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by Sven Christian

Tomorrow There Will Be More of Us: Art as a Contact Zone

The title of the inaugural Stellenbosch Triennale, Tomorrow There Will Be More Of Us (2020), reads like a proclamation—a statement of intent, assurance, solidarity. Premised on the understanding of love as “a revolutionary act,”[i] it conjures up a field of budding flowers (almost, but not quite in bloom). After Pablo Neruda, “Spring is rebellious.”[ii] Tomorrow There Will Be More Of Us is thus also a position, a provocation. It possesses the cinematic confidence of a last stand—the holding of ground and the inevitable influx of reinforcements. As described by chief curator, Khanyisile Mbongwa, Stellenbosch is “inherently sick.”[iii] Like the rest of South Africa—indeed, the world—it remains paralyzed by inequality, intolerance, and denial. The question posed is how to heal, how to find a point of “mutual coexistence on terrain that is contested.”[iv]

Although brought to a premature close after South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a National State of Disaster (March 15, 2020), the curatorial vision of the Triennale has since taken on a profound, almost prophetic urgency. On March 26, 2020, South Africa went into lock-down. For three weeks, all citizens were required, by law, to stay inside their homes. These were precautionary measures, adopted to avoid the crippling effects of COVID-19 on our population and public health systems. At the time of writing, the outcome is unknown, yet as Yuval Noah Harari points out, short-term solutions implemented in times of crisis have a habit of becoming the norm: “That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes.”[v]

Donna Kukama, Chapter Z: When Everything and Everyone Returned, 2020: Stellenbosch. Photograph by Sven Christian

Ronald Muchatuta, installation view of Chimurenga, 2020: Collage drawings, washing line, sketches. ‘Curators’ Exhibition’, Stellenbosch Triennale. Photograph by Sven Christian.

For Harari, the COVID-19 pandemic marks a watershed moment in which deadlocked systems of totalitarian surveillance and national isolation threaten to eclipse the necessity of citizen empowerment and global solidarity. He attributes this to a lack of trust and cooperation—the prioritization of individual/national needs over those of the collective/globe, without recognizing that it is only through collective/global efforts that individuals/nations will be empowered. This view seems to echo that of Irmgard Emmenelhainz, who draws on the example of the Ferber method—“which ‘teaches’ babies to self-soothe by letting them cry themselves to sleep in their crib”—to demonstrate the widespread belief that self-worth is derived from self-reliance.[vi]

In contrast, the rapid spread of COVID-19 has shown just how dependent we are on one another. In the midst of the pandemic, perceived distinctions between the individual and the collective, the local and the global, are simultaneously blurred and exacerbated. What has become clear is that, within such a context, the “cultivated capacity to dissociate from our bodies and from everything else surrounding us” is not only foolish but dangerous.[vii] No one is immune; everyone is infectious. If the future is being ushered in at an alarming rate, then Mbongwa’s optic is paramount:

For me, Tomorrow There Will Be More Of Us is about imagining (and creating) common sustainable futures by looking at the wounds […] We need to heal, and for that to happen we have to be brave enough to look at the places that hurt the most, the places of discomfort […] I think of the histories of migration and the current human flow in the world—and how we need to rethink how we conceptualise and use space. So, there is a literal meaning to Tomorrow There Will Be More Of Us, where human flow requires us to think about space and resource sharing beyond colour, gender, sexuality, religion or tradition.[viii]

For Mbongwa (and here I am also invoking the rest of the curatorial team—Dr Bernard Akoi-Jackson, Mike Tigere Mavura, Gcotyelwa Mashiqa, Silas Miami, Pieter Mathews and Jay Pather), thinking ‘beyond’ such constructs and belief systems does not mean overlooking them. Nor does it mean rainbow-nation-level inclusivity. Her vision is about acknowledging the fallout of past and present injustices so that we can make sound decisions about our collective futures. Although universalist in outlook, her use of pronouns like ‘us’ and ‘we’ (the collective) do not imply a single homogenous body. her position seems to align with that of Koyo Kouoh, who recently described her own universalist view as something that “does not dilute specificities, diversity, multiplicity, plurality […] [which] does not mean one becomes one,” but rather “that we all have the same rights, and that most people aspire to the same basic thing.”[ix]

It is a form of emancipatory politics which does not attempt to reverse “positions of dominance” but insists on the dismantling of power structures, all the while acknowledging the interdependent, fragmented, and incommensurable nature of our lives.[x] From this perspective, politics (“the capacity of individuals to organize and make decisions collectively”) and love (the ability “to handle difference, and to experience the world from the point of view of difference”) are no longer mutually exclusive. Their cross-pollination allows one to “ground politics” through “a trust in difference rather than a suspicion of it.”[xi] This is important, not only to the future of the biennale/triennale model—which is intricately tied to totalizing notions of nation-state, capitalism, and globalization—but how we choose to face up to the realities of our time. As described by Harari, “Every crisis is also an opportunity. We must hope that the current epidemic will help humankind realize the acute danger posed by global disunity.”[xii]

Euridice Getulio Kala,Terra Incognita,2020: Workshop (Patterns against the stream or how to occupy the public space in a different way). ‘Curators’ Exhibition’, Stellenbosch Triennale. Photographs by Sven Christian.

