A day after his burial in rural Qunu, a nine-metre bronze sculpture depicting the revolutionary leader and liberation president Nelson Mandela with his arms raised in greeting was unveiled in Pretoria. In the hours before South African president Jacob Zuma revealed the figurative likeness of Mandela to the public, the work was draped in a ceremonial black cloth. The image, at once strange and endearing for its cartoon likeness to a ghost, somehow speaks to the solemn and anticipatory mood that always accompanies any discussion of the place of contemporary African art in the world.
Suffice it to say, the anticipated future has arrived, is here and perhaps has been around for longer than promoters of contemporary African art are prone to admit. This year, much like the 12 others that preceded it in this tentatively optimistic century for especially sub-Saharan Africa, was marked by measurable gains. In late May, six African states – Angola, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe – unveiled national pavilions at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Some sparkled, others rehearsed the joke about ‘How many elephants can you fit in a Mini?’, while one – the Kenyan pavilion – was simply execrable.
In the event, newcomer Angola, which stealthily populated a lavishly decorated floor of the historic Palazzo Cini with stacked piles of photographs by Edson Chagas, snagged the Golden Lion for best pavilion. The award prompted queues at the off-site venue, which up until that point had as obscure an address as Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe.
Venice, perhaps more so than the big franchised art fairs (and newcomer specialist fair 1.54, held in London in October), remains an important barometer of change. Remember the 2007 Venice Biennale? As part of his curatorial plan, artistic director Robert Storr allocated space for an “African pavilion”. Okwui Enwezor and Salah Hassan objected to the mechanics of the open call for a curated group exhibition to fill the allocated space. Their objections were met with counter claims: these big shots were stifling creativity and manipulating deal flows, some argued.
In early December it was announced that Enwezor, an aspiring poet turned publisher who made his name as artistic director of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale (1997) and currently directs Munich’s Haus der Kunst, will head-up the 2015 iteration of the Venice Biennale. If he can meld the urgency and poetics of his 1990s activist voice with the acuity of his early 2000s institutionalised exhibition-making practice, audiences will be in for a treat. Then again, there is also the danger that his Biennale will solemnise past achievements in the manner of Germano Celant’s restaging of ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, at the Prada Foundation in Venice earlier this year.
At once fascinating and solemn (in the most Protestant of ways), this popular sidebar to the main programme at Venice this year hinted at the unavoidable creep of big money into the rituals of the Biennale. And let’s not be naïve here. While Venice is not an art fair, money – payola, filthy lucre, or just plain artist-enriching cash – is irreducibly a part of the DNA of this event. In 1942 a sales office was established at the Biennale, to assist artists in finding clients and selling their work; two decades later, in 1968, a sales ban on art was implemented. This hasn’t stopped the Biennale functioning as a kind of luxury sales store – sometimes literally, even for contemporary African art.
In June, flanked by one-time artist and former Rubell Family Collection curator Mark Coetzee, German businessman and collector Jochen Zeitz bought Chagas’s eccentric-but-beautiful photographic installation shown in the Angolan Pavilion. Zeitz is a hungry collector. In 2011, a year before he resigned from the board of Puma, the sports brand he steered to financial success, Zeitz bought a large rubber and ribbon sculpture portraying a winged creature by Johannesburg sculptor Nicholas Hlobo, also in Venice.
Following in the wake of wealthy collectors like Beninese-born asset manager Lionel Zinsou, who launched a private art foundation and museum in Cotonou in 2005, and Piet Viljoen, whose modest New Church space in Cape Town is South Africa’s first private contemporary art museum, Zeitz has donated his youthful collection to a new €35-million contemporary art museum set to bear his name. Due to open in Cape Town in 2016, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) will occupy 9,500 square metres across nine floors of a historic grain silo. The new museum’s focus will squarely be on contemporary African art.
Although intended to function as a kind of lighthouse, the location of the museum necessarily casts a reflective light on Cape Town. The dealer market is robust, me-too private dealerships vying to outdo Stevenson Gallery. But, at the same time, the AVA Gallery, one of the oldest non-profit art galleries in Cape Town, with a rich history dating back to 1850, is struggling. The slow death of small and independent spaces like this has happened without any notice.
As a way of signalling my ideological partisanship with smallness, here’s my entirely partial list of things that really mattered to me in 2013:
1. Achille Mbembe’s tribute lecture to his recently deceased friend, artist and scholar Colin Richards, at the Between the Lines conference, 26 February 2013, Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town.
2. Athi-Patra Ruga’s giddy, balloon-dress clad performance on the flagstones outside the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari at the Venice Bienalle in June.
3. Jacqueline Karuti’s performance-angulated tour of various public and private Nairobi libraries in April.
4. Teju Cole, who visited South Africa for the first time in September as a participant in the annual Open Book Festival, telling Kgomotso Matsunyane on the stage of Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre: “The great novel of Lagos is the collected discography of Fela Kuti.”
5. Ruth Sacks rewriting Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as an act of oblique but earnest enquiry into the look of early European modernism and colonialism. And then, in November, launching her book – which also functions as a sculpture – in the Johannesburg City Library together with work by Francis Burger, Rangoato Hlasane, Raimi Gbadamosi, Jonah Sack and Bettina Malcomess, amongst others.
Sean O’Toole is a writer and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.