PRINT March 1998


It was with a certain feeling of vindication that I boarded the plane to attend the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale last October. Visiting Nelson Mandela’s homeland for the first time can confirm one’s belief in the victory of democracy over dictatorship, of open societies over closed systems. It means that finally I too, a West African, am free to go to South Africa, and am free to give my opinion on directions in contemporary art there. For this Biennale is tied to the end of apartheid, and it owes its specificity to what deputy president Thabo Mbeki calls the African Renaissance.

My first surprise upon arrival was that I was lodged not in a downtown hotel amid skyscrapers and lots of traffic, the Johannesburg I was used to seeing in the movies, but in the suburbs, in a three-story colonial-style building, with a courtyard and indoor swimming pool, surrounded by leafy trees. All the visitors were given accommodations in the same area, even though the headquarters of the Biennale was located a thirty-minute ride away in Johannesburg proper, at the Africus Institute of Contemporary Art (AIAC), near the Market Theatre and the Diamond Building. I soon realized that we were put up in the suburbs for security reasons. In downtown Johannesburg, near the AIAC, the only people I saw walking the streets were poor blacks. The affluent whites and the new black bourgeoisie passed by, well-ensconced, in their cars.

My second surprise came while waiting in front of my hotel for a taxi to the Biennale. In the distance, I saw a woman walking at a measured pace toward me. She wore a black beret and a washed-out blue sweater over a white T-shirt, and her long blue wool skirt went all the way down to her ankles to meet her thick rolled socks and flat tennis shoes. As she approached, I tried in vain to make eye contact, ready to greet her in the friendly manner of West Africans. But she passed by without seeming to see me. I couldn’t figure her age: her style of dress and rhythmic way of walking, like that of African Americans in the United States, made her seem young, modern, and free from tradition, while her large size and long, tired face made her seem an older victim of the violence of that same modernity that had enabled her to conceal her age. I felt threatened by her appearance because I could see that she had passed through what Richard Wright called the fire of modernization, the scars from which were still visible on her face.

But there was something else in this woman’s look that seemed oddly familiar. The long wool skirts and sweaters worn inside out with the threads showing have become the fashion statement of Xuly-bët, a West African couturier based in Paris. In fact, when I saw a show of his recently at Pier 59 in Chelsea, the models seemed to be parodying the look of Soweto women, their individualistic and defiant disposition forged in the struggle against apartheid. During the show, Xuly—bët alternated between a Jimi Hendrix soundtrack and simply letting the models march by in silence, as if they were performing some world-transforming ritual. In his diasporic attempt to bring together Soweto and the music of the late ’60s and early ’70s, the designer has succeeded in creating an attitude in fashion that appeals to a downtown Manhattan multicultural and artistic sensibility.

To say that the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale is tied to postapartheid is to acknowledge South Africa’s new position in Africa and in the world. The theme of the Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor and an international team and featuring some 160 artists from 63 countries, was “Trade Routes: History and Geography,” and some of the subthemes in the show, such as “Alternating Currents” and “Transversions,” reveal the show’s preoccupation with hybridity, métissage, and globalization. The Electric Workshop, home of the core exhibition, was a haven for video-, computer-, and other technology-based installations that left the door wide open to artists residing in America, Europe, Asia, and Latin America (to the detriment, according to many, of African artists working with sculpture, painting, and other traditional media). In the context of postapartheid nationalism, the internationalist focus was viewed as an instance of cultural imperialism, and as justifiable ground for South African audiences to isolate themselves from the Biennale.

The themes of the show were investigated in any number of ways. There were installations of home environments with furniture, photographs hanging on the walls, and old passports and suitcases that referenced movement, exile, and fragmentary diasporic identities. British artist Yinka Shonibare’s Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour, 1996–97, with its motifs of African prints and ivory busts, ironizes the use of such objects as the embodiment of original identity by casting them as trophies and repressed fantasies of the colonizer. At the other end, the motif of trade route and geography is literally rendered by South African artist Wayne Barker in an installation titled The World Is Flat, 1995. Barker’s recycled military uniforms and green bottles seem to celebrate a peaceful world at the same time as it makes palpable the trade routes of the Dutch and other Europeans. Lucy Orta, too, takes this global interconnectedness as her theme in Collective Wear, 1997, a performance in which participants wear jumpsuits that are attached to each other umbilical-style with various African fabrics. The piece, which took place in front of the Electric Workshop, offers a primal lesson for postapartheid South Africa.

The Biennale predictably came under attack in the Johannesburg press. It was argued that the show was alienating to South Africans both on the grounds of content (the preoccupation with hybridity) and form (abstract video installations and neo-Conceptualism). Veteran South African filmmaker Lionel Ngakane, for example, told me he felt the Biennale served outsiders more than South Africans. The relative paucity of South African art made it even easier for local commentators to reach the same conclusion.

