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JCAF's debut exhibit is an intriguing exploration of female representation

Works by five women from the Global South speak to each other in surprising ways in Jozi's newest art space, The Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation

27 September 2020 - 00:01 By and tymon smith
'Sengifikile' by Nandipha Mntambo, 2009. Dr KOP Matseke Collection.
'Sengifikile' by Nandipha Mntambo, 2009. Dr KOP Matseke Collection.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo/Sunday Times

For years, rumours had been whispered among the elite of the Johannesburg art world that the next major art space to be built in the city would be a museum that would showcase businessman and art collector Gordon Schachat's "fabled" collection.

It was, depending on which "in the know" expert you spoke to at whichever art fair or exhibition opening, going to be the privately funded answer to Tate Modern, a vainglorious monument to Schachat's taste that would allow the public a glimpse of the many art treasures he'd accumulated over the years.

It was to be a collaboration with the Pompidou Centre in Paris - a Johannesburg Pompidou to rival Cape Town's Zeitz.

In reality, what we have is something quite different.

The Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF) was built over three years in a former tram shed and electricity substation at the edge of Forest Town. It is the result of a partnership between Schachat, fellow art-mad businessman Adi Enthoven and former MTN chair Phuthuma Nhleko.

It's described as "not a museum or gallery" but "a foundation that does not own art or house a private collection. Rather it is a hybrid institution, combining an academic research institute, an innovative technology laboratory and a platform for museum-quality exhibitions."

It opened in February, not with an exhibition but with a lecture presented by New York University's Goddard professor in media, culture and communications, Arjun Appadurai. Appadurai's "Lecture from the Global South" helped to establish the foundation's focus for its future exhibitions, the first of which has now opened to the public, delayed, of course, by the Covid-19 pandemic.

For curator Clive Kellner, the decision to open the JCAF "with a lecture as opposed to an exhibition was to launch with an idea rather than a product".

The first exhibition, "Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South", is complemented by and builds on ideas presented in Apparudai's inaugural lecture. It presents work by five women artists: India/UK-based Bharti Kher; Kenya/US-based Wangechi Mutu; Iran/US-based Shirin Neshat and South Africans Nandipha Mntambo and Berni Searle.

The artists are connected by their practice in the Global South and by their concerns with issues of female representation through the use of the concept of hybridity to explore ideas about identity, race and gender.

Kellner has three decades of experience as a curator in SA and abroad. He says his role at the JCAF is something of a dream job that gives him "a chance to reinvent myself", but he's careful to maintain that the foundation's programme "is not about profiling myself. The curator doesn't have more information than the artists and we hope, once Covid restrictions allow, to be bringing artists here to speak about their work."

In answer to the question of whether or not he as a white male should be curating the work of women of colour, Kellner offers the idea that he, like the artists on show and their works, is a hybrid.

"I'm a white guy in Africa. My experience is fragmented and weird. If black people can only do black things and white people can only do white things then we have a problem. Not one of the artists has had an issue [with my gender or race] and they all know my track record. The point is, I love art and I love doing this."

I'm a white guy in Africa. My experience is fragmented and weird. If black people can only do black things and white people can only do white things then we have a problem
Curator Clive Kellner on whether a white male should be curating works by women of colour

The exhibition space inside the JCAF's modern heritage space - designed by architect Pierre Swanepoel and incorporating the history of the building and its previous function within its redesign - is small but adaptable.

The current exhibition makes use of a deck that acts as a bridge between the different sections of the show - divided into three "worlds".

The first is The Fall - "a realm where the natural and human worlds meet".

The second area focuses on hybridity and the mingling of species, races and cultures through the representation of uncomfortably ambivalent figures, intended to provoke a response in the viewer, who, according to Kellner, must consider the relationship between themselves and other, different subjectivities. The third area focuses on the reality of the body as a form - "embedded in race, religion and identity".

The bridge concept is a physical manifestation of a quote by US artist Lorraine O'Grady in which she describes the building of "identity bridges" in order to navigate between the worlds of her Caribbean heritage and the reality of her upbringing in the traditionally white area of Back Bay in Boston.

Here these very different works by five very different women, working in isolation, are placed in ways that highlight striking commonalities. Mntambo's Europa, a reworking of an image from traditional European mythology through the gaze of a black, African woman stares fixedly at Mutu's Water Woman, a black bronze incarnation of a figure from African mythology that evokes similarities with the European idea of the mermaid.

Kher's sculpture Mother, in which the artist presents a life-size plaster cast of her real mother, is suddenly mirrored by a moment in Searle's video piece behind it, Snow White, in which the artist sits naked under a trickle of flour and water that gradually covers her skin to raise questions about the apartheid deification of whiteness.

'Mother' (left) by Bharti Kher, 2016, and 'Snow White' by Berni Searle, 2001.
'Mother' (left) by Bharti Kher, 2016, and 'Snow White' by Berni Searle, 2001.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo/Sunday Times

There are many other moments of synchronicity that you encounter as you move through the exhibition. They've been carefully set up by Kellner's curatorial choices, but the way in which you interact with the space allows you to get to these moments on your own, in your own time and through nothing more than the quiet contemplation of the work around you.

That's because the JCAF has taken a conscious decision to present works without titles or accompanying text. Information on the work is available through an app that runs on one of the iPads sitting on the wall at the entrance and which can be downloaded on your phone.

You can also make use of one of the foundation's guides, but for Kellner, the experience is purposely presented with as few distractions from the work as possible.

"This is in an effort to change the way that visitors experience an exhibition," he says. "We're used to walking through, looking, ticking off, moving quickly from one place to the next and then you're done. How do you reduce that and amplify the experience?"

The JCAF aims to present small, carefully curated exhibitions that, for the next three years, will highlight the work of women artists from the Global South.

Kellner says he believes that you can only do so much. "So do less, better. People are exposed to a lot of noise out there and then you come here and you get a different kind of experience. I come from a tried and tested position of saying, 'We don't have to necessarily be at the cutting edge'.

Instead, we're focusing on historicising contemporary practice. Today we're looking at the idea of hybridity with these five women artists. Next year we'll look at the work of '60s and '70s Latin American women artists and after that we'll explore modernist female identities in the Global South. It's about better engagement with knowledge and ideas about the Global South. There will always be South African artists presented because it's a dialogue between artists from that region."

Ultimately, Kellner hopes that by exposing visitors to art that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience in a space that allows for contemplative, unhurried and undisturbed interaction with the work, the foundation will create a space for viewers to think about how "South Africa is so racially driven, so problematic, politicised and polarised and we need to have a healthy public discourse. Can art play a role? Can the hybrid help by asking you to look at yourself in relation to others? That's what I want to trace through these three shows."

The exhibition space is open to the public for free by means of online booking. Due to Covid restrictions the maximum number of people per booking has been reduced from 10 to five and there are three tours daily. The exhibition closes at the end of January 2021.

It's envisaged that the foundation will host one exhibition per year, which will run for six months in conjunction with lecture, film and music programmes.

For booking and information, visit jcaf.org.za. The JCAF is located at 1 Durris Road, Forest Town, Johannesburg.