Do Artists Need to Leave Africa to be Successful?

Do Artists Need to Leave Africa to be Successful?


Welcome everyone to the talk. We are here to announce first and foremost
that Africa is not a country. I think the context of
this conversation is, as Murray said, very broadly based, but by localizing it to our own contexts and practices in Africa, I think we’ll be able to
draw some interesting outcomes. To introduce myself:
I’m Valerie Kabov. I’m editor-at-large
for Art Africa magazine and I also am the founder
of First Floor Gallery Harare and the cofounder of the Emerging African
Art Galleries Association. I’m very privileged
to be speaking here to Zanele Muholi and Candice Breitz, both of whom have represented, and Candice of course is
currently representing South Africa in the Venice Biennial pavilion. So I’m in an unfortunate position
of having to speak a little bit for the 53 remaining
countries on the continent while these ladies get to
speak about their own content. So, to unpack the topic –
Oh, it’s disappeared. To unpack the topic ‘Do artists need to
leave Africa to be successful?’ First of all, as I said,
I’m based in Zimbabwe, Zanele is based in South Africa and Candice is
based in the world at large. So Zanele and Candice each have made
their careers very differently, and I think Candice can
share with us something about the motivations
that she had for leaving and why that is not necessarily… I guess this is a choice
that has complexity attached to it. You hear me? Well, I would say
that I never really actively decided to leave South Africa. I had an opportunity to study when I was just finishing
my art school years in Johannesburg. I was offered
an opportunity to study at an American university at a very
crucial moment in our evolution. It was 1994, so it’s
always somewhat painful to speak about when people
ask me when I left South Africa the crucial year of our transition, and it was an opportunity
which I tried to postpone. I asked the organization,
which was Fulbright, if I could wait a couple of years
before I took them up on the study opportunity
and they said ‘no’. So I decided that I would take it up and I thought I’d be back
in Johannesburg within a year, but life is not that simple. Other things came up
and possibilities came up, and before I knew it
I had been living outside of South Africa
for a great many years. So, for me there
was never an active point at which I said,
‘I’m leaving South Africa.’ It was never strategic. I think that’s
often the case for artists. Artists often
follow their practice rather than making
strategic decisions about where they can be successful,
if you know what I mean. I think the reason
the question arises, especially
in the context of Africa, is because Africa is seen
as a developing continent, and it is a case,
without a large and developed art educational
infrastructure, art markets and institutions or gallery systems, which appears to make leaving more of an imperative than it would be elsewhere. But I think, for some reason, those factors that would motivate some to leave are precisely the factors
that would motivate some to stay. There are artists
like Zanele who feel responsible to their environment
or to their community, whose practices are rooted
in the place where they live, which makes it imperative
that they stay where they are. Zanele, would you like
to share with us something… Do you want to show the… Yes, sure. I will. -I think Zanele-
-Not now, but after your questions. -I’ll hint here, but not now.
