Some More Notes from South Africa
I began my final day in Johannesburg with a trip to Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein. One of the major South African galleries, Stevenson is known for its innovative, tightly curated exhibitions. The week before my arrival they had opened the show If a Tree… their second exhibition this year to rethink the effects of the controversial 2nd Johannesburg Biennial, Trade Routes: Geography and History (1997). Trade Routes was closed in the middle of its opening period in 1997 due to public discontent over its placement in a city still feeling the harsh repercussions of Apartheid. While the artists included in Stevenson’s exhibition did not participate as artists in Trade Routes, most of them were personally involved in some way with the biennial, either as art handlers or administrators. The exhibition, made up of sprawling installations and video art, serves to continue the conversation about traveling art culture begun by the biennial more than ten years ago. In her If a Tree… curatorial statement, Clare Butcher describes, “The vectors of what could be called traveling art culture today—visa restrictions, budgetary limitations, and the challenges of translating un-innocent objects—have indeed directed us away from the search for an original history or immovable geography.” Yet as I walked from the gallery through downtown Johannesburg on my way to the artist Diane Victor’s studio, I became hyper-aware of the sense of “place,” one rooted in a specific cultural geography that was both unfamiliar and intriguing.
Cautioned against walking around on my own by nearly everyone I had met on my trip, I made up my mind to explore at least some of the city on foot. I set out past Joubert Park, Johannesburg’s oldest public space, opened at the turn of the 20th century when colonists from Europe were rushing to the city to mine for gold. Run-down and overused, the park’s original splendor peeks through with its handsome fountain and surrounding colonial architecture, now almost exclusively home to squatters’ camps. As I walked down the street, my face instinctively reverted to its cold New York stare, prompting one of many passersby filling the sidewalk to remind me, “In Africa, we greet each other.”
Taken aback, I smiled as I picked my way through the trash-filled streets, taking in the impromptu markets and concerts and admiring the ingenuity of the city’s army of independent trash collectors. These young men fasten large bins to dollies and ride through the streets of the city on their makeshift skateboards, collecting trash along the way that can be sorted and then sold. I’m not the first to appreciate such intricacies of Jo’burg’s urban environment. When I reached Diane Victor’s studio, she shared with me some of her studio-mate artist Jacki McInnes’s work from her series Hazardous Objects. In the series, McInnes replicates in lead the industrial and consumer cast-offs that are rescued and sold as recycling, elevating the importance of this everyday occurrence.
Primarily a print-maker, in her studio Victor also makes smoke drawings, for which she literally draws with smoke from a candle to create eerie, ghost-like human and animal heads. Victor often mixes mythologies, both classical and African, in her works. Strewn on the floor of her studio were books about Central African voodoo figures beneath classic high school reading list material, like Beowulf. Victor often inserts her own body into her mythically-inspired prints and drawings, asserting her place within the syncretic nature of contemporary existence in South Africa.
– Perrin Lathrop, Research Assistant, Arts of Africa
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