Of course, the desire to heal is not new, and trying to fast-track ‘unity’ has shown to prolong suffering. Deeply embedded within the South African imaginary, this desire manifests itself in different ways—in how we work, sleep, create; in moments of anger and solitude, pride and humility. We all have different coping mechanisms, yet it is how they manifest in our relationships that is perhaps most telling. Premised on the understanding that biennials are also inherently social, this paper explores the contexts, impulses, developments, differences, and intersections that underpin their trajectory in ‘post’-apartheid South Africa. It asks how we have arrived at this present juncture, and to what end. To adopt a phrase of Mbongwa’s, “We are here today, thinking through yesterday to imagine and manifest tomorrow.”[xiii]

In 2003, David Koloane asked a very simple yet profound question: “How does regional art become international?”[xiv] In other words, what are the channels through which art, born of a specific context, enters into the broader lexicon of global art discourse, and to what effect? Does its specificity get lost in transit? Does it accumulate unwanted baggage? In what state does it ‘arrive’? His question is backed by an equally profound statement: “In order to be internationally acceptable: a South African exhibition [had] to be shaped so that it could satisfy different perceptions and expectations.”[xv] Between February and April 1995—when the first Johannesburg Biennale, Africus, took place[xvi]—such expectations included an exhibition that might reflect the air of optimism and gestural inclusivity that so marked the dawn of the ‘new’ South Africa and its talk of national transformation.[xvii]

One could add to this the increasing demand for biennials worldwide. And why not? After all, “The utopian promise of the biennial was that while the museum […] was the place for authoritative pronouncements, classification, canonization, and preservation, the biennial’s raison d’être was to provide a site for experimentation, contingency, testing, ambiguity, and enquiry.”[xviii] Given the parochial perspective of South African institutions, the promise of such a biennial must have been appealing. At the same time, the history of the biennial model—with its rhetoric of a homogenizing universalism, tourism, and economic development—may have provided an alluring out for those eager to take up the preemptive banner of a post-racial society.

To provide some historical context, the period between 1991 and 1995 saw the establishment of the Lyon Biennial (1991); the Dak’Art Biennial (1992); the Asia-Pacific Triennial, the Sharjah Biennial, and the Vento Sul Biennial (1993); the Shanghai Biennial (1994); and the Gwangju, São Tomé e Príncipe, and SITE Santa Fe Biennials (1995).[xix] In addition were the earlier emergences of the Venice Biennale (1895); the São Paulo Biennial (1951); as well as the Havana (1984) and Istanbul Biennials (1987)—“both particularly remarkable for the catalysing effect they had in sparking debate about the so-called periphery.”[xx] The widespread reputation of other mega-exhibitions like documenta (1955)—“made possible, or even necessary and urgent, because of decisive ‘local’ events and issues, [namely] Germany’s postwar reconstruction”[xxi]—must also have contributed to the biennial model’s allure in South Africa.

It is worth noting, however, that despite the various debates that occurred in the 1980s—debates which challenged hegemonic modes of exhibition-making within biennial circuits and would thus seem appropriate within the context of the first Johannesburg Biennale—its organizers, Christopher Till and Lorna Ferguson, chose to fashion the event on “the pavilion representation common to both Venice and São Paulo.”[xxii] Championed as a form of nation-building, this approach could have been expected within the context of a newly democratic South Africa. Nevertheless, it exposed a predilection to cosy up to the old, sanctioned symbols of the European art world. In 1996, David Koloane took the Biennale to task for its Eurocentrism and its song of inclusivity:

When one scrutinises the motives and objectives of the Biennale, it soon becomes apparent that reconstruction and development of any kind were as conspicuously absent as an art market in Soweto. It is ironic if not downright cynical that people who never sacrificed their privileges, who never suffered incarceration for their beliefs or experienced the isolation of compulsory exile, should have been the ones to call for a celebration of South Africa’s readmission into the international fold. This is like the jailer celebrating the prisoner’s release in the prisoner’s absence.[xxiii]

For Koloane, the execution and scope of the first Johannesburg Biennale reflected many of the problems faced within the macrocosm of South Africa and the microcosm of its art world. Most notable was a whitewashing of continued socio-economic inequalities to meet the expectations of the international arena, as well as an essentialist, patronizing attitude that drew distinctions between “community” and “mainstream art,”[xxiv] with the former being placed in remote spaces around Johannesburg, with delayed funding and inadequate support.[xxv] According to Koloane, such conditions did little to bring about the envisaged transformation that formed the basis of the event’s rhetoric:

The Biennale lost the opportunity to transform South Africa, and the city of Johannesburg specifically, into the pulse of Southern Africa. The link with Africa is essential to the redefinition of creative expression and the interchange of skills and resources. A common sense approach would have shown that the country urgently needs to cultivate relationships with Southern Africa before even thinking of the continent as a whole. With reduced participation the Biennale would have cost taxpayers far less. There would have been no need for expensive ‘five-star’ fact-finding missions, no need for an international contingent of curators and writers.[xxvi]

The criticisms levelled by Koloane are valid. Establishing modest networks and relationships with our immediate neighbors may have led to a robust foundation for local artistic practices, providing the right set of ingredients to prevent the Biennale’s eventual collapse.[xxvii] Grounded by an understanding that regional art does not ‘become’ international overnight (or if it does, that it runs the risks of being appropriated or commodified), Koloane’s perspective questions the long-held belief that to be validated, art by South Africans needs to first gain approval from the West—an impulse that is beautifully captured in Mitchell Messina’s YouTube video, How to get your work overseas (2017), in which a wooden crate, presumably full of art, is trebucheted into the ether.