Nonetheless, for me, the question of the relevance of the Biennale to postapartheid society remained pertinent. I kept wondering how to reconcile the image of the woman I had seen with the work being exhibited. Certainly I could picture her in Food for Work II, 1997, by Zambian artist William Miko, a crowded realist tableau whose rhythm is marked by the contrast between the white paint and the other colors. The singlemindedness with which the women, with their headscarves and their babies tied to their backs, are moving in different directions, together and yet alone, is an expression of the onset of modernity. One can also observe a lyrical statement of this arrival in Cho Duck-Hyun’s installation Our Memory of the 20th Century, 1997, or in the ironic gestures in Carrie Mae Weems’ Untitled (Sea Island Series), 1991–93. In Cho Duck-Hyun’s piece, drawings of two generations of Koreans are superimposed. One picture depicts the persistence of tradition in modernity through the clash of a soldier’s simple uniform, the hats worn by the men, and the distinctly aristocratic and religious signifiers in the rest of the image. In a smaller background picture, the women depicted, perhaps immigrants from the traditional setting implied in the first image, are homogenized by their working-class attire. In Weems’ installation, the ethnographic photographs of African subjects, overlaid with texts (“you became a scientific profile”/ “& a photographic subject”/“an anthropological debate”/“a negroid type”), reveal a poetics of irony and a deconstruction of the scars of modernity on the bodies and minds of black people. I was also struck by the flaneur-style individualism on display in Beat Streuli’s snapshot of a Japanese woman in Tokyo Shibuya 97, 1997. Streuli captures a certain heroism in his subject—expressed through her corduroy coat, with its strong shoulders and collar, and the tragic demeanor with which she looks past the viewer toward an uncertain future—that reminds me not only of the South African passerby but also of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel in Godard’s Breathless.

In his keynote speech, Judge A.L. (Albie) Sachs, an ANC member who lost an arm in a car bomb during the struggle against apartheid and is now a drafter of the new South African constitution, called for a Biennale that addressed Johannesburg in all its specificity. He spoke in favor of globalization but against homogenization—he did not want Johannesburg to be like New York or London or Hong Kong. He invited the new South African bourgeoisie to invest in such art, and to take lessons from the Fords and the Rockefellers of the world that the new bourgeoisie could outcompete the old. He also called on artists to ground their work in their communities, and to turn to democracy and openness as guiding principles.

The judge’s sentiments were echoed by many of the participants I spoke with. Most artists from sub-Saharan Africa worried about the homogenizing and totalizing tendencies in contemporary Conceptual art and video. And Viye Diba, an artist from Senegal, pointed out that artists who had no access to video technology were at a disadvantage. On the other hand, I was fascinated by a statement by Isaac Julien, director of Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1996), that, with the homogenization of film by Hollywood and commercial pressure, one had to go to museums to see innovation in film language. Another film- and videomaker included in the show, Steve McQueen, agreed. Both implicitly endorsed the value of film and video in venues such as the Biennale, as occasions to mine the visual movement offered by the medium. For McQueen and Julien, video provides a unique opportunity for diasporic expressions effectively barred from commercial cinema. The relative strength of the video work on display at the Biennale supports their claim. McQueen added that he hoped black visual artists could achieve in film what Tricky, Wu-Tang Clan, and the Pharcyde did in music.

Everyone I spoke to at the Biennale told me to go to Soweto, as it was there I would see the real South Africa, poverty and all. The area has become nostalgically identified with Nelson and Winnie Mandela before their split, the scene of the romance of the ANC and the horror of apartheid. The identification with oppression and resistance to change has ironically made Soweto a perfect candidate for tourism, and to that end the place is on its way to becoming a living museum for visitors. In the end, it wasn’t hard to be more attracted to the transformative narratives in the show than to the petrified suffering in Soweto. I saw the image of the new Soweto in Renée Green’s Vogue par Nelson Mandela (Taste Venue), 1994, as well as in her unfinished video installation, Chasing Lusethenia, in which subjects are shown discussing censorship, restrictions on people’s movements, and disempowerment. The video images of exportable goods (cotton, coffee, indigo) in Martinique artist Marc Latamie’s installation cunningly refer to Degas’ The Office of the Cotton Merchant in New Orleans and, echoing Judge Sachs’ call to take inspiration in the raw materials of Africa, evoke economic transformation. Finally, there was the transfigurative magic in Malian artist Abdoulaye Konate’s installation La Menace (Threat), 1997, a large tray of eggs atop another lying in sand. Referencing traditional West African altars, the installation constitutes a perfect place of reflection in the show.

Now that the Johannesburg Biennale is closed and the city has announced that it lacks the fiscal resources to finance a third installment, it’s time to reflect on the merit of the second and perhaps final edition. Clearly, those of us who attended must feel disappointed on some level: the show failed to engage South Africans in a dialogue with contemporary art and theoretical reflections. It is no small measure of nationalism in the new South Africa that what Okwui Enwezor has so elegantly and expertly proposed has been resisted so vehemently.

Manthia Diawara is professor of comparative literature and film at New York University.