-Alright. For some of us living
in South Africa specifically I won’t speak on Africa
because Africa is a continent, just to reiterate, some of us have never been
to even other African countries because it is
expensive to even get there. It’s very important for me, with the kind of work that I produce, to say that leaving is not an option. Having been raised or born in
South Africa with limited resources, and also to even think of studying art was regarded as a luxury. So, your family will even say, ‘Where do you expect to survive and support
your family from the art?’ We come from a space
where most black people, like me, didn’t have access to many
advances that were in place prior to 1994. Those who had access to advance our resources
were the lucky ones and it happened to be white South Africans who, maybe at an early age, you understand
what is photography and the meaning
and the archive, and you have a lineage
or family history that ties to that, which then becomes an object
for the art world or art market. So, then it becomes a difficult one when it comes to
race and options of leaving, when it comes to race
and access to resources, when it comes to race
and even studying art as a career or as a profession. Also, to speak on the kind
of content I’m producing, which is specifically looking at the most marginalized
group of people, who happen to be
LGBTI individuals, in short. That’s an acronym, lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender persons in South Africa. It means that leaving
means something else. Once you’re abroad,
maybe you might end up losing your politics
or your personal politics, and it means that
you are on the other side. You’re accountable,
but there are so many people that you have left behind, who will obviously
move on with their lives. But in true honesty,
there is a struggle. We still have a mission or
something that we are fighting for, just to be heard,
just to be recognized, just to be respected as
human beings before anything else. So, personally, the option of
leaving is something else. And also to say that
we have massive documentation that we still need to gather to make sure
that the national archive or South African
national historical archive has our voices in it. So, therefore I decided to stay, because in
as much as South Africa has its own
social ills and challenges, it’s still my country
of birth and I love it. Thanks very much. In this context I am
reminded of an interview with Ibrahim el-Salahi,
the Sudanese modernist master who actually lives in England. When he came
back to Sudan after living abroad
and studying abroad, he actually felt that he had
lost contact with his people and he went on a massive
quest to reassess his own practice. He comments
in the interview that, for him, success is
a matter of mattering at home to the people
who are the inspiration. He had to really
rethink his practice because he had grown
apart from his grassroots. To me this is also
a really interesting comment While Candice
admits to being a nomad as a person and as an artist,
and that is important, to other artists there is
a very strong imperative to respond and to be
part of their environment. One of the interesting
aspects from this, for me is that African contemporary art really
is a creature of the international art market, because we have
54 different countries with vastly different climates,
languages, religions, food, culinary habits,
all spanning – I think it’s four time zones and thousands and thousands
and thousands of kilometers. There’s very little coherent
artistic general principle that one can assign
to African contemporary art, except for the fact
that it’s been something that has fascinated the art market
for the last decade or so. I mean, there are
many different reasons for it. But, there have been
interesting side effects from that. I think Zanele raises an interesting
point of why she hasn’t left, but it has created a phenomenon of re-identifying with the continent by artists who have
been living in the diaspora and who are now taking
advantage of the fascination of the market with Africa
to re-identify as African. Perhaps Candice can
comment a little bit on that. Because I’ve heard
personally artists saying that there is, in fact,
market pressure on them to do that. In some ways this again
is a question of race. I think that
being white means that one is far less likely
to be expected to perform or represent a certain
version of authenticity, which is a projection
of the outside world. I think there’s a certain expectation
from the Western market, which is predominantly
American- and European-driven, that artists from
outside of that system will perform their
authenticity in certain ways. We all know that there are
many artists who are deeply connected to their home countries
and whose practice is grounded in their relationship
to their home contexts, Zanele being
an extremely good example. I don’t believe, or
at least not in my experience, that artists are
strategically active in this kind of
positioning of themselves within certain categories
or under certain rubrics. I think that
this is more a function of the various meta, critical,
curatorial or market forces which frame and present artists. Obviously as a white artist,
I am far more likely to – it’s more likely that people will assume that I’m European or that I’m American. I do not personally spend
too much time worrying about how I will be perceived and whether I’m authentically
performing my roots. I mean, we really,
as you started to do Valerie, need to unpick that. What is
the community that I identify with? Is it a national community? Is it a gendered community?