Mitchell Messina, still from How to get your work overseas, 2017: Youtube video, 27 secs. Image courtesy of the artist. © Mitchell Messina.

The failure of Africus to connect—to empower citizens and establish solid ground—appears to have been mirrored by the second Johannesburg Biennale, Trade Routes. It ran from October 1997 to January 1998. Led by artistic director Okwui Enwezor, its focus—“the global traffic of culture”[xxviii]—aimed to hot-wire severed threads, to short-circuit and reboot neural networks, and to grapple with the rapid changes brought about through new technologies and historic processes of globalization. “The basis of Trade Routes was the idea of exchange,” he explained, “the flow of commodities, the flow of history, of contestation, of the range of ideas transmitted via the trade routes.”[xxix]

Enwezor drew on the example of Vasco da Gama's fifteenth-century passage from Lisbon to Calicut (via the Cape of Good Hope) as a critical “moment of both rupture and connection with the rest of the world.”[xxx] From this historic vantage, he sought to expose the roots of apartheid and its fallout, the better to attend to its continued manifestations. Determined not to pander to regional or international expectations about what a biennial in South Africa might look like, Enwezor opted for a wider focal range, treating South Africa’s locality “as a structuring device to get inside the local/global question.”[xxxi]

This was in the 1990s, when national borders were thought to be ‘dissolving’; the distinctions between the so-called ‘center’ and ‘periphery’ “levelling out.”[xxxii] Consequently, many who benefited from such hierarchies scrambled to re-establish their dominion. In 1995, the Venice Biennale’s artistic director, Jean Clair, proudly proclaimed that “there would be no Third World artists” included. For him, the Western conception of art was “strictly associated with a certain culture which raised the image to a point of sophistication not known in any other form of culture.” Driving Clair’s separatist view was a deep-seated fear of difference, the belief that “cultures alien to Western culture” were “on the up and up, in a conquering phase, to such an extent that we can’t be at all sure the great museums we are opening will still be there in a few years’ time.”[xxxiii]

This may seem laughable, but for Enwezor it was synonymous with “the return of fascism in Europe and the great wave of conservatism [that was] sweeping through America.”[xxxiv] To explain the policing of boundaries, James Clifford observes how cultures and identities—as “currencies” or “performative acts”—necessitate the tactical maintenance of “coherent insides and outsides.”[xxxv] This matter is complicated within the context of globalization, where contact zones are not only ubiquitous but barely perceptible, and where the power of global capital has often meant absorbing or containing that which lies ‘outside’ of its orbit. As described by Terry Eagleton, capitalism is “an impeccably inclusive creed. It really doesn’t care who it exploits.”[xxxvi] By returning to a fifteenth-century moment of compression and fracture, Enwezor highlighted the existence of such processes since time immemorial. The point is that, far from being able to salvage some imagined purity, cultures are already and always constituted relationally. Given that such processes long pre-date the earliest colonial encounters, one could ask why Enwezor chose to highlight this particular moment. I would venture that it is because it is at this point that our present sickness—the fear of difference—gains momentum. As described by Hito Steyerl:

Okwui’s idea of the world was of an incomplete entity which needed to be changed […] by becoming more complex, more nuanced, more challenging, by acknowledging more colors, different sounds, unknown beauty in between the trodden stereotypes designed to rule and conquer. Importantly, his view of the world differed from the liberal mantra of just adding more consumer-packaged identities. The world wasn’t incomplete by chance, but because of historical violence and exclusion.[xxxvii]

This might explain why Enwezor did away with the national pavilion model (a decision aimed at developing “a critical paradigm for the reorientation of biennales”).[xxxviii] It might also explain why he drew Cape Town into the fold of exhibition venues, appointed a team of (primarily) international curators to oversee a series of thematic exhibitions, and why the Biennale included a disproportionate number of new media and conceptual works of art. Well-suited to grapple with questions of globalization (and perhaps to dispel the essentialist telos of Jean Clair), the latter decision was, however, also the Biennale’s most controversial.

“The worst only becomes apparent when we realize that Black South Africa is brutally marginalized twice-over,” wrote Koloane. “Black South Africa has by and large not been asked to participate in this Biennale and neither has Black South Africa been addressed by this Biennale.”[xxxix] Although it aspired to make room for a plurality of voices, Koloane argued that the Biennale’s focus on new media inadvertently derailed such a possibility. To have been accepted into the Biennale, many would’ve had to forego their practices and adopt the ‘cutting-edge’/conceptual approach favored internationally. An apt metaphor here is Raqs Media Collective’s conception of the “waiting room”:

The figure of a person biding time in a waiting room helps us to imagine the predicament of people living in societies often considered to be inhabiting an antechamber to modernity. In such spaces, one waits to be called upon to step onto the stage of history […] The passage from ‘waiting rooms’ to the ‘stage’ often requires a person to go through intense scrutiny […] One achieves citizenship, one loses it, one’s performance is either applauded or it fails to live up to the demands, requirements and standards that accrue to it. To live with these conditions is to be always on trial, to know that in the eyes of the examining authority one is always, and necessarily, an impostor, unless proved otherwise.[xl]

Of course, the image of people biding time in a waiting room is somewhat misleading. In a context where people of color were forcibly denied equal citizenship (Koloane’s own metaphor was that of a prisoner), he, like many others, actively sought ways to connect: instigating workshops, pooling skills and resources, and hosting exhibitions in spite of incredibly hostile conditions.[xli] In 1977, Koloane played an integral role in the establishment of The Gallery, as well as the Federal Union of Black Artists (FUBA). In 1985, he helped to orchestrate the first Triangle Workshop in South Africa and establish the Thupelo Workshops. Six years later, he and Triangle’s Robert Loder established The Bag Factory (1991).[xlii] The international networks realized through these endeavors and the artistic traditions they nurtured—primarily in paint, sculpture, and print—were rich with histories of cross-cultural exchange. As such, there is no reason why the Biennale’s concerns could not have also been addressed through this lens—an oversight which must have felt like a continued refusal of self-governance.

