A message from 2017 Special Projects Curator Dr. Zoe Whitley on her curated exhibition at this year’s FNB JoburgArtFair.
The 2017 iteration of the FNB JoburgArtFair marks a milestone: a decade of sustained engagement with contemporary artistic practice. This has meant showcasing the work of artists not only from Johannesburg, but those based throughout South Africa, across the continent and beyond. Through the successive curated programmes of talks, screenings, performances and special projects — like this one I have been invited to create, the FNB JoburgArtFair has stimulated new paths of public engagement and given a platform to numerous artists to connect to audiences who may not otherwise visit galleries, museums, artist studios or creative workshops. My own connection to Johannesburg now spans a number of years and any small familiarity with the city I might claim to possess would be owed entirely to the generosity, hospitality and in a real way the very eyes of the artists and creative forces who have shared with me the city where they live and work, and in many instances, the city they call home. From established institutions such as Johannesburg Art Gallery and Wits Art Museum, to Market Photo Workshop, Bailey’s African History Archive, Stephens Tapestry Studio and the brilliant artist-led collective visions of the Center for Historical Reenactments and Keleketla! Library to the recently opened Centre for the Less Good Idea, Johannesburg pulsates culture. It is an artists’ city.
Which brings me to my plans, which are still under research and being developed daily for September. I’m pleased to share with you that the small exhibition is titled Truth, or some other abstraction. It’s a line borrowed from Doris Lessing’s first novel The Grass is Singing. In one passage, the author discusses how we create and recreate (or fail to create) “pictures of” ourselves, and present that picture outwardly. To that end, the special project I’ve been invited to curate is intended to acknowledge but a few of the numerous artists from the previous generation who not only share with us who they are, but in so doing, allow us to see ourselves and to understand our shared histories more clearly. (A quote often attributed to Picasso states that art is “the lie that tells the truth”). Lucas Seage, for his part said in an interview with David Koloane, “Beauty does not exist in my work. To me beauty is a dynamic statement. I destroy anything which is beautiful but meaningless and leave only that which expresses truth…”
I’m interested in providing a moment of reflection where the focus is on South African artists as truth-tellers and historians. Sue Williamson is an artist who is also a literal historian, having written Resistance Art in South Africa, published in 1989. This text was my introduction to South African artists many years before I ever came to the country. Rather than contemporary practice, I’ve focused on artists active long before 1994, with the understanding that artists are artists the whole of their lives; so some of their works will be more recent, such as Sam Nhlengethwa’s tapestry.
An art fair is, perhaps paradoxically, an exciting forum to see a whole lot of art but equally a context in which it can be hard to truly see any art – to dwell, to linger, to absorb. Within an infinitely stimulating but often breathless environment, my aim is to propose a momentary deep breath by focusing on a few artists who shaped South African art history.
See you in September.
Dr. Zoe Whitley is a Research Curator at Tate Modern in London. She co-wrote Tate’s revised Africa acquisitions strategy and researches contemporary artists and art practices across the African continent and the African diaspora. She is co-curator of Tate Modern’s 2017 exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (12 July – 22 October 2017). Among numerous published texts, Zoe has contributed to the South Africa pavilion’s 57th Venice Biennale catalogue. Based in London, previous posts include Curator, Contemporary British Art at Tate Britain (2013-2015), guest curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2013- 2014) and Curator, Contemporary Programmes at the V&A (2005-2013).