Fair and Folly

Sue Williamson, Messages from the Atlantic Passage (detail), 2017.

“I HOPE IT ISN’T TOO DISTURBING,” a well-dressed white woman said to her friend as they considered whether to enter a sound installation about police violence at the Eleventh Joburg Art Fair earlier this month. The installation, placed right by the entrance to the fair, was the work of Haroon Gunn-Salie, the 2018 winner of the fair’s annual FNB Art Prize. It featured a black box in which an immersive soundscape was suspended from the ceiling, making listeners feel as if they were underground. We sat on the floor, and soon the voices of mine workers washed over us, in an anti-apartheid protest song. We heard them work, breaking earth. We would eventually hear them being shot by the South African Police Service, the live ammunition reloaded at speed and released into their protesting bodies. In reality, thirty-four miners were killed that day. They were all black.

The event was the Marikana Massacre of August 16, 2012, a day mine workers had been protesting their low wages. The artist was questioning whether justice was served following their tragic murder.

The woman was right, I suppose; the installation was “too disturbing.” It was about police violence, so how could it not be? But I couldn’t help thinking, What a privilege. This statement was being asked by someone who will likely never have to protest low wages, who will hardly ever be in danger of being shot for protesting, who was here to enjoy art about experiences she will likely never be intimate with. All thanks to the racial politics in today’s South Africa and represented here on the fair’s walls. This thought about the insulated consumer played out repeatedly during my two days of visiting the fair.

The event opened exclusively to VIPs on an ominously cold Thursday in the bright and cavernous Sandton Convention Centre. Admission was conducted by ushers wielding fancy gadgets that beeped when held to the barcode invitations that guests had received in the mail. The guests seemed impatient, itching for the ushers to get on with it faster to let us see the art that lay beyond the center’s ceiling-high doors. Some visitors tarried with champagne glasses in hand or with wine, presumably harvested from the grape fields for which South Africa is famous.

Opening night.

When we eventually entered, we were immediately swept into contested waters, into Sue Williamson’s installation Messages from the Atlantic Passage, 2017. Glass bottles filled with sand are bound together by chains and held in fishnets suspended from the ceiling, spilling into wooden tanks below. A departure (Nigeria and Gabon) and destination (Havana) and the number of slaves carried were inscribed on the tanks. Eerily, the number of slaves that reached the destination was also recorded, always less than the number that departed. Guests, entranced, milled around it.

But there was trouble. Water dripped from above, through the nets and into the tanks below. The flow was wayward. It spilled onto the floor. Soon, we saw two black men in overalls, mopping the floor. Was this a performance? I returned to the fair on Sunday and discerned that it was not. It was housekeeping. It was the history of what the installation was spotlighting playing itself out in present day.

A disadvantaged black man—his history suspended over him by a white artist—in his rightful place, tending to a floor that must be wiped clean for the fair’s moneyed guests. Also, one of the tanks bore a departure point titled “Ouidah, Nigeria.” Ouidah is in Benin (formerly Dahomey) and not Nigeria. “Surely she can’t make this kind of rookie mistake?” my friend and fellow critic Ismail Fayed whispered to me. Sue Williamson has been practicing for about two decades.

I walked on, meditating on this installation. Soon enough, I got lost in scores and scores of well-dressed people and a smattering of galleries that were not from South Africa—most of which caught my eye—and which seemed to be enjoying a modest return of red sale dots, or at least another kind of return: attention.

The Red Door Gallery booth featuring works by Oma, Adewale, Nengi Omuku and Peju Alatise.

Ugandan gallery Afriart made the most of a tiny booth, and the star of their show was Collin Sekajugo, whose life-size collages seemed to be generating a lot of questions among guests for the gallery representative, who held court at a modest table. Further inland was a special project: The Kuenyehia Trust for Contemporary Art, based in Accra, gives an annual prize to the most promising talent out of Ghana, a country enjoying a blossoming art scene. The trust showed Yaw Owusu, the current prize winner; Fredrick Botchway, whose technique is a dreamy oil-on-photograph technique; and Derrick Owusu-Bempah, who presented monochrome photographs of muscular architecture, shot at incredible angles.

At Red Door Gallery, the sole Nigerian gallery here, brisk business was being conducted. Last year’s FNB Art Prize winner, Peju Alatise, who is better known for her grand sculptures, sold four paintings. Nigeria’s lack of gallery representation at the fair is worth noting. Seen as a leader in contemporary art on the continent, the country grabbed headlines recently when a grossly undervalued painting by the late Ben Enwonwu, a modern master, sold for 1.67 million, one of the few African artists to cross the million threshold.

Kirsten Sims, Sweet Little Lies, 2018.

On a freezing Sunday, my second day at the fair, life would imitate art, or perhaps it was the other way around, via a gorgeous Kirsten Sims painting at the booth of Cape Town–based Salon Ninety-One. In Sims’s work, subjects seem to preoccupy themselves with endless leisure, all pets and nothingness by a pool. The painting looks like what the fair’s guests do on weekends (although, one subject appears to be led to the pool with a gun to his back). It seemed a fitting segue to the dark turn that the fair would take, a turn that reflected South Africa’s grim politics and tensions.

Commenting on the issue of land rights, at the Eclectica Contemporary booth, was the work of Ofentse Seshabela. I gasped when the booth’s rep told me the artist’s age: twenty-three. She laughed, assuring me that I was not alone in being shocked. Other guests had been surprised by his age too. His work, at once depressing and assured, belies his age. On the wall, Seshabela had spelled out in bullets the question “Land?”—a current hot topic in South African politics. The debate: Should black people be paid reparations in land, which was taken from them by white overlords, decades after the fact? While I spoke with the gallery representative, a group of young fair attendants came by. They seemed immediately taken with the bullet installation and one posed by it, half-smiling, both hands raised as if a confused emoji. South Africa, too, doesn’t know how to resolve its land disputes.

Asanda Kupa, The Meetings, 2018.

In the Joburg-based Guns and Rains booth, South African artist Asanda Kupa was also asking questions. In his large-scale paintings are the black, invisible, uniformed class of his country: the miners, laborers, and security men taking endless shifts, acquiring injuries, laying railway tracks, all for the rainbow nation—a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe a post-apartheid, multiracial, multicultural South Africa. But is it?

In their works, Kupa and Seshabela suggest that an acknowledgment of racial differences does not mean equality. More so, there appears to be little acknowledgment that said inequality exists, at least on the part of the likes of the well-dressed woman by the soundscape.

As I was rounding up my tour through the fair on its last day, a shot rang out. A bulb had exploded. I thought it was a gunshot. I had just read some information on Kupa’s work that mentioned the Marikana Massacre, police violence, gunshots. I had ducked reflexively on hearing the bang. I looked around me. Apparently, I was overreacting.

Too disturbed.

Artist Godfried Donkor.

Artist Yinka Shonibare MBE and Bola Asiru of Red Door Gallery.

Victoria Cooke of Gallery 1957.

Pulane Kingston of the Department of Small Business Devolpment with work by Tumba Makonga.

A work by Zanele Muholi.

Artist Lady Skollie (left).