Mitchell Messina, Historical Pinball Fiction, 2019: Oil on canvas, 170 x 120 x 5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist. © Mitchell Messina.

Not only did the Biennale’s focus deny many a seat at the table, but it also set the template for the future direction of local artistic engagement. “If the biennale was also for South Africa, then perhaps it needed to consider its local audience much more closely,” wrote Carol Becker, “not with the sense of where South Africa should be but realistic about where it is and where it wants to be.” She expresses disappointment that the Biennale “could have happened anywhere in the West.”[xliii] While I do not altogether agree with this, the point being made is important: To what extent are biennales like blueprints? How do they account for the specificity of place beyond geography? As pointed out by Elena Filipovic, “The ‘crisis of biennials’ that so many critics have decried lies not so much in the proliferation of these events as in the proliferation of a form.”[xliv] To return to Raqs’ paper:

Many contemporary methods of spatial intervention necessitate the hollowing out of ways of life, ecologies and habitation practices from a space, and then filling it with a one-size-fits-all imagination. Architectural plans, interior design catalogues and real estate brochures determine the ‘value’ of a location. To have a design on space is half the battle won in terms of the possession and control over that space. Everything that is in the way—people, settled practices, older inner cities, nomadic routes, and the commons of land and water—disappears into the emptiness of the un-inked portions between the rectilinear inscriptions on the surface of the masterplan.[xlv]

Here, we see the root of Koloane’s frustration. “Perhaps more than anything else,” he wrote, “what defines the South African biennales is the issue of power […] of who ultimately had the power to set the terms of reference.”[xlvi] He describes the second iteration as an act of “privatization,” equating its role to that of CNN, whose denizens—“a global syndicated membership”[xlvii]—assume a monopoly on cultural expression:

Foreign curators now often come to South Africa with ready-made concepts and agendas which only accommodate the new media approach in art making. The new media approach has, so to speak, often become synonymous with cutting-edge expression which in South Africa has succeeded in entrenching the aesthetic marginalisation of most Black African artists in a repeat cycle of the system the new democratic South Africa has just emerged from.[xlviii]

This perspective may seem narrow-minded, but the operative word is “only.” Koloane’s criticisms were not levelled against foreign curators, artists, or the inclusion of new media, but the exclusion of other approaches which have a long-standing relevance in South Africa, and the disregard for pre-existing networks that would have enriched the focus of the Biennale. The question of whether “biennials in some way change the nature or tenor of the art being made, or, conversely, [if they are] the direct product and development of art”[xlix] seems applicable here, as does the question about how regional art becomes international (or its flip—how international art becomes regional). Another way to phrase this question would be to ask, as Ashraf Jamal provocatively does, whether “local matters only become relevant once they have found their parallel elsewhere in the world?”[l] Or, on a more personal level, if what concerns me only concerns you if we are in the same boat?

What I find striking is how such criticisms were dismissed by members of the international community as unimaginative, parochial, and populist. Matthew DeBord referred to them as “indigenous Philistinism” and as “code […] for the Biennale’s organizers not manufacturing a show that would parallel South Africa’s revival in international eyes.” At the same time, he celebrated Enwezor’s approach as “visionary,” “inclusively international,” and “ahead of the curve.”[li] How does one account for the failure to recognize such concerns as integral to the overarching focus of the Biennale? How does someone simultaneously denounce and celebrate both sides of the same coin? Is this a simple matter of allegiances? Surely in any discussion of the global, the local matters? Far from irrelevant, the concerns raised demonstrate how much of a footprint even the most well-intentioned sites of global exchange can have on regional landscapes.

This is not to say that the Biennale did not have its merits. It was an important occasion for many, and the debates it generated would’ve no doubt filtered back into the global machinery. That it did not take place “anywhere in the West” is thus significant. But to borrow a phrase from Arundhati Roy, “It’s as if you shine a light very brightly in one place, the darkness deepens around it.”[lii] By applying Enwezor’s line of inquiry to the Biennale itself, it is possible to understand its own histories of exchange and contestation; to understand it as its own moment of “rupture and connection with the rest of the world.” This helps to understand the systemic nature of the beast that Enwezor was grappling with, and its continued relevance today.

