The FNB Joburg Art Fair finds itself in murky territory. While the event has a clear focus on building a sustainable art-buying market that hopes to extend beyond the buyers and collectors of the established “circle”, it also attempts to bring the international into the South African market, and to allow the local some kind of access to the international. The fair aims to develop the local market as well as find its place in Africa and elsewhere. One then questions, especially in the light of yet another impending economic crisis, whether the fair is capable of doing both.
The organization of an annual South African art event, let alone an African one, has been troublesome. Funding and poor organization have prevented events, like Biennales, to take place consistently. But these are hardly new problems. The fact is that this fair is happening, and has managed to happen for four years, exposing the art public and the so-called ‘non-art’ public to emerging and established artists through the exhibiting of private galleries. October, a London-based gallery, has found a niche in representing African artists that have not been selected by South African galleries. The gallery is ‘instrumental’ in establishing the international careers of El Anatsui, Owusu-Ankoma and Romuald Hazoume. Although the gallery did not aim to create a stable of African artists, they found that The Joburg Art Fair allowed their artists exposure to an untapped South African/African market.
What does it mean when an English gallery manages to find success for their (African) artists overseas, only to bring them back to a so-called African art fair where they then form part of a gap in a market? This single instance reveals a common phenomenon that occurs in a variety of other commercial sectors, and is not unique to the art world. Several other galleries follow a similar track to October; Artco, Galerie Ames d’Afrique and Seippel Gallery are European-based, with interests in taking the work global. It would seem that the South African ties to African work are strangely European in a sense. Apart from Goodman and Stevenson who have brought African artists from their stable to the fair, there remains no South African gallery present this year that aims to include a collection of artists from other parts of the continent exclusively. Only one solely African gallery – not including the independent collective Migrant-C, is representing African artists: Omenka Gallery.
One can only wonder, as the only event of its kind in Africa, whether it is the fair’s responsibility to attempt to represent the continent. A fair and not a biennale, the event inadvertently finds itself wearing several hats. Albeit commercial in its focus Joburg Art Fair offers an opportunity for galleries to display their selected artists, the fair will be criticized as a “representative” enterprise as long as there are so few annual African art events.