Looking Both Ways

By Sean O’Toole

Can a single work summarise a moment? Probably not, but among the many works for sale at the inaugural FNB JoburgArtFair, in March 2008, an ink drawing by Cape Town painter Georgina Gratrix remains memorable. Hung pell-mell with other snarky text pieces outside WHATIFTHEWORLD’s booth, Gratrix’s work simply read, “Art is very, very, very (x13) … serious.” Art can be very serious, particularly if you reduce its purpose to an investment decision or treat it as the visualisation of a philosophical conundrum. Art exceeds these two dominant reading, one economic, and the other philosophical. Art is a guarantee of sanity, as artist Louise Bourgeois proposed in 1999. Its attendant cultural rituals can also be very confusing. To wit, what do you wear to something as auspicious-sounding and unknown as “the first African contemporary art fair ever”? To suit or not to suit – that was the dilemma circa 2008. Dealer Warren Siebrits opted for a tan suit and matching fedora, his fellow Johannesburg dealer Monna Mokoena demonstrating similar sartorial nous. For his part, print impresario David Krut preferred a workaday uniform: brown jersey and black cargo pants. David Brodie, then a plucky independent dealer with Art Extra, went for a loose-fitting plaid shirt and jeans. Of course, William Kentridge wore one of his tailored white shirts. Comme ci, comme ça. Nonstikelelo Veleko, winner of the 2008 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for visual art, showed the men how it’s done: she chose a grey dress, which she fastened with an orange belt and complemented with pink stockings and black leather boots.

FNB JoburgArtFair
99 Loop | Karen Cronje | Insurgency | Oil on canvas | 135 x 135cm

The FNB JoburgArtFair launched in March 2008, early days into the Great Recession, a global economic reset then still without a name. Its arrival was augured by the record prices being paid for gold, which in the week the fair opened surpassed the $1,000 an ounce mark for the first time in history. Business in the “city of gold” was suitably brisk. The sale of a 1947 self-portrait in oil by modernist painter Gerard Sekoto proved a highlight. Its price tag accounted for nearly a fifth of the total revenue (R25-million) generated at the fair. But it was contemporary sculpture – notably pieces by William Kentridge (Goodman Gallery), Claudette Schreuders (Jack Shainman Gallery) and Angus Taylor (Everard Read) – that helped spread earnings across the 24 galleries participating in the inaugural fair. In the booth where Sekoto’s self-portrait hung, a selection of mid-century paintings by Nigerian painter Ben Enwonwu remained unsold after the first two days. Another portent. Of the 11 works on offer, eight eventually sold, five to a Nigerian art foundation seeking to repatriate the artist’s work. Dealer Michael Stevenson, who collaborated with Johans Borman on curating this showcase of black modernist painters from Africa, ascribed the relative lack of interest among South African buyers to their ignorance about practices from elsewhere on the continent. I often heard this criticism among early fair exhibitors. “It is a very South African art fair,” commented Bisi Silva, whose Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, took a booth at the 2009 fair and found few buyers.

FNB JoburgArtFair
Roger Ballen | Then and Now | 2007

So where do we stand now? Johannesburg’s aspiration to be a mercantile hub similar to Dubai – “Jobai” as marketers briefly flirted with calling the city in the mid-noughts – is slowly materialising. At the 2009 fair, an El Anatsui aluminium and copper wire drapery on offer by October Gallery sold for $650,000 (by telephone) to a royal buyer from Abu Dhabi. (In 2006, Michael Stevenson failed to find a local buyer for a similar work, priced at $25,000, when he showed the Ghanaian sculptor at his Cape Town gallery.) Subsequent fairs have introduced new names, including Nigerian photographer Lakin Ogunbanwo, now a regular exhibitor in this country. More importantly, the issue of continuity is settled. The FNB JoburgArtFair is launching its tenth edition, which will be eight more than the now-mythical Johannesburg Biennale (of 1995 and 1997). Buried in this numerical detail is an insight. Something about the art fair model works. Could it be its economic model? A little-discussed fact: In 1942 a sales office charging a 10% commission fee was established at the Venice Biennale; in 1968, when protestors vigorously protested South Africa’s presence at the Biennale, a sales ban on art was implemented. That ban endures. I understand and accept the argument that commerce can narrow, or at least instrumentalise our appreciation of art. But in a country where the biennale idea has proven unworkable, in Cape Town as much as Johannesburg, and public museums seem incapable of delivering a defibrillator shock of insight – remember the only African showing of curator Simon Njami’s Africa Remix at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2007? – the Joburg Art Fair has come to occupy an important place in annual art calendar. Of course, its raison d’être is to yield payola for its exhibitors, but the FNB JoburgArtFair is now a cultural event in excess of its sales function. It is a place where you can also look and learn.

FNB JoburgArtFair
Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi | Floor II | 2014 | Courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

For more information about the FNB JoburgArtFair have a look at these articles:

FNB JoburgArtFair 2017: Details of Tenth Edition Announced
Director’s Note: FNB JoburgArtFair, Looking Back / Looking Forward
Prestigious annual FNB Art Prize awarded to Peju Alatise
Robin Rhode: The Mysteries
Looking Both Ways by Sean O’Toole
BMW 7 Series Individual by Esther Mahlangu now in South Africa

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