Over a decade after Trade Routes, Koloane’s criticisms found their parallel in Anton Vidokle’s now famous paper, Art Without Artists? (2009), delivered at a curatorial conference in Leipzig, Germany. “If there is to be critical art, the role of the artist as a sovereign agent must be maintained,” he wrote. “By sovereignty, I mean simply certain conditions of production in which artists are able to determine the direction of their work.” Like Koloane, Vidokle's challenge was targeted towards a form of “overreaching” on the part of institutions, curators, and critics who perform an intermediary role “between producers of art and the power structure of our society.”[liii]

This issue is not specific to biennials, but given their scale, the economic and political umbrellas underneath which they function, and the web of curators, funders, institutions, and media personnel involved, processes of mediation tend to multiply. An important observation made by Vidokle in 2019 is that while the 1990s saw the dissolution of national boundaries and an increase in human traffic, it also witnessed the flow of capital on an unprecedented scale. He argues that, despite being a mask or foil for corporate control, capitalism’s “flair for flexibility and recombination” were often “mistaken for a democratic, autonomous, or anti-authoritarian character, sealing it in as a new form of sublime non-governance.”[liv]

It is this “flair” that has led to the view of the global market as something of a colonial proxy through which local artistic expression gets “swallowed up” and “made banal by easy money and borrowed ideas and fashions.”[lv] Again, it is about the replication and imposition of a form that is ill-equipped to deal with the specificities of place. This is not an issue specific to biennials, but a hallmark of neoliberalism. A case in point is the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Held in South Africa, it used the rhetoric of shifting the continent’s image internationally to attract foreign investment. While the country’s most vulnerable were rounded up and placed in temporary “transit zones” (out of sight, out of mind), million-dollar stadiums were erected that now sit like hollow monuments to Budweiser and Castrol Oil.[lvi] As described by Raqs:

The building of a military airstrip or a highway or a dam or a resort or a housing estate sanctioned by a masterplan can suddenly turn people into trespassers, and their way of life into a culture of trespassing […] As masterplans cordon off greater and yet greater swathes of space, they begin to come up against each other, leading to meta-masterplans that stitch different masterplans together, until more and more stretches of territory end up looking and feeling like clones of each other.[lvii]

Stacey Gillian Abe, Sylvia’s Letters to my Future Self, 2020: an ongoing project installed during ‘Curators’ Exhibition’, Stellenbosch Triennale. Photograph by Sven Christian.

The same could also be said of biennials which, by virtue of their global aspirations, threaten to either mute or essentialize cultural difference, sugar-coated as they are in an “international dressing.”[lviii] The promotional video produced for CAPE 07 (March 24–May 2, 2007)—the first Biennale to take place in South Africa following Trade Routes—reads like a litmus test for the 2010 FIFA World Cup’s ‘Brand South Africa’ campaign. It includes footage from the Venice, Sydney, São Paulo, and Dak’Art Biennales, and is laced with buzz words like “vibrant,” “innovation,” “cutting-edge,” “high-profile,” and “uniquely African”:

The world has become a global village where nations converge, engage, and celebrate culture […] Cape Town is no longer a remote and beautiful city on the southern tip of Africa. It is developing an identity as one of the arts and cultural capitals of the world, and Africa’s foremost city. The mother city has become a new cultural centre, a high-profile, hit player in the global arena, combining a natural splendour and historic resonance with a vibrant creative energy. Cape Town needs to harness this creative energy, increase resources for culture, and create new art events that unleash this unexploited economic potential.[lix]

Tempering the hype surrounding ‘contemporary African art’ is the need, expressed by Ashraf Jamal, to challenge its “blithe absorption […] within a global economy.”[lx] One of the surest ways to do this is to create a solid foundation for the arts on local soil; to develop, as Koloane initially suggested, a robust framework for artists by controlling the means of production. The challenge here, of course, is that while “there are many suggestions” about “how to create a model genuinely different from that propagated by the time-honored model of Venice and its progeny,” there are also “few examples.”[lxi]

Speaking to Rasheed Araeen in July 2006—in the lead up to CAPE 07 (at the time, TransCape)—CAPE’s artistic director Gavin Jantjes mentioned a similar need for self-governance and appropriate infrastructure, observing an uncertainty about “where to start.” His perspective paints a clear image of the motivations underpinning CAPE 07, albeit under different leadership and a different name: “If one thinks of the number of African nations trying to create what they call biennales, there are some building blocks,” said Jantjes. He cites iterations in Egypt, Dakar, Angola, South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, and Kenya, asking what might happen “if each of these […] were to focus, for just one occasion, on their local history. Meaning they would dedicate their resources and research to a specific local goal.”[lxii] For him, such an endeavor might lead to the establishment of an appropriate platform from which to build, a perspective which was recently echoed by Anaïs Nony and Phokeng Setai, who argue that, “It is only through collective access to a cultural genealogy and history that the individual can thrive in the present and persevere in the future.”[lxiii]

Months before CAPE 07 was rescheduled to open, however, its funding fell through, leading to Jantjes’ resignation and a drastic recalibration of what was possible with the funds at hand. Without romanticizing lack of funds, what interests me is how this development pushed the event’s organizers—Gabi Ngcobo, Jonathan Garnham, Lebohang Tlali, and Mirjam Asmal-Dik—to adopt a DIY attitude, relying on informal channels to realize the show. “The initial plan was very ambitious” said Garnham. “Maybe it wasn’t the model for the South African situation, where there just isn’t the funding […] There was just no money to market it and get it out there, make a publication, none of that. We just did it and, you know, it was the little things that happened.”[lxiv]

Generally speaking, Garnham’s emphasis on the ‘little things’ runs contra to the ‘bigger is better’ mantra pervading biennials. His sentiment is reflected by the number of artists included (forty, a much more manageable figure than its predecessors)[lxv] and its improvised nature. On one occasion, Garnham recalls walking through Cape Town Station, where the vast majority of commuters pass on their way to and from work. There, he came across someone selling TVs and HiFis. “We gave him some money and just on those televisions, video-installations were playing by top artists, with commuters walking past.”[lxvi] Would such an approach have been viable had the funding materialized? Would funders have backed something so unassuming? That CAPE 07 included a large number of video works was itself a byproduct of not being able to transport works—works that would’ve necessitated their inclusion in a more controlled (and less accessible) environment.

