the institution a lifetime loan of his collection (or a minimum of 20 years in the event of his early death), not donated it outright. “What happens after my lifetime, my children can decide,” Zeitz says. “I hope they continue to support the institution, but it’s not something I want to dictate to them.” Perhaps the most stinging critique has come from the respected Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor, who questioned whether Zeitz MOCAA possesses the “requisite intellectual architecture” of a top-notch museum. Still other critics have expressed concern that Zeitz MOCAA will perpetuate the ghettoization of African artists rather than put them on an equal footing with their international peers. But most Africans in the art world are rejoicing that there is now a dedicated repository for their artwork on their home turf. That access, in the opinion of artist Athi-Patra Ruga, is the key. “Every day there are reminders of 400 years of slavery, 400 years of colonialism, 400 years of segregation,” says Ruga about living in the city. “We need new monuments. People can go to this place and view their stories.” Mntambo, who lives in Johannesburg, concurs. “I’ve been able to sell a lot of work, but I never see my work again because it ends up mostly with overseas collectors,” she says. “To see it in this beautiful space is really amazing. European artists have had this kind of platform. The playing field has been leveled.” “I’ve been able to sell a lot of work, but I never see my work again because it ends up mostly with overseas collectors. To see it in this beautiful space is really amazing. European artists have had this kind of platform. The playing field has been leveled.” —Nandipha Mntambo “Every day there are reminders of 400 years of slavery, 400 years of colonialism, 400 years of segregation…. We need new monuments. People can go to this place and view their stories.” —Athi-Patra Ruga
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