For its inaugural edition, the Stellenbosch Triennale in South Africa invited 20 artists from across the African continent to respond to the theme “Tomorrow There Will Be More of Us”. Having originated as the brainchild of the Stellenbosch Outdoor Sculpture Trust, the Triennale is grand in scale. However, the artistic director Khanyisile Mbongwa as well as co-curators Bernard Akoi-Jackson and Nontobeko Ntombela allow for plenty of contemplative moments. Cape Town-based theorist Ashraf Jamal writes about the importance of materiality and stillness at the Triennale.
Shock and Awe, preferably in scare quotes, has been the preferred means to inflict and impress since 9/11. We think in superlatives – BIG-BIGGER-BIGGEST. Unsurprisingly, obesity is also a thing in the art world. The “blockbuster” is the name of the game. Yes, due to the Coronavirus museums and art fairs are shutting down all over the world right now, and rightfully so, but in the long run nothing will stop the need to crowd about and gawk at art. No longer a contemplative space, the art world is a spectacle defined by foot traffic. The one thing the art world is not about is bums on seats.
On a Saturday morning I travel an hour north of Cape Town to see the Stellenbosch Triennale. I have been alerted that it is “BIG!”. At 11 am I enter the Mill House, a revamped factory designed as a millennial pleasure dome. University students are knocking back vats of beer. What does one do at 11 am on a Saturday? Otherwise the space appears deserted. The red brick and concrete are fresh. Premises are optimistically empty. I do however pass a dressmaker’s – a mother and daughter aglow with oohs and ahs as they fondle a shimmering bolt of cloth. This observation becomes crucial as I enter the Triennale’s piece de resistance, a cavernous warehouse wherein drapery plunges from zinced roof to concrete floor.
Scale, alas, has always mattered. Ours, Guy Debord reminds us, is a society of the spectacle. As to whether he killed himself because of it is another matter. But something unusual is also happening in the Mill House. I see a bevy of young women together with their photographer. The young women are schoolgirls tricked out to look like ladies, dressed in shimmering gowns, hair sculpted in defiance of gravity, faces clownishly painted. As for the woman photographer? She is predictively wearing a flak jacket and jeans. Barring the photographer, this is not a common sight at art shows. The shoot, the photographer informed me, was meant to happen outdoors, but then, lo and behold, they discovered a better venue – a room filled to the brim with diaphanous drapery.
Why, one wonders, is materiality – material – a thing today? It is everywhere, defining art shows in China and the world over. The premise for the plague? An examination of waste. I doubt, however, that this consideration was uppermost in the minds of the young women as they preened beguilingly beside an avalanche of pink and white satin shirts that have acquitted all functional purpose, or, as they gazed skyward with bodies elongated, the folds of their dresses calculatedly rearranged, to espy a massive, brilliantly colored train of cloth created by Hellen Nabukenya from the off-cuts of tailor’s shops in Uganda.
Scale, in and of itself, is not necessarily a good thing. Its ubiquity in the art world is a problem. More so when disguised as a moral talking point. Art has become Disney. A wonderland. Along a wall I see a battery of jutting red tongues sculpted and fronded in nylon cord by the South African artist, Reshma Chhiba. Beside it another battery of tree-trunks, sheerly cut to resemble coffins. For Giraffes? Gigantism is everywhere. Installation the thing. How else, one wonders, can a space as vast as this be occupied? And yet, in its cavernous midst, stands a lone rubberized hooded figure. The execution is superb. The artist is Patrick Bongoy from the Democratic Republic of Congo
I encounter the artist in the weed-strewn exterior of the Mill House. With a friend he is securing an installation blown askew. Affable, warm, oddly well-dressed given the task of roping the work securely in place, Bongoy is not an artist overawed by scale. His installation is meditative. One enters a room with latticed rubber walls and floor. Two figures emerge, made from the same material. Unlike the figure indoors, these are amorphous. The viewer is confronted with uncertainty, volatility. And yet, as with all Bongoy’s works, they possess an uncanny stillness. It is not scale or impact that matters, but a soulful centeredness.
Another exterior installation possesses a similar quiet intelligence. It is by the Ugandan artist, Stacey Gillian Abe. We enter a shack which nature has infiltrated long before. There is no reprieve – neither from nature, nor poverty. However, on entering this stricken home, it is not a dark tourism that burdens one but a truth about living, enduring, surviving. This is not art designed to impress, shock, hurt, but art that humanizes why we see. Given the burden of looking in a specular society, one needs to check one’s filter daily, reinvent the job of seeing. There is too much that is engineered for an unhealthy reason. Shock and awe are banal. One needs quiet. This is what Stacey Gillian Abe and Patrick Bongoy gift us.
Titled “Tomorrow There Will Be More Of Us,” The Stellenbosch Triennale is about heart. As its chief curator, Khanyisile Mbongwa, reminds us, “We are here today, thinking through yesterday to imagine and manifest tomorrow.” Her vision is future proofed, but it is also a heartfelt reckoning upon Africa’s strangled fate. The balance lies in the weighing of time – what matters, why we exist, how we can become better human beings. If materiality is central to the Triennale, it is because we need to own up to waste, refigure the cycle of affluence and poverty, regenerate, engender, live better lives. Produce “counter futures.” None of which is possible, notes Mbongwa, without recognizing the “divinity of the everyday.”
One may reasonably question the biopolitics built into this vision, the racial discrepancy manifestly in place – the trustees as predominantly white, the curators and artists Black. But at this point in time, which for Mbongwa glows with promise, it is churlish to foreground this discrepancy. Art in South Africa remains a white market trading in Blacks. In fact, one needs to question why it is that Black art, which is still subsidiary, is still conceived in this reductive sense as such. Not only in Africa, but throughout the world.
If Patrick Bongoy and Stacey Gillian Abe tell us anything, it is that in the midst of grief, despair, hopelessness, there remains the divinity of the everyday. And, in this regard, one could say that the shoot I witnessed, of young girls in glittering flowing satin, is in fact no anomaly. Rather, it is a further expression within our crisis-ridden material world, of delight, pleasure, wonder, and a healthy awe in the midst of shock.
The Stellenbosch Triennale continues in Stellenbosch, South Africa, until 30 April 2020. Due to the current health crisis it is temporarily closed. Please inform yourself about opening hours on Triennale’s website.
Ashraf Jamal is the co-author of Art in South Africa: The Future Present, and the author of LoveThemes for the Wilderness, The Shades, as well as In the World: Essays on Contemporary South African Art.