I am not raising this to suggest that we should do away with exhibitions in formalized spaces, or limit ourselves to a particular form of work simply because it’s cheaper. Rather, I am raising it to highlight, after Khanyisile Mbongwa, how the crisis of funding experienced by CAPE 07 may have opened the way for us to “rethink how we conceptualize and use space.” Although the Biennale made use of formal structures like the Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG), Spier Gallery (Stellenbosch), the University of Stellenbosch Gallery (USG), and the Centre for African Studies, much of its energy concentrated around venues like LB’s Lounge and Bar and Lookout Hill, where the opening was held. Over the phone, Garnham’s smile thickens as he recounts the opening speech, which was delivered by the then Minister of Arts and Culture, Pallo Jordan, and accompanied by the clamor and chorus of a wedding in the adjoining room.

Victor Ehikhamenor, Power House, 2020: Site-specific installation for the ‘Curators’ Exhibition’, Stellenbosch Triennale. Yellow and black paint on abandoned generator building, Millhouse. Photograph by Sven Christian.

This seepage—the ability to sink back into the fabric of its surrounds—appears as one of CAPE 07’s many idiosyncrasies. For example, Thembinkosi Goniwe’s review for Artlink Australia begins with a descriptive of William Kentridge’s Time Table and Churchill Madikida’s Like Father Like Son, both of which were on show at ISANG, but neither of which formed part of the Biennale.[lxvii] Although unintentional, there is something to be said for an exhibition that does not force a distinction between itself and its surrounds, that allows space for its immediate environment. “We’re still talking about it,” said Lebohang Tlali, who has continued to work with Gabi Ngcobo on a number of other events (including the 10th Berlin Biennale):

It received such mixed opinions from the South African public and the art world in Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was very unclear whether people liked it or were totally against it, but for us it was an amazing triumph. We saw the impact it had on a lot of artists and were quite pleased with what we did.[lxviii]

Again, I don’t want to romanticize a dire situation. That some of the artists (and its organizers) had to dip into their personal reserves to realize the show is far from ideal. But if, as Olu Oguibe suggests, the real potential of biennials is to “provide opportunities for communion” by enabling “artists from around the world to get to know one another better across divides of nation and gender and race, and to discover what is best and most engaging of the art of each and every society,”[lxix] then we need to ask why biennials are often made to look and feel the same the world over?

CAPE 07 demonstrates that such moments of cross-fertilization can be realized with far less, and to greater personal affect. After all, biennials are also inherently social creatures. People get together. They meet, talk, drink, break bread. They get locked into heated debate and say things they regret. Such moments—rarely archived for posterity—are important in the long-term. That CAPE 07 has largely been overlooked is not surprising. It did not impress itself on the archive or leave a weighty footprint, yet it is often the case that what gets excluded from the official record is most deserving of attention.

Today's situation is very different from that of the ‘90s, and even from the first decade of the new millennium. Borders that were thought to be dissolving have sprung up on every front, and although the Internet is fast becoming central to the visibility of artistic practices, there remains a need for real-life interaction, for experiences beyond the echo chambers of virtual reality. “Marked by identitarian fragmentation and political closure in many parts of the world,” Anton Vidokle writes that it is quite possible that biennials might give way to “beer festivals, local food and craft fairs, or other types of events that reaffirm a particular identity and sense of belonging, rather than offering an encounter with something or someone outside of that tightly constructed place.”[lxx] Similarly, Tim Schneider writes that, “The lockdown era could accelerate the momentum toward economic nationalism and regional self-reliance that has been building […] since the 2008 financial crisis.”[lxxi]

On the one hand, this poses a very real threat for artists living in countries like South Africa, who are still very much dependent on global markets. At the same time, there is an opportunity for a drastic overhaul. As described by Arundhati Roy, the recent pandemic has by-and-large brought “the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt. Temporarily perhaps, but at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it, or look for a better engine.”[lxxii] Speaking to Matthew McClure about the necessity of Thupelo’s informal structure under apartheid, Jill Trappler made the following observation:

The thing with Thupelo was when David Koloane came back from the workshop in New York [Triangle: 1982] […] what they decided to do was to make it so informal that they would invite twenty artists together, get some funding, rent a space, work together, and before anything could go anywhere, it was over, and everyone had gone home. It could never be shut down because it didn’t exist.[lxxiii]

In other words, it was the very informal nature of Thupelo that enabled it to resist and outlive the hegemonic imperatives of the time, and when the time was right, formalize itself into something with a lasting and widespread impact. As described by Roy, pandemics have a way of forcing “humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” The real question is whether we “choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”[lxxiv] Like CAPE 07, this spirit permeates the curatorial vision for Tomorrow There Will Be More Of Us—an awareness that “art’s task ‘is the task of all localities, together, against the power of the global.’”[lxxv]


Sven Christian is an independent writer, editor, and curator, currently pursuing an MA in Contemporary Curatorial Practices at Wits University. His research culminated in a project titled ‘You wouldn't know God if he spat in your eye’: impressions from Dumile Feni's Scroll (Ellipses Journal: 2020). He is the editor of Ashraf Jamal’s upcoming book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Art (2020); co-editor of Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawings to Work (Koenig Books & Zeitz MOCAA: 2019), a publication on the work of William Kentridge; as well as Five Bhobh: Painting at the End of an Era (Zeitz MOCAA: 2018). In 2019, he took part in ICI’s Curatorial Intensive in Cape Town. Between 2017 and 2018, Sven was enrolled in the Zeitz MOCAA Curatorial Training Programme. During this time, he was the organizing curator of Publishing Against the Grain, a travelling exhibition conceived and produced by ICI, New York, which opened at Zeitz MOCAA in November 2017 before travelling to CCA, Lagos. Between 2015 and 2017, he was the assistant editor at ART AFRICA magazine. Prior to that, he founded Ism-Skism, an ongoing artist-led initiative that encourages participants to produce work in the public domain. He also holds a Bachelor of Fine Art from Rhodes University (2008–11).


[i] Khanyisile Mbongwa, “Chief Curator’s Note” in Tomorrow There Will Be More Of Us: Stellenbosch Triennale, ed. Khanyisile Mbongwa (Cape Town: Tip Africa Publishing, 2020), 10.

[ii] Pablo Neruda cited in Ashraf Jamal, Predicaments of Culture in South Africa (Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 2005), 1.

[iii] Khanyisile Mbongwa cited in Siddhartha Mitter, “Stellenbosch Triennale, a Bold Experiment,” New York Times, March 25, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/arts/design/stellenbosch-triennale.html.

[iv] Khanyisile Mbongwa and Dr. Bernard Akoi-Jackson, “Curator’s Exhibition” in Tomorrow There Will Be More Of Us: Stellenbosch Triennale, 13.

[v] Yuval Noah Harari, “The world after coronavirus,” Financial Times, March 20, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75.

[vi] Irmgard Emmenelhainz, “Shattering and Healing,” e-flux Journal (No. 96: January 2019), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/96/244461/shattering-and-healing/.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Mbongwa, “Chief Curator’s Note,” 6–7.

[ix] Koyo Kouoh. WhatsApp interview with the author (Cape Town: March 23, 2020).

[x] Irmgard Emmenelhainz, “Decolonial Love,” e-flux Journal (No. 99: April 2019), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/99/262398/decolonial-love/.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Harari, “The world after coronavirus.”

[xiii] Mbongwa, “Chief Curator’s Note,” 9.

[xiv] David Koloane, “South African Art in the Global Context,” Présence Africaine (No. 167/68 (2003): 121.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] David Koloane, “Africus: The Johannesburg Biennale: A Perspective” in African Arts Journal (Winter 1996): 50.

[xvii] Sabine Marschall, “The Impact of the Two Johannesburg Biennials: On the Formation of a ‘New South African Art’,” in The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø (Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall, 2010), 455.

[xviii] Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, “Introduction” in The Biennial Reader, 20.

[xix] Ibid., 26.

[xx] Ibid., 13–14.

[xxi] Ibid., 14.

[xxii] Koloane, “South African Art in the Global Context,” 122.

[xxiii] Koloane, “Africus: The Johannesburg Biennale: A Perspective,” 55.

[xxiv] Ibid., 52.

[xxv] Ibid., 53–54.

[xxvi] Ibid., 55–56.

[xxvii] Carol Becker, “The Second Johannesburg Biennale” in Art Journal 57, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 99–100.

[xxviii] Bisi Silva, “An ‘other’ stop on the global art trail: 2nd Johannesburg Biennale,” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art (Spring/Summer 1998): 47.

[xxix] Carol Becker and Okwui Enwezor, “A conversation with Okwui Enwezor” in Art Journal 61, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 12–13.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Anton Vidokle, “Art and Sovereignty,” e-flux Journal (February 2020), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/106/314846/art-and-sovereignty/.

[xxxiii] Jean Clair cited in Okwui Enwezor, “Editorial” in Nka: Journal for Contemporary African Art 3 (Fall/Winter 1995): 9.

[xxxiv] Enwezor, “Editorial,” 9.

[xxxv] James Clifford, “Prologue: In Media Res” in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1997), 7.

[xxxvi] Terry Eagleton, After Theory (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 18.

[xxxvii] Hito Steyerl, “Remembering Okwui Enwezor,” E-Flux Journal (February 2019), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/98/260819/remembering-okwui-enwezor/.

[xxxviii] Becker and Enwezor, “Carol Becker interview with Okwui Enwezor,” in Art Journal 57, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 101.

[xxxix] Koloane, “South African Art in the Global Context,” 125–126.

[xl] Raqs Media Collective, “Dreams and Disguises as Usual,” ART AFRICA 7, ed. Kendell Geers (March 2017): 54.

[xli] Speaking to Matthew McClure about The Gallery (an artist-run initiative founded by Koloane, Hugh Nolutshungu, Zulu Bidi, and Joe Maphiri in 1977 to promote the work of black artists), Koloane recalls a frustration with the fact that “people who organised exhibitions for us were always white people,” and that, rather than “[waiting] for that kind of exhibition to happen […] we thought why don’t we do something about that ourselves […].” See Matthew McClure, “Off The Record: The Gallery at 280 Main Street, Jeppestown as ‘Brazen Challenge’, Political Act and Elusive Prototype in Apartheid South Africa” (unpublished, 2019).

[xlii] McClure, “Off The Record.”

[xliii] Becker, “The Second Johannesburg Biennale,” 99–100.

[xliv] Elena Filipovic, “The Global White Cube” in OnCurating: Politics of Display, eds. Dorothee Richter and Nkule Mabaso (Zurich 2014): 58.

[xlv] Raqs Media Collective, “Dreams and Disguises, As Usual,” 58.

[xlvi] Koloane, “South African Art in the Global Context,” 124.

[xlvii] Ibid., 126.

[xlviii] Ibid.

[xlix] Filipovic, van Hal, and Øvstebø, The Biennial Reader, 20–21.

[l] Ashraf Jamal, “Tony Gum” in In The World: Essays on Contemporary South African Art (Milan: Skira, 2017), 401.

[li] Matthew DeBord, “Routes of Passage” in Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art (Spring/Summer 1998): 41.

[lii] Arundhati Roy, The Chequebook and the Cruise Missile (London: Harper Perennial, 2004), 30–31.

[liii] Anton Vidokle, “Art Without Artists?,” e-flux Journal (May 2010), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/16/61285/art-without-artists/.

[liv] Vidokle, “Art and Sovereignty.”

[lv] Omar al-Qattan cited in Ashraf Jamal, “Tony Gum” in In The World: Essays on Contemporary South African Art (Milan: Skira, 2017), 401–02.

[lvi] Chris Webb, “Selling South Africa: Poverty, Politics and the 2010 FIFA World Cup,” GlobalResearch.org, March 24, 2010, https://www.globalresearch.ca/selling-south-africa-poverty-politics-and-the-2010-fifa-world-cup/18303.

[lvii] Raqs Media Collective, “Dreams and Disguises as Usual,” 54.

[lviii] Martha Kazungu, “Kampala Art Biennale in Retrospect” in Tomorrow There Will Be More Of Us: Stellenbosch Triennale, ed. Khanyisile Mbongwa (Cape Town: Tip Africa Publishing, 2020), 113.

[lix] Cape Africa Platform, “Promotional Video” (date unknown, 04 mins 48 secs).

[lx] Jamal, “Tony Gum,” 401.

[lxi] Tavish McIntosh, “Cape ’07” in Nka: Journal for Contemporary African Art 22–23 (Spring/Summer 2008): 190.

[lxii] Gavin Jantjes, “Making History: Gavin Jantjes in conversation with Rasheed Araeen,” Africa South Art Initiative, July 10, 2008, https://asai.co.za/making-history-gavin-jantjes-in-conversation-with-rasheed-araeen/.

[lxiii] Anaïs Nony and Phokeng Setai, “Collective Freedom in the Age of Advanced Cultural Industrialization,” About00time, April 23, 2020, https://www.about00time.com/post/collective-freedom-in-the-age-of-advanced-cultural-industrialization.

[lxiv] Jonathan Garnham. WhatsApp interview with the author (Johannesburg and Cape Town: May 16, 2019).

[lxv] Africus included 250 artists from eighty countries, while Trade Routes included 145 artists from thirty-five countries (see Bisi Silva, “The Johannesburg Biennale,” Artnet reviews (1998), http://www.artnet.com/magazine_pre2000/reviews/silva/silva4-28-98.asp)

With CAPE 07, almost half the artists were based in South Africa, with a selection of works by artists from Cameroon, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Egypt, and Zimbabwe, as well as eight from the diaspora. The vast majority of artists from the diaspora were from Germany, most likely due to the funding acquired through the Goethe Institut. See Jonathan Garnham 2019 and CAPE 07 Report 2007.

[lxvi] Garnham 2019; Artists included in this exhibit were Dineo Seshee Bopape, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Robin Rhode, Unathi Sigenu, Sammy Baloji, Patrick Mukabi, and Susan Hefuna.

[lxvii] Thembinkosi Goniwe, “Cape 07: Fissures, Interactions, Intimacies and Conflicts,” Artlink Australia 27, no. 2 (June 2007): 36.

[lxviii] Lebohang Tlali. Interview with the author (Johannesburg and Amsterdam: May 22, 2019).

[lxix] Olu Oguibe, “From the Editor” in Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 8 (Spring/Summer 1998): 9.

[lxx] Vidokle, “Art and Sovereignty.”

[lxxi] Tim Schneider, “The Gray Market: Why Galleries and Regional Fairs May Recover Fastest From the Global Shutdown (and Other Insights),” Artnet News, April 20, 2020, https://news.artnet.com/opinion/gray-market-regional-flavor-1838466.

[lxxii] Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” Financial Times, April 3, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca.

[lxxiii] Jill Trappler and Matthew McClure, “Jill Trappler: An Interview” (March 26, 2019) in “Off The Record.”

[lxxiv] Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal.”

[lxxv] J.J. Charlesworth cited in Jamal, “Tony Gum,” 401.


Go back

Issue 46 / June 2020

Contemporary Art Biennales – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency

by Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter

by Daniel Knorr

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Delia Popa

by Diana Dulgheru

by Daniel Knorr

by Farid Rakun

by Raqs Media Collective

by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala

by Ekaterina Degot

by Yung Ma

by Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk

by Raluca Voinea

by Răzvan Ion

by Daniel Knorr

by Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink

by Raqs Media Collective

by Robert E. D’Souza

By Manifesta 12 Creative Mediators: Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Mirjam Varadinis

WHW in conversation with Omar Kholeif

by Henk Slager

by Vasyl Cherepanyn

by Ksenija Orelj

by Catherine David

by Okwui Enwezor

by Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer

by Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas

by Federica Martini

by Vittoria Martini