“Space” opens at Museum Africa

# 201 Prove me wrong. I spent the evening at the opening of Space: Currencies in Contemporary African Art – Joburg’s big exhibition for 2010, at Museum Africa in Newtown. An exhibition with many weighty and connected sponsors, an exhibition for a world class African city. I have hesitated while writing this. I have thought of backtracking, of just being quiet. I am someone who likes nothing more than to celebrate the city’s achievements. I cherish the triumphs. I am someone who has even wrapped my side mirrors in the SA flag as a show of how much I believe in this place and this space.

But Monday night’s event severely underwhelmed me and I am still questioning why. Was it the lack of coherence of the exhibition (a post-modern touch?) spread over a few floors of the Museum, the absence of signage or a narrative that told me what I was doing there or where I should go. Was it the missing name tags on some of the artworks or the one tag that seemed to have fallen off the Gabrielle Goliath Bouquet III only to be placed on top of the frame on the middle piece. An afterthought? Or is that art? Was it the exposed cables or the girl with the hammer, the dirty floor and the musty smell in the exhibition hall? Was it that the Minister of Arts & Culture who was to open the exhibition and whose name was used on the invitation was a no-show because she “had to be up early” for Parliament. (She might have had word of the crowd who had gathered to welcome her wearing pink triangles with the words “Nation-Building Lesbian” pinned to their chests). Or that the event “started at 6pm” and really started at 7pm with space for standing only, and a surplus of prawns curled up sadly and drenched in sauce in teeny dishes (maybe there was a special on them, I heard someone mutter, as there was no sign of anything else to eat.) The ground floor of the Museum was also weirdly partitioned off – thoroughly ugly and awkward to view from above, and most of the Museum Africa experience involves a view from above. Or was it the grand Mary Sibande piece “The Reign”– a showstopper that plays with the notion of great men on horses that seemed to have been shoved behind the bandstand to make way for the podium where a succession of highly congratulatory speeches were taking place. Or could it have been the weirdly jarring eclectic mix of exhibitions that sadly could be said to litter the space. A hut here, a photograph of susji there. There is stuff all over the show — it’s a bit like visiting Miss Havisham’s but without the cobwebs. It reminded me of a line from a movie I watched last night (Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution) where the daughter in the family was asked to paint a family portrait by her mother and unveils it to the family calling it “The persistence of misery in a desert without fish”.

What did I expect? I wanted this most un-contemporary of spaces to be polished up and laid out to welcome visitors with its treasures, to show off its heritage and its embrace of the contemporary with the same spirit — and with pride. I wanted to be inspired by the space and to leave it all giddy with excitement.
That’s not to say there weren’t some highlights to the evening? There were definitely enough to prove that art can indeed overcome many things. Among them was Willem Boshoff’s Snatch, Mary Sibande’s amazing work The Reign, Kudzanai Chiurai’s marvelous portraits and Billie Zangewa’s gorgeous silk tapestries. I am also a huge fan of David Koloane’s drawings with their intricate spaghetti of colourful lines and I laughed out loud at Gabrielle Goliath’s Ek is n’ Kimberley Coloured and how that phrase can be made to sound so romantic when rendered in other languages “Je suis une personne metisse de Kimberley” and the awesome Nandipha Mntambo’s bullfighting photographs. All definitely must be seen. So what I am really saying is visit the Museum and see the art and please prove me wrong about the Space. Please!

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