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|July 31, 2009 01:04PMT
By Obidike Okafor
The Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Yaba, played host to another interesting guest in the person of South African curator, Gabi Ngcobo. Ngcobo’s talk, titled “Transitions” was centred around African masculinity and the arts from a South African perspective.
In the event, the discourse touched on the inner workings of the Nigerian arts sector; and disturbing issues that lurk in the underbelly, came to fore.
Sponsored by the Commonwealth Foundation, the programme began with a click of the projector, as Ngcobo showed pieces by South African artists whose works are concerned with the issues of sexuality, masculinity and identity. With works from Anton Kannemeyer (“Black Dick” (2007)) to Lawrence Lemaoana and Zanele Muholi (who earlier in the year participated in the “Like A Virgin” exhibition held at the CCA).
Ngcobo took the audience through intriguing works like Lemaoana’s “Last Line of Defence,” a digital print that shows five men wearing football uniforms in a line, describing the experience of a black man entering rugby in South Africa, a sport dominated by white men.
In “Fortune Tellers,” the artist’s shows an outline of South African president, Jacob Zuma, in his famous dance stance; tarot card motifs used by fortune tellers are superimposed on the president’s figure. The image is stiched onto an indigenous South African cloth, the Kanga.
The work examines a statement believed to have been made by Zuma during his infamous rape case, to the effect that his accuser wore a Kanga – which he took to mean that she wanted to have sex.
In the case of Zanele Muholi, her decision to take pictures of people with whom she shares a sexual orientation (the gay community) was sparked by the fact that Europeans were interested in South African sexuality and were doing PhDs on the subject. “Faces and Phases” (2007-2008) shows the transition of a lesbian who explores her masculinity. “Miss D’vine” shows pictures of a transsexual -a man dressed up as a woman.
Commenting on MUholi’s collection, Ngcobo said, “In the past when a child is born , you say ‘It’s a boy’ or ‘it’s a girl ‘ – but nowadays you don’t know the sexuality that one chooses as they grow.” The curator believes that since sexuality emerges from the body, the body is the means of communication.
In “Not Butch But My Legs Are” (2005), Muholi focuses on her own hairy legs. Ngcobo was quick to point out that, despite the considerable sexual diversity in South African society, there are still hate crimes against people whose sexual preferences were seen as queer.
They endure social castration and parents disown their children for being gay. Ngcobo also noted that, apart from Tracey Rose and Zanele Muholi, most of the artists whose works formed the focus of the talk, are in their twenties.
Answering a question about the visibility of South African arts, Ngcobo said, “We use to rely on our representation in the West, but with places in Douala, Casablanca and Alexandria, the shift is coming back to Africa.”
Relating the talk to the Nigerian environment, the audience agreed that the country is a very conservative society. The audience -largely made up of artists, art critics and writers -agreed that galleries and the public might not appreciate a focus of challenging sexualities.
Issues raised included: the extent to which galleries determine what the artists produce; the capacity of art to effect change in society; and the fact that artists paint mostly for money.
Artistic director of the CCA, Bisi Silva, was not convinced that there are enough artists creating works that address topical issues. She added that, even when there are artists like that, there are not interesting, diverse material to work with.
“Where are the performance artists, the video artists” she asked. A member of the audience observed that an artist must have overfed and even galleries most have overfed, before any will either paint or sell such works that have a provocative edge, like some of those displayed in ‘Transitions’. Jelili Atiku suggested that “The artist has to survive first. That’s how it is.”
Some artists present complained of an inconducive environment for the exploration of talents. However, Sylvester Ogbechie, a US-based art historian, told the artists, “There are options. There is obviously a significant short sight… You’re neglecting the ability to get out from local to global. You have to take risks.” Continuing, he said, “Nobody takes the artist seriously.
“You have access to do good works.” The lack of an enabling environment, he insisted, “Is not an excuse.”
Ngcobo buttressed the importance of socially relevant art. She added that there was no real visual history of people with an alternative lifestyles in South Africa until Zanele Muholi, a lesbian, began focusing on others like her. In so doing, she has become one of the most important artists in South Africa, all in four short years.
The discussion brought to bear the importance of making art that is relevant, and not just painting a beautiful work. ‘Transitions’ also brought many to the realisation that the time has come for artists to stop finding excuses because the possibilities are endless.
On a lighter note Ngcobo was asked what the South African artists were planning towards World Cup in 2010. She said the organisers were more interested in providing infrastructure, but quickly added that the World Cup presents the opportunity for artists to brand themselves. “It is an opportunity to ask a lot of questions,” she said.
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