Arts and Culture 2007-2015


HALF ART: In the time of democracy?

First appeared
Friday, 26 June 2015


Next week sees the opening of TWENTY: Art in the Time of Democracry at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery. The exhibition, curated by Gordon Froud, was first displayed last year in North Carolina – a debut marking South Africa’s second post-apartheid decade – and will also be traveling to the Beijing Biennale. These international points of reference are worth noting, as the likely reception of the exhibition in this country (it has already had a stint at the Pretoria Art Museum) differs substantially from responses to its incarnations in America and China.

Froud’s previous experiments in group shows at the UJ Gallery have been ambitious and thought-provoking, and TWENTY promises more of the same, with over 200 works by 115 artists crammed into the space. Despite these numbers, and the impressive list of contributors – which includes, to name a few, William Kentridge, Mary Sibande, David Goldblatt, Sam Nhlengethwa, David Koloane and Diane Victor – TWENTY does not claim to provide an overview or survey. Instead, it is offered as “a slice of life” (perhaps a “snapshot” would be a more appropriate metaphor).

I am intrigued by the exhibition’s sub-title. Even a year ago, this may simply have sounded catchy: one of a thousand “in the time of” formulations that each have the effect of sounding like a riff on the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel Love in the Time of Cholera. But 2015 has introduced a level of anxiety into the national zeitgeist that gives the phrase “in the time of democracy” a particular inflection.

Democracy in South Africa, it seems to imply, is a temporary thing. Our artists created art before democracy; for twenty-odd years they have created art “in the time of democracy”; at some point in the future they will create art in the time after democracy. Is it possible that something so hard-won, entrenched in a constitution so greatly admired around the world, protected by a legal framework and a raft of institutional measures, can be so provisional – so fragile?

The answer, if the impunity with which Jacob Zuma and his cronies have increasingly been allowed to flout the rule of law is anything to go by, is a sobering “yes”. The Omar al-Bashir episode seems like a new nadir to Zuma’s tenure in terms of mocking the jurisdiction of the courts, just as the Nkandla debacle demonstrates his scant regard for the authority of watchdog offices such as that of the Public Protector.

It could be argued, however, that focusing exclusively on these controversies in fact understates the threat that the ANC under Zuma now poses to almost every state institution and parastatal enterprise. That is to say, firstly, that the damage wrought under Zuma’s presidency is more widespread than sagas such as Guptagate, Nkaaandla and the Spy Tapes; and, secondly, that while Zuma himself is culpable, he is also just a symptom of the general malaise that the ANC in power has become.

But it could also be argued that the ANC’s manipulation of due process has been opportunistic and ad hoc – that this is not a calculated effort aimed at establishing a one-party police state so much as it is a series of circus acts by a troupe of insecure performers who just want to keep their portion of the takings for as long as they have a share in the big top. If this seems like cold comfort, a bolder argument could be made that our relatively new democratic infrastructure is strong, with deep foundations, and is bolstered by an active civil society. It is shuddering and shaking, but it is not yet breaking.

Some of the works in TWENTY encourage another way of interpreting the sub-title: a sardonic dismissal of the very notion that we have been living “in the time of democracy”. Here I am thinking in particular of Sam Nhlengethwa’s and Nathi Quewe’s paintings of scenes from the Marikana massacre. Could such an event really occur, we may well ask, in a time of democracy?

Perhaps full, participatory, institutionally secure democracy is something yet to come – not something to be lost. Adopting this view might turn our helpless hand-wringing into contained, proactive anger; then we might chase the circus out of town. 



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