Is it a diasporic community? I think that artists live where
they can look after their practice and where they can continue
doing what is important to them, and this notion of success
and where one can be successful again really comes back to
the question of what success means. I don’t think that what
success means in a place like Basel is really consistent with
what most artists are aspiring to within their practice,
if you know what I mean. Do you agree with that Zanele? How have you observed
the rise of African contemporary art and the growing
international attention, and the growing number of
artists who identify as African and the growing
number of people who are seeking
to represent African artists? How do you feel about
this as a phenomenon? That is broad
but I’ll limit it quickly. To speak on
Africa again, we’re far. We’re far,
far, far, far, big, And also
I’ll speak of queer Africa. I won’t speak
of Africa and generalize, and I’ll speak of
queer Africa specifically or I’ll speak of
queer South Africa, yeah? So when you talk about
art markets, the issue then becomes: are there spaces for you to show? Are there any galleries that are willing to take
risk with your queer content? Are there any spaces internationally who are willing to look
at that particular content without being persecuted
by the possible consumers? Yeah? So we won’t like,
meddle and mix up things. We have to be so specific: Who is showing what where? And who is willing to showcase that particular
content for what audience? Yeah? I work with Stevenson Gallery
and Yancey Richardson in New York. For the past 10 years
I’ve been with Stevenson Gallery, and Michael was
willing to take risk with me. Otherwise there was no space
for me to showcase anything anyway, because
most of the activist spaces, surely they had
no full understanding of what my mission was or is. It meant that
if there is no conference to show the kind
of work that speaks to histories or herstories
or queerstories or transtories it meant
there is no space for you. This is before
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 space
in many ways that are confined. I started at conferences
and I worked with a lot of scholars. I worked with
a lot of educators, a lot of writers and I guess in that way
I managed to share the attention. And I learnt very late in life of what the art
markets are all about, because honestly it wasn’t
in my thoughts all the time. When I take a photograph now I’m not thinking about
the art market at the time. I’m thinking about,
‘How do I produce this image and how do I make sure
that it’s distributed widely and people
are educated around it? How do I make sure
that I create a legacy that will make
the next possible young person who comes after me to know
that these art spaces are possible?’ So, that is my mission in life. Well, I think
having a higher mission makes life a lot
easier by making it harder. Maybe I’ll just
add to that and say that when we speak
about the art market, there tends to
be an assumption that the art market was always
there and that it’s a given, and speaking specifically
to the South African context, the art market
as a kind of mechanism whereby artists might be able to
support their practice and make a living is an extremely
recent phenomenon and really only
comes about at the moment that the transition happens
in the mid-1990s in South Africa. So, for artists
who are my age and older, there really was
no art market to speak of. When I studied art
there was so little chance of being picked up by
or represented by a gallery. We had one gallery,
the Goodman Gallery, which had the resources
and the motivation to represent artists and to grow
their careers on a broader scale, and obviously
the number of artists that they could
represent was very limited. So I think
that until very recently it’s simply been a non-starter
or something that was impossible for young South
African artists to imagine entering a market,
having a career. These are very new phenomena
within the South African context and there still are very,
very few South African artists who are supporting themselves or an extended community
by means of their practice. I think that is the case,
actually, for most artists. I mean, just to
make a comment about speaking of my experience
of working with colleagues in other galleries
on the continent, most of us are… Just to paint a tiny
landscape of galleries in Africa, There is a huge shortage
of galleries on the continent. Most artists
are underrepresented, the markets are
almost nascent or nonexistent. Somebody once asked me, ‘Why are you living in
a country which does not have – why are you running
a gallery in a country which doesn’t have a gallery system,
doesn’t have proper art schools, does not have a collector base?’ And the answer is:
because the artists are there. God does not distribute talent
to places with infrastructure. But this creates
a paradoxical relationship where, at the moment,
the international collectors are the bulk of the collecting audience
of contemporary art from the continent. Moreover, in most countries,
governments are overwhelmed by developmental
needs in their countries and cannot and do not prioritize
art and culture in their funding. As a result, the arts are
supported currently by the market but also for the last several
years, or decades, pardon me, by developmental community
and foreign cultural funders, which creates
a very steep ideological skew. So, what has been
emerging in my experience is, while a lot of African governments are accused of censorship
and oppressive behavior, when it comes to arts
and culture, because a lot of – and visual art in particular,
tends to fly under the radar and the people who are in fact responsible for censorship and ideological
oppression are actually Western NGOs. So a lot of the things that tend to
emerge in terms of art production are actually things that are
closely aligned with Western interest. The question for me quite often
is ‘Whose South is it anyway?’ if this is what dictates
art production, of necessity. What would happen
if Africans were dominant in collecting
African contemporary art? We might see
something completely different. I’ll just say very directly
in response to that that I have only been exhibiting
in South Africa for about five years and I had never been invited to show
my work in South Africa before then. I think that has a lot to do
with the medium that I work in. I work largely
in multi-channel video and, as Valerie said, there were
very few institutions until recently who were willing to even
show a video in South Africa. But on the first occasion
that I had the opportunity to do a large-scale exhibition
of my work in South Africa, it was because the Goethe-Institut
funded the exhibition, so the exhibition in Johannesburg
was primarily funded by a German state institution. And I think
it is easy to be critical. We have to think
about what that means when foreign organizations
and private galleries are the only institutions that are
able to support contemporary art, and how that
defines the landscape. On the other hand,
without the intervention of the Mondriaan Foundation,
the Goethe-Institut, Alliance Française and some
of the larger galleries which have been very
active in supporting their artists, we might not be
sitting here right now. So I think it’s less
a question of critically addressing what has happened and
more a question of now expanding and trying to
broaden that landscape, so that those
institutions are not left to exclusively define what
gets shown and who gets shown. It’s time to grow out of that. Exactly. It’s having an ecology
that is a balanced ecology. How do you
feel about that Zanele? It’s not even about
what do I think about that? I’m just like… I’m just stuck
now here wondering whether maybe members
of the audience could ask questions, because I’m hearing you more than
what I’m supposed to be getting from the people
who are seated there. Besides that, the issue
is not even about that. You find that
the great artists from Africa… Yes, but then the big issue is
national crisis in different countries. In South Africa
we have a shortage of housing. Say Candice’s
work requires a million just to put some
installations in place, then those who are
distributing art funds will say, ‘Why will we spend
700,000 on Candice’s installation than to build people’s homes?’ So there is a Catch 22. It’s just complicated,
because even those who are in positions of power have no understanding
of the importance of art and how maybe
therapeutic it can become or it could heal
those who need it the most. You have
great South African artists. Maybe in 10 years,
having produced or having had 100 artists who have
existed within the period, 20 of them will be
likely to even be shown at places
like the Venice Biennial, because it means
that you need to have experience, you need to have
a certain kind of intellect, as per those who decide
who comes in and what’s not, which is political. Also, those great
African artists might not have the language of putting together
those convincing proposals. I don’t write proposals.
I think it’s a waste of time. I always think
that my work should just give a person some
sense of what I am saying. But to say now I’m convincing
you to give into my queer agenda, sorry, I won’t do that. And it’s the choice that I’ve made. I’m not saying specifically to you
because I won’t propose to you as such, but to say in anybody
who is willing to learn and have an understanding
what the whole thing is all about. So we are stuck in that point
or in that position where to say, ‘Who is distributing those
art funds and what for? What is this content
meant to be for and why? Why are we saying
this particular work is speaking to
a certain group of people?’ Then it becomes
something else. But you say Africa
ever had great artists? From birth to death,
as we are born we become somebody’s content, for education, for everything
that is there to be which is consumed
by the West, unfortunately. And now to say,
‘How do we speak for ourselves in ways that we are counted
in those historical moments?’ becomes something else. How do we make sure that
the work that’s produced by our fellows is supported by the people themselves
and distributed alongside many? Then it becomes
something else. One of my concerns is that,
I work with emerging artists, and most of our
collectors are outside of – well – most – all of our collectors
are outside of Zimbabwe. When I want to mount
a retrospective of any of our artists, I will have to
go outside of Zimbabwe. The loss of that
heritage, to me, is traumatic. The fact that we need
to still build up a space, and as a gallerist on the continent I’m conscious of building up a space and preserving
the art for the community, for Zimbabweans as well,
at a time when a lot of – we’re actually having to
fulfill the function of institutions and government institutions
to protect the heritage. And to me this also
becomes a crucial imperative. Some of the concerns
that we have are actually the concerns that
our peers internationally do not have, precisely because
we are living in environments where we cannot have
arm’s-length relationships with artists that we are having to – somebody once said to me that, in the UK, the NHS is
one of the greatest funders of the arts because the fact
that artists don’t need to pay to go to see a doctor
is a really huge support, the fact that
you have social security. We work in environments
where the gallerist becomes the hospital provider,
taking care of extended families. And it’s not an option,
where you’re really having to fill in a lot of gaps
in ecology and infrastructure. I think what happens,
because we’re speaking to a collecting community,
it’s an opportunity to say that while it’s easy
to be sitting in Basel and think that the art world
is an even playing field, it is far from the case. So, when you’re considering
collecting artists from Africa, it is also important to think about the ethics of the economics
of artists from Africa. It’s important that I’m speaking to artists who are actually represented
by galleries in Africa because – and I always use this
example in conversation, when you buy a work by an African
artist represented by a London gallery, the London Gallery pays
taxes and rates in London, and London has nice pavements. Harare does not
have nice pavements. Any gallery on the continent
is also invested in developing the infrastructure
and also supporting the future generation of the very talented
artists on the continent in a way that galleries
internationally do not. Before I turn over to questions and we can see some work
from both Zanele and Candice, I had an American collector
visiting our gallery in Harare who said, ‘what is
your greatest concern? How can I make your life better?’ It’s very interesting
that one collector can say to a tiny gallery in Harare,
‘How can I make your life better?’ I said, ‘for me it’s really
important that collectors understand how crucial
and how much difference it makes to be working professionally
and ethically with galleries as well as artists on the continent because there is a fair
amount of exploitation taking place where collectors feel
that they can engage with artists
in the African context without the formality
and professionalism that they would elsewhere. So instead of being a supporter, you’re actually becoming
an obstacle to development, and that ethical consciousness
is really important.’ Zanele, you wanted
to screen your video? Oh no, Candice starts. You said,
Candice will start. Yes, I’m fine with that. So, we have the pleasure of both artists
showing examples of their work, and then we
can open to questions. There’s a gentleman there. -Thank you.
I’m coming up.I want the world to know,
I’m gonna let it show.
Can you put the volume up? My name is Candice Breitz. I am what could
be called South African. I was born
in New York City in 1950. I live in Pretoria. My father was
a con artist and a thug. My mother is a rock. My name is Candice Breitz. I am an artist. My ancestors were
both slaves and masters. My mother would love for me
to say right now that I love Jesus. I don’t really have
true religious beliefs. So I love Jesus
with all of my heart. My religion is soaked in blood. Ah shit. I present South Africa. Hello, like… I misrepresent South Africa. My name is Candice Breitz. I’m an artist. I’m a feminist. I was born in the poisonous
womb of the patriarchy. Of course I’m a man.
What else? I rely on my instincts. I am a boy who loves pink. In terms of class,
I’m not quite sure where I fit in. I am middle class
and privileged. Probably middle class
at the moment but certainly started out
as lower working class. My mother tongue is English. To be more global I decided that
English should be my mother tongue. And I wish I spoke Xhosa. I speak with my body. Race. I’m black. I’m as white as Tip-Ex. I’m black. I’m as white as the Grammies. I’m black. I’m as white
as the Academy Awards. Black. Seriously,
fuck white people. My name is Candice Breitz. I’m Miss South Africa. I have represented
South Africa. This white body
cannot represent South Africa. I’m Candice Breitz, and I approve this message. I’m coming. I’m coming up. Do do do. I want the world to know,
I’m gonna let it show. I’m coming. Hello, you can hear me.
This is mainly for Zanele. I have so many questions
but I am going to limit to just two. My uncle is the United Nations’
first ever independent investigator to protect LGBT
people from violence. So Zanele,
what is queer Africa? And how do you elect
to present this in your works? Though I must say,
I was surprised that queer Africa is something
you represent in the works, because what I see is a soul of
a human being in your works. Yes. Thank you
so much for your question, which I don’t understand
but I will try to break it. And I know that you’re asking me because you have
an answer within you. Absolutely, I do. Yes. For some people, they don’t
like to be called ‘queer’, and I know that it’s a little bit
off track for me to say ‘queer’ even, but I just
wanted to make it easier to say lesbian, gays,
and I won’t say ‘T’, as in transgender people
are not queer, etc. I don’t represent; I document to make sure
our voices are included in the canon. To say ‘I represent’
is something big because there are so many
people who could represent themselves but do not have the
resources to represent themselves, and even though
they have the right according to
the South African constitution to speak out and
be heard and be seen and be recognized
in various ways. I thought to myself that
seeing as we didn’t have much black LGBTI content
as part of the South African history, I had a duty
as a South African citizen to visualize
that world, to pan it, to document
for possible inclusion. We have
the constitution that says we have the right
to live, to express, etc. But we didn’t have
much visual historical content that spoke to
that particular constitution, so I took it upon my duty
as an individual to say that we count, we matter, we are South African citizens. Therefore we should be heard because the past historians who belonged
to the apartheid regime didn’t do much great work
to make sure that we were included. You just had
one visual narrative that was bloody and also crude, which didn’t give us
much chance to defend that distortion
that was produced by the other. So I’m documenting,
I’m a documenter, I’m a visual activist
rather than anything else because I think that
it’s very important the generation after me get it. Then, thanks Candice. Ian? I will be there for evermore. There’s a special star
that shines every evening in your eyes. A special star that shines each time I hear that lullaby. 2012 was one of the most
painful years in our history. We lost a lot of members
of our communities. That was 11 minutes 43 seconds, but I decided to stop right then
in order not to bore you. But it was a way in which
I wanted to introduce you into my real world
before art world. It’s accessible online and it was a collaboration
between me and Human Rights Watch, a non-profit organization
based in New York. So part of what I do as
part of my art is to educate, facilitate different
projects for communities. Whatever there is
earned from the art world is then shared
with communities. So a percentage of what
I earn from these spaces, I share with my fellow
community members. People are taught
to learn how to photograph and also to ensure that
we continue when I’m no more, people continue to create
their own community archives out there. I’m with Lerato, who is one of
the participants in Faces and Phases. She continues
to document my movement, because inasmuch
as I photograph people, I am also open to
be photographed as well. I am not the kind
of person who says, ‘I am a photographer,
I hate to be in front of the camera. I prefer to
be behind the scenes.’ I am not that person.
I’m one of us. Therefore I believe that
I should share a piece of me my earnings and all,
before I am no more. So that’s my art. Thanks very much, Zanele. Are there any questions
or comments from the audience about the issues we discussed? African contemporary art
is a very big conversation and we are all capable of answering
from our own different perspectives. -There’s a question there.
-You’re great at spotting questions. Hi, I’m Sue Williamson, and I would just like to say
that the work that Zanele does, if we get back to
the subject of this discussion, ‘Do you have to leave
Africa to be successful?’, I think Zanele
has shown very clearly, by working
at a very local level, by supporting the community
in the way that she does, that her work is
accepted everywhere, and I think that
it’s changed not only the attitude towards
lesbians in South Africa and the queer
community in South Africa, but I am quite certain
that it’s spread everywhere else. I really think it’s
been such important work and it proves that you absolutely
do not have to leave Africa to make the points
that you want to make. Thank you. I think that’s a really fantastic
point that you are making, Sue. It’s an issue of being
of your time and of your place, and how every artist is – your best work comes
from being actually completely in tune and part of having that – well, it goes back to
your point about authenticity and how do you find
your place of authenticity? And once you’re in that place, that is the place
from which you speak. If there are no questions, just to say to everybody
who supports our work, thank you so, so, so much. And those who
believe and love the art, your presence in this space
makes so much difference. And for some of you
who may like to see what I am turning
for the next space, I’ll be having a show at Autograph in London,
opening on July 13. This is not an ad,
this is just to say, to mention. Also I’ll be opening
at the Stedelijk Museum on July 7, which won’t be queer,
in case you’re allergic. It’s completely a different tune. But all in all, to say to
the galleries that represent us and to friends and families
and lovers back at home and here, thank you so, so, so much
for your presence and your love of art. Let’s say I truly appreciate, and for those who are
collecting the work that I do, you are supporting a lot of
community members out there, not onlyoud[old] Zanele.
Thank you so much. Candice, please feel free to
give yourself an unapologetic plug. When is your next show? Google. Actually we never got to
discussing the internet and new media, but I think that’s
actually a very good thing because there’s so much priority
being given to new media being the save-all
that we forget about the real humans
and the real interactions. Thank you Art Basel
for bringing us together in a very real
human interaction for this talk. Thanks very much for listening.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *