Yes. Jo’burg is a big city. I haven’t been up there in quite a while, and I forgot that Jo’burg just stretches out for ever. And that if you don’t have a car it’s very easy to get stuck somewhere. Which is why after landing at Oliver Tambo, I ended up drinking all day at the Bowling Club. It is my new favourite place on Earth, with R8 pints of Castle, and R22 pizza’s. I’d recommend it to anybody. Later, we managed to get a ride to the Johannesburg Art Gallery for the opening of Africa Remix, which as is well known, sits right in the centre of town, next to Joubert Park. Getting in meant encountering an unhealthy amount of taxis. And then an unhealthy amount of people. I really haven’t seen that many people in a long time, and I was surprised that that many people were interested in art. But it was, as my good friend Eddie Yang pointed out, a blockbuster show. And that’s what blockbusters do.
It really was overwhelming. You had to shoulder your way in, maybe catch a glimpse of some art, and then suffer a stampede for the free prints by Aimé Ntakiyica. Dashing out into the courtyard was not much help, the bar was out there and there was a free drinks scramble. This is not even mention the canape crush. I have never seen anything like it, the waiters came out holding the trays high above their heads, but people were leaping and snatching. An image that will never leave me is a poor waitress being pinned to a Chéri Samba painting by her tray, while a slavering heap of people grasped for a lick of tzatiki tureen.
The speeches were pretty boring too, various ministers of cultures, some important French man. The highlight was the speech by Simon Njami, the curator, sweeping up, all in black with sunglasses, complete rock star. After the speeches a really horrifying performance started, with someone doing equations on a blackboard, endlessly. His voice was annoying, so we left in a hurry. Having barely seen any art we felt a little bad, and vowed to spend more time when one didn’t have to beat the person in front of one with a rolled up mass of free prints, just to catch a glimpse. The panel discussion was due to take place on Tuesday, so we would be back anyway.
Monday was a blur, I believe we went back to the Bowling Club. I think.
Tuesday turned into a disaster. Our lift situation got a bit confused, and I ended up stuck in a flat in Killarney for most of the day, reading old Visi magazines. Finally, things pulled together, and I dashed out, forgetting my camera. This is why most of the images you will see come from the Universes in Universe site. They are mostly from the version of the show in Dusseldorf. By the time we finally arrived at JAG, the discussion had already begun. We slipped in at the back, just in time for what appeared to be a rambling discussion, about something I’m not sure what. Slipped back out again, deciding the time might be better spent looking at the art.
I can’t say I was amazed. It just seems too much. Some of the individual works stopped me, Jane Alexander, Wangechi Mutu, Bili Bidjoka, Ghada Amer, Ingrid Mwangi (above) to a few that struck me. But much of the curating didn’t make sense to me. I felt lost and a little arbitrary. What seems to happen to me is that the work takes a back seat, to the concept of the exhibition, which I presume is to give an overview of contemporary African art. In this regard I think it was successful, but I don’t think the artist’s come out as the winners at the end. Is it necessary to produce something this big?
Another question that it raises, is if why the majority of artists are working and living in Europe? Is this a problem? Is it another instance of a continent being spoken for, by people not necessarily in the position to do so? Or is it just impossible to make the quality of work expected by Europeans while still living in Africa?
I went back in to the discussion hoping that some of these issues would be broached in the Q&A session, but the Q&A session was one question, and one answer. Maybe if I sat through all the panel discussions it would have been clearer, but it seems that mostly the artists were discussing their own work. (Something I might be doing a bit later, a feature of some the works that moved me).
We headed to the after party, which was the best after party ever. On the roof of the French Institute in New Town, we were plied with endless amounts of champagne and snacks. The waiters were eager, and followed you around. The cheese was fantastic.