South African artists Candice Breitz and Zanele Muholi discuss their decisions to leave or stay during Art Basel 2017.
Art Radar brings you the highlights from the discussion between two of South Africa’s best-known contemporary artists as part of Art Basel’s Conversations.
“Africa is seen as a developing continent without a developed art education infrastructure, art markets and institutions, or gallery systems, which appear to make leaving more of an imperative than elsewhere,” noted Valerie Kabov, gallerist and editor-at-large of ART AFRICA Magazine. “But those factors that motivate some to leave are precisely factors that motivate some to stay.”
Raising the question “Do artists need to leave Africa to be successful?” Kabov, alongside South African artists Zanele Muholi (b. 1972, Umlazi, South Africa) and Candice Breitz (b. 1972, Johannesburg, South Africa), tackled the topic during the hour-long conversation at Art Basel in June 2017. Muholi still lives and works in South Africa, while Breitz counts Berlin as her base. Reflecting on their divergent experiences, the artists delve into Africa’s art landscape, what makes them stay or leave, and, most importantly, what it means to be a successful African artist.
Paradoxes within Africa: Art Markets and the African Artist
There is a “paradoxical relationship”, Kabov notes, between the art context within Africa and without. Artists in Africa face the problem of a shortage of professional galleries to represent them, a shortfall of serious local collectors, and not much to speak of by way of governmental support for arts and culture. As a result, international audiences and institutions become a bulwark for young African contemporary artists. Most of the collectors of contemporary African art are not African. The paradox, it seems, lies in the fact that art communities within Africa rely on people, institutions and networks outside their geography. Breitz remarks that to even speak of a local “art market” within South Africa was a recent phenomenon – it was “impossible” for young artists to imagine supporting themselves exclusively via their own practice until recently.
Foreign cultural associations, non-profit and other non-governmental organisations remain prominent funders for the arts in Africa. With various developmental needs and a nascent local art market, artists cannot count on governmental support or African collectors. For Kabov, this creates one main issue: a “steep ideological skew” that affects the kind of art that comes to be identified with African contemporary art today. Kabov expounds on the fact that the kinds of visual arts that emerge as a result of this heavy international funding are usually those that are closely aligned with Western interests.
The trickle-down effect to art production is apparent: artists have a necessity to create works that are seen to fall in line with this ideological skew, resulting in a stark question of “Whose South is it anyway?” What would, indeed, happen if African collectors were, instead, dominant in collecting the contemporary art of their own continent? What kinds of pressures would African artists be free from?
And yet, Breitz’s first exhibition in South Africa was supported by the German cultural institution Goethe-Institut. Without the help of institutions such as these, there seems to be little avenue for art like hers to be shown in South Africa. The circulation of African contemporary art is inextricable from foreign agents, institutions and associations, and the relationship between the two cannot be denied. The more important question, to Breitz, would be:
How to expand and broaden [the art landscape in Africa], so that those institutions are not left to exclusively define what gets shown and who gets shown?
For Muholi, who based much of her career in South Africa, the question becomes even more simple: are there spaces for her to show her work? As a queer artist whose works that unabashedly grate the status quo just by their pure existence, the struggle when starting out was finding a gallery that was even willing to take a risk on the work that she was making. Galleries are not fond of showing, and supporting, works that could potentially invite controversy and contention. She expounds:
This was before the [creation of the] ‘art market,’ so for me, I wasn’t even thinking of the art market, to be honest. For me, it was a matter of my sanity, my sensibility, and also trying to negotiate a space that, in many ways, are confined.
Leaving Versus Staying: A Strategic Decision?
“I never really actively decided to leave South Africa,” Breitz remarked. In fact, she had wanted to stay: the year that she was due to leave was 1994, a tremendous watershed year for South Africa (in that year, Nelson Mandela was elected president, and the country transitioned from a system of apartheid to majority rule). For Breitz, “It’s always somewhat painful to speak about [this] when people ask me when I left South Africa, the crucial year of our transition.”
Unable to defer acceptance of a scholarship for her studies, Breitz’s first exit turned into a long sojourn away from South Africa. There was, she said, never a specific moment when she decided to definitively exit the country; in her own words, it was “never strategic”. The question of whether the African artist needs to leave Africa implies a certain stratagem and schema that does not necessarily underpin the migration of every single African diasporic artist. Rather, for Breitz, the shortfalls of the art infrastructure in South Africa was not a major push factor that brought her to other shores.
Interestingly, staying was the explicit choice for Muholi, as she says that “It’s very important for the work that I produce to say that leaving is not an option.” Muholi does not call herself an artist per se; she calls herself a visual activist, documenting, researching and photographing, with a dogged intensity, the marginalised communities of South Africa. Staying in South Africa was a way to ensure that there would always be people documenting the activities and happenings of these communities and that their perspectives would make their way into South African archives. She says:
We still have a mission that we are fighting for, just to be heard, just to be recognised, just to be respected as human beings before anything else.
Her identity as a queer black African woman meant a fight that could not be put down easily. In more ways than one, Muholi is far more motivated by her connectedness to South Africa and her engagement with its socio-political issues – the very locale of South Africa is the raison d’être of Muholi’s work.
Success. What Does it Mean to the African Diasporic Artist?
But what of the artists who do leave Africa, and who are circulated on the international art scene? African contemporary art, notes Kabov, “really is a creature of the international art market”. It gains its value from the people on the outside looking in. It commands higher prices than before, charged with the notion that it performs a certain authenticity of what Africa, as a term, means to the outside world, attracting collectors and institutions from all over the world. Was there a phenomenon of African diasporic artists re-identifying with the continent, because of the mechanics of the art market?
Breitz does not think so. The way artists are perceived may not even be fully up to the artists to control: she notes that there are broader critical, curatorial and market forces at work that frame artists in a certain angle, complicating whether an artist is identified, primarily, as African or not. And even then, what are the communities that the artist identifies with? Identity is a confluence of so many intersectionalities that still need to be parsed on an individual basis. She says:
I don’t personally spend too much time worrying about how I will be perceived, or whether I am authentically performing my roots, because […] what is the community that I identify with? Is it a national community, a gendered community, a diasporic community?
The private identity of an artist is already, in this way, complicated; the workings of the wider art landscape to position and perceive an artist from a certain angle and make him or her “successful” is another layer that makes giving a hard yes or no answer to the impossible question. In the first place, Breitz states that “Artists live where they can look after their practice and where they can continue doing what’s important to them.” The choice to become diasporic, it seems, is a lot less calculated than most would imagine it to be.
But what, then, does success mean to the artist? Success has always been implicitly defined, even in the conversation between Kabov, Breitz and Muholi, as a certain amount of financial stability and critical acclaim. Yet the term carries more complexity, as Breitz thinks that “what success means in a place like Basel is really consistent with what most artists are aspiring to within their practice.”
Similarly, Muholi’s concerns are far less skewed towards conventional art market aspirations:
When I take a photograph now, I’m not thinking about the art market, I’m thinking ‘How do I produce this image? And how do I make sure it is distributed widely, and people are educated around it?’
With a term as loaded and complex as “success”, formulating a single working definition of the word is sheer hard going.
Art Basel’s artist talk unpicks the threads that tie the African artist and the international art world together, raising questions of the kinds of conditions needed for artists to sustain and show their practice in Africa. This is a complicated question tugging on the network of structures, systems and mechanisms that set the conditions for creative work. Perhaps it is only fair to say that the conversation has only just begun.
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