AFRICUS – THE FIRST JOHANNESBURG BIENNALE
The name ‘Africus’ is deliberately ironic: being of Latin origin and gender specific, it poses questions central to the theme of the biennale. The two themes for entries, are ‘decolonizing our minds’ and ‘volatile alliances’ which aim to create a dialogue around issues of colonization, boundaries of race, gender, nation and marginality of every kind.
This is South Africa’s major art event after decades of isolation and cultural deprivation. Shifting the sites of an international exhibition from the centers of the international art market to the periphery poses its own challenges and invites its own definitions. Post apartheid South Africa now sees itself as a ‘Third World’ country and the place where the newest cultural, social and political experiments are now possible.
When we arrive in Johannesburg six days before the opening of the Biennale, the two main venues, the African Museum (an old vegetable market) and the Electric Workshop are still in what a local newspaper calls ‘a post apocalyptic mess’. Our spaces are in the Electric Workshop which itself is like a mammoth installation, with dust and sparks flying and walls still coming up. A fire engine stands outside hosing down the cavernous building…
The opening on 28th February is in a huge striped tent outside the electric workshop. Welding and painting and hammering has been going on till six o’ clock, but the exhibition is up. Nelson Mandela who was to inaugurate the exhibition could not come but there is a great sense of euphoria and celebration with rousing speeches and a colourful crowd of artists from 60 countries and people from Johannesburg, cheering and doing the clenched fist salute.
The Biennale has an explosive start with a work in gunpowder by Mainland Chinese artist Cai Gou Giang called ‘Restrained Violence – Rainbow’, which involved blowing out a series of windows from an old building opposite, leaving a scarring on the face of the building like an inscription or drawing.
One of the most spectacular works in the show, moving in its inward content and public reach, was ‘Memory and Geography’ a collaborative work by Doris Bloom, a Danish artist of South Arican origin and William Kentridge, a white Johannesburg artist. Through several months of dialogue they had worked out a series of images, taking from earlier shared experiences, and their later divergent histories. In their land project they had made a drawing of an old Johannesburg gate in front of the Electric Workshop and an 80 metre human heart outlined in white wash on the burnt veld outside the city., which was aerially photographed.
An animation film of maps, place names, objects and memories, metamorphosing into constellations and star maps, white drawings on black, is being projected on the sides of houses, in theatres, inside manholes in the form of videos,, and in historical places all over the city. Later, the film will be shown in Copenhagen and other cities in Europe.
Johannesburg is a peculiar place, scarred by its turbulent history. The atmosphere is tense . With its mirrored skyscrapers it looks like a Western city but the different races still live in segregated areas and there is not much life on the streets. Defining the landscape around the city are great earthen mounds, which are mine dumps – earth excavated from the gold mines on which the city is built. We go at dusk to see Johannesburg artist Clive van der Berg’s ‘Mine Dumps Project’. Huge outlines of sofas, lamps, swimming pools and faces are drawn in whitewash or fire on the sides of the mounds, which are lit up for an evening and then cease to exist. They speak of the ephemereality of white possessions built on a dark history. The mines themselves are disappearing as new mining companies use the earth to extract the leftover gold.
While these are ceremonial works, public extravaganzas which explore time, memory and history, Benny Afrat from Israel deals with movement, literal movement. In ‘Arafat Express’ . Parading horses saddled with video monitors showing intercut films on the forced migration of beasts and humans in the city, his subject is the diasporic experience.
Besides spectacular public art there are quiet, intense and powerful works like the installation, ‘Prostitutes Rooms’ by Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmreoansook. She makes narrow, black curtained , booth –like spaces enclosing oil filled rectangular holes and glass bowls stained with blood. Blood and oil are used as metaphors of suffering and violence.
Beauty too can be used to make a strong statement. Angela Ettoundi Essamba from Cameroon has a wall of arresting Black and white photographs in which she speaks of the beauty and power of black women. She poses nude black women with objects and fabric, in symbolic compositions. They are almost like fashion photographs but not quite…
In fact photography seems to solve the contradictions between ethnicity, distance, global and particular. It is present everywhere: as document; in series, with text; in the form of collage; in installations; printed on objects or on posters; used with light boxes or made into wall-length murals.
The political orientation of the whole exhibition invites work that bursts out of boundaries and questions accepted norms. In the Johannesburg art gallery, eight installations by local artist mischievously critique the art establishment. Kendell Gears empties a room of its exhibits and calls it’Title Withheld, Boycott’. It refers to the labels used in art galleries and also to the language used by the police when releasing information about victims of violent death without identifying them. Leona Farber installs a peephole box using various optical assemblages to view kitsch of still life in a room containing seventeenth century Dutch painting. She refers to the Dutch obsession for scientific observation and their tradition of still-life painting to comment on the politics of perception. Joachim Scholfeldt goes out of the museum altogether and locates his work, a photograph of a scrap metal dealer called ‘Untitled; The Noble Savage’, on promotional banners, brochures, posters and invitations for the exhibition. The most conceptual work of all, ‘Kemean culture’ by a group of Russian artists ? a fake recreation of a fictional civilization with all its artifacts, looked so much like a part of the museum that I walked past it…
Lorna Fergusson, the Biennale co-ordinator, is the one who makes the butterfly to fly. Called White Winnie by her detractors, she is a fiery woman who is legendary for having broken the nose of Christopher Till, the festival director. On the last day, we take her around the Indian section. Titled’ Dispossession, it consists of four installations by Nilima Sheikh, Nalini malani, Sheela Gowda and myself.
Nilima’s ‘Songspace’ is a series of painted hangings, Pichwais of poets, lovers and saints that speak of love, renunciation and longing. ‘Medeamaterial’ by Nalini has brilliantly painted robes against a painted mural backdrop and video. Using poor materials and natural colour, the work of Sheela Gowda and myself form an austere counterpoint. Sheela’s cowdung hangings and objects speak of the sacred and profane, women’s work and woman’s body. My work’ Excavations’ deals with the devastation of the communal riots with sculptures of paper and found objects.
I ask Lorna when the next biennale will be. She tells me firmly she won’t be there but the exhibition will be more like the Havana Biennale- smaller, more compact, and concentrating on Third World Art.