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by The Two Talking Yonis

Women Themed Exhibitions: Aaargh! “Aaargh!”

South African writer Mary Corrigall once wrote a text bemoaning the over-saturation of group exhibitions of women artists. Titling her article “Women Themed exhibitions: Aaargh!,” Corrigall questioned the continued production of exhibitions of this nature and the burden they placed on women's art to change the status quo in South Africa. This fatigue over women-themed exhibitions reflects real concerns about the lack of impact that such undertakings have on many women artists' careers. Equally, the project of reform and redress remains necessary within an art industry that still produces uneven valuing systems and inconsistent recognition of women artists, particularly Black women artists.

As Linda Nochlin, the celebrated American feminist curator and art historian, observed many years ago in her article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”[1] that the problem with this kind of historical imbalance cannot be solved through a simple implementation of showing “mass visibility.” Instead, it should be interrogated by asking “why” particular kinds of acknowledgements extend to male artists, but not women artists. While Nochlin was writing about the state of the arts in the West, we relate this sentiment to South Africa. Certainly, there is now an increased visibility of women, but this does not always mean their careers are flourishing. In fact, as we know, the revolving door of visibility (of the art market) always ensures that only a few are seen at a time, which further illustrates that exhibitory inclusions are not enough. So, while it might appear that women-only exhibitions overreach, as Corrigall contests, given that so many South African women artists are known today, they nonetheless remain pertinent given the disproportionate recognition of male versus women artists, in particular the lesser value attached to the work of Black women. As Thembinkosi Goniwe[2] often laments, "Until real redress has happened in the art world, we will keep calling for a specific emphasis on all that has been excluded in the past, albeit gender, race, sexuality, and so forth. We will keep reinforcing the need to engage these particular exclusions until there is real change."

While Goniwe’s lamentations suggest that the objectives of the “group show” remain relevant, specifically those of race and gender redress, he also acknowledges their failure, pointing to the need to rethink the age-old formula of the group show. In this essay, we consider the problematics and possibilities of producing group shows in South Africa today, looking at the exhibition Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South (2020–2021), curated by Clive Kellner. We see this exhibition as a proposition upon which to engage broader concerns around exhibition-making practices beyond the simple group show “promotion” trope. These concerns have to do with: Who curates? Where do these exhibitions happen? How are these shows framed? Who do they frame? With what means are they made? And, who are they for?  

By asking these questions, we hope to show how complicated gendered and racially focused exhibitions have become. We hope to demonstrate how words like “woman” and “female” have come to mean more than interchangeable descriptors of gender, and instead call for deeper and conscientious use in challenging dominant misconceptions. As it is well-known, exhibitions also speak differently to broader social, cultural, class, and political critiques. To this end, this essay calls for much consideration of what it means today to make gender- and race-focused shows. It is a call to recognise that racialised and gendered group shows, in the current moment, need different interventions if they continue to bring together the work of Black women artists.

Such a critical engagement with gendered and racialised exhibitions is needed, as we believe that if such exhibitions are produced uncritically, they can sometimes show a failure to recognise violence—violence that artists themselves often call out in their work, in direct or codified ways, and the violence that the curatorial framework can sometimes inadvertently demonstrate. Violence in curatorial frameworks is reflected in the ways in which Black women artists' work is presented through hackneyed terms like “identity.” Continuously included in groups, as othered, exoticised, and made to look different, and the insistence for that difference to always be on display, in the end, make the exhibition the arbiter of what might be problematic racialised and gendered visibility. Thinking about this, we are reminded of the argument of feminist theorist and literary scholar, Gabeba Baderoon, that “What we choose to display in our public spaces, who curates our perspectives, who becomes visible to us in art—represents a national conversation about who ‘we’ are.”[3] Turning to Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South, we ask, which national[4] conversation is the curator of this show representing here? By unpacking this women-themed exhibition, not only through the artworks, but also through the curatorial framework, its context, and exhibition praxis, we interrogate the role of the curator and the place of such a group show, to imagine a different future for Black women artists’ public visibility.

In thinking this way, we are encouraged by feminist theorist and literary scholar Pumla Gqola to consider “languaging”[5] in her explanation of the power of meaning that comes through the form, structure, and aesthetic of a literary text. Relating the concept of languaging to exhibitions, we recognise that by focussing on the content of artworks alone we lose sight of the exhibitionary affect that is translated through form, structure, and aesthetic: the very languaging of the exhibition’s meaning-making, and its subsequent impact on Black women artists.

Languaging could be linked more directly to discourses of curatorial practice. Curator Kellner has himself articulated what he calls  “the grammar of the exhibition”[6] when he says, as a curator, “My proposition [is] to enhance the performative aspects of exhibition-making where the choreography of the exhibition is something that is staged and performed for an audience.”[7] He further describes an exhibition’s grammar as “the idea of exhibition-as-landscape where the visual and architectural elements bec[o]me one.”[8]

In the following sections, we engage the ideas of languaging and the grammar of exhibitions in arguing for a different encounter of Black women artists’ works.

 

Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South (2020-2021)

The miracle is, in fact, that, given the overwhelming odds against women, or blacks, so many of both have managed to achieve so much sheer excellence, in the face of violent, selective and shifting definitions of history and art, and in the face of direct suppression, omission, gatekeeping, lack of transparency, and outright unprincipled opportunism of unscrupulous gallerists, and their ilk.[9]

(Nkule Mabaso)

For their inaugural exhibition in 2020, the Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF) featured the work of five women artists from the Global South. Titled Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South the exhibition included works by Bharti Kher (India, UK), Wangechi Mutu (Kenya, USA), Nandipha Mntambo (South Africa), Shirin Neshat (Iran, USA), and Berni Searle (South Africa). For the JCAF’s official launch on the 27th of February 2020, rather than hosting a grand opening party, the foundation instead opened with a lecture titled The Planet, the Universe and the Museum: Territories of the Imperial Imagination by Arjun Appadurai, a Goddard Professor in Media, Culture, and Communications at New York University. The exhibition was installed later and was open to view by appointment from 16 September 2020 to 30 January 2021. According to the director of the foundation and curator of the opening show, Clive Kellner, by launching the space with a lecture and through “someone representing a dialogue with the ‘global south’ (as per the terms of the invitation)” the intention was “to shift the focus of the opening to ‘ideas.’”[10] By doing this, the foundation sets itself apart from how museums and galleries conventionally stage exhibitions, in line with their objective and claim to be "a hybrid institution, combining an academic research institute, an innovative technology laboratory and a platform for museum-quality exhibitions."[11]

Though the exhibition was opened for public viewing on 16 September 2020, following a mandate of  “private tours” as is the foundation’s viewing policy, we were only able to see it in January 2021. This period of waiting demonstrated to us the exclusionary nature of the foundation which, contrary to its meticulous focus on research and innovation, unfortunately meant it was only accessible to a few and thus did not fulfil the institution’s claim to “educat[e] diverse audiences.”[12] We never intended to engage the exhibition textually. However, upon seeing the show, it became apparent to us that South African curatorial practice has reached a place where we can have complicated conversations about the function and purpose of exhibitions beyond “promotional” speak. There is room now to think more deeply about the political and ideological function of these events in the public domain. For this reason, we then decided to critically engage with this exhibition, excited by the possibilities of this institution’s offering of a space dedicated to critical thinking around the workings of the exhibition form, its conceptual gesture and thesis, and the role of research in art’s encounter.

As we viewed the exhibition, questions around Gqola’s proposition on “languaging” came to mind, and we began to link Kellner’s history of devising exhibitions that aim to push boundaries of form and concept, while calling to address historical injustices. We’ve seen him do this with the monographic exhibitions of Black artists, though not only limited to Black artists, these included Berni Searle (Approach, 2006), Meshac Gaba (Tresses and Other Recent Projects, 2007), Kay Hasan (Urbanation, 2008), and The Thami Mnyele and Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective (2008), noting the prevalence of Black male artists. Curated during his tenure as the Director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, these exhibitions offered an intense visual mapping of these artists’ creative practices. The fact that, prior to South Africa’s democratic dispensation, many of these artists would never have received such an opportunity and recognition within a public museum context made these exhibitions great historical moments. Kellner was also responsible for bringing Africa Remix, curated by Simon Njami, the first “mega” exhibition to come to an African city, which brought together the work of eighty-five artists from across the African continent and the diaspora. These gestures of producing challenging programming that disrupts dominant narratives has earned Kellner a place of respect and power in the South African art scene. We came to this exhibition holding the same high esteem, expecting to be swept away by yet another brave gesture and example of critical engagement, this time, focused on Black women artists.

Much to our delight, as we walked through the exhibition we were moved by how it psychologically and physically affected us, successfully choreographing our movement, which was made possible by the intervention of a viewing deck and the attention given to the display of each work. To us, this evidences care for and detail about how the work is viewed. The elevation of the exhibition floor, especially in experiencing the sculptural and two-dimensional works, showed Kellner’s curatorial sensibility. The intervention of a raised deck, instead of the dreaded-shrine-creating-pedestals, was an impressive disruption to established exhibition aesthetics and created an intimate viewing experience. It demonstrated an interesting conceptual consideration of  space as it required you to step down from the deck when watching video work, which created a critical break in the entire viewing experience. The layout also emphasised the demarcation between selections of works and their thematic groupings.

Through the elevated deck, Kellner not only directed the viewers’ movement but also their attention towards the containment of groupings within the exhibition, what he called “worlds”: The Fall, The Body, and Hybridity. These worlds proposed “a realm in which these subjects explore worlds of their own choosing, in which they might be mother, martyr, warrior or hybrid” (press release). While the exhibition suggests that these worlds are of the artists’ choosing, the constructed temporariness of the site compelled us to pay more attention to what was actually being offered in each section.[13]

It is this kind of considered spatial intervention that speaks to the advanced level of curatorial practice and discourse in this country, of which Kellner has become a key proponent. This ability to affect space, which speaks to what we read as the continuation of the grammar of exhibition and what Jennifer Fisher[14] calls “exhibitionary affect,” plays a significant role in how we experience exhibitions. The concept of exhibitionary affect evokes how unconscious and conscious sensorial experiences often respond to deliberate curatorial strategies, and at the same time produce or reflect institutional ideologies. In this instance, we would argue, exhibitionary affect to some extent draws the visitor’s attention away from the conceptual underpinnings of the particular grouping, towards the aesthetic choreography of the exhibition. While this kind of spatial intervention is remarkable, it is also a demonstration of the financial power of private institutions that is seldom possible for public museums. This further illustrates the unevenness of power (resources and finances) of museums in South Africa.

So, while we were excited by these curatorial gestures, at the same time we were taken aback by the incongruence between how we experienced the space and how these artists’ works came together. After walking around the exhibition, we started to question the relationship between the physical manifestation of the exhibition and the curatorial concept. The more we unpacked the concept, the more and more we were confronted by an inconsistency between these two things. Unconvinced by the conceptual framing of why they come together and how their works were grouped, the question that came to mind was, what is it about these artists works that speaks to “female identities”? But, most importantly, what are female identities?  Furthermore, why is this notion of female identities answerable through a group show, when the very same curator has shown us the power of monographic exhibitions focused on Black male artists that he curated many years ago, and about which he proudly boasts.[15] Why do historical questions relating to Black women seem only to be answered in group shows?

Perhaps Nochlin’s question about the different treatment of women artists compared to male artists still rings true, and more consideration needs to be given to why group shows are organised, beyond gendered and identity groupings. Otherwise, we risk yet again “overlooking” the contributions of Black women artists if they are only considered through groupings linked to gender and race. For us, such surface readings no longer hold a valid place in the public imagination of Black women as equal intellectual contributors to the knowledge production and writing of the South African contemporary art canon and its relationship to the Global South. While group shows continue to have a valid function in demonstrating how different groupings of works offer different narratives, those narratives can and should move beyond historical trappings if they are to engender new imaginative and political possibilities