SA art market resembles a service industry for the super rich

Sean O'Toole believes there are consequences to our country's market-driven art system. Let's hope Zeitz MOCCA and the Joburg Art Fair help more than they hurt

10 September 2017 - 00:00 By Sean O'Toole

Ever since returning from a recent visit to Accra I've been battling a persistent fever. I'm unsure if the malaise is medical or existential, the result of a brush with a mosquito or my encounter with Ghana's up-for-it art scene. Obviously I prefer the latter diagnosis.
Much like Italy in the 1960s and South Africa in the 1990s, Ghana is experiencing a creative renaissance. A mood of spirited experimentation rules, partly because Ghana is still unfettered by the domesticating impulses of a robust art market.
Like Tracey Rose, Moshekwa Langa and Robin Rhode in 1990s Johannesburg, many young Ghanaian artists are working in bold new ways. Some, like Va-Bene Fiatsi, a transgender performance artist who exhibits under the alias crazinisT artisT, are using their bodies. In this devoutly Christian society his physical work still shocks.His career also received an ambiguous lift through his association with Stefan Simchowitz, a Johannesburg-born art dealer and tastemaker based in Los Angeles known for his speculative trading in emerging artists. A fledgling scene presents a happy hunting ground for art impresarios - true not only of Ghana but also South Africa.Of course, traditional canvas painting - that fusty trophy of the super rich - is still a pursuit among some young Ghanaians. This is because Ghana has a small but resourced collector base, among them investor Seth Dei, who helped to create the Blue Skies fruit-packaging enterprise. His substantial art holdings extend to important African-American abstract painter Norman Lewis.
But Ghana has only a handful of serious collectors like Dei. And the country is only a marginal contributor to Africa's total population of 145,000 super rich, a category economic researchers define as those with R13-million in liquid financial assets.
According to New World Wealth, a Johannesburg market research group, this highly mobile class of Africans have a deep interest in art. Collectively, they are thought to hold an estimated R11.2-billion in fine art.
While some of the biggest collectors are in Lagos and Luanda, the vast bulk live in South Africa. The South African art market has increasingly come to resemble a service industry dedicated to the promotion and display of this "passion investment" of the super rich.
The process is not new. It was kick-started with union in 1910 and the zealous pursuit of a nationalist art, gained momentum during the economic self-confidence of the apartheid years, and has been further streamlined in the decades since 1994.
The consequences of South Africa's market-driven art system are discernable across the supply chain. Take the much-feted graduate exhibition at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town. Over the last decade this art-calendar event has increasingly come to resemble a job application forum, with young students, abetted by their mentors, producing slick, market-focused shows.Mohau Modisakeng and Nandipha Mnthambo, star Michaelis graduates whose work will form part of the opening exhibitions at the Zeitz Museum for Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) at the V&A Waterfront when it opens to the public on September 22, are products of this mill.
Younger Michaelis alumni, like Ruby Swinney, have been luckier. In late 2015, this undifferentiated painter of white leisure, foliage and suburban-inflected magic, had her entire graduate exhibition bought by Zeitz MOCAA.
The art market took note. The following year adman and collector Mike Abel used Twitter to announce that M&C Saatchi Abel had acquired "another masterful" Swinney. "A huge talent to watch."Coetzee chose instead to distil his institution's mission: to correct the imbalances of apartheid museum culture, to embrace African worldliness, to celebrate African creativity on a continent too used to exporting its talents. All noble ambitions.
The large and dispiriting selection of photography, much of it focusing on bland rehearsals of identity through the works of Modisakeng and others, left me wondering about the chasm between aspiration and fact. It also reminded me of a drunken Simon Njami, the Paris-based curator of Cameroonian ancestry, telling Modisakeng at a public talk in 2010 that he made "boring work for white people".
Zeitz MOCAA is not a revolutionary house, at least not in any sense Julius Malema meant when he gifted us the expression in 2010. For now it is still too wrapped up in a "white tendency", which is another sparkling Malema-ism.
But in a country where the biennale idea has proven unworkable, both in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and our public museums are frail, faltering and - in the case of the Johannesburg Art Gallery - physical wrecks, projects like the Joburg Art Fair have emerged as unlikely but durable pillars.
Maybe the Zeitz MOCAA will match this outcome. I've paid up my membership in advance. Call me reservedly hopeful, or wrongheaded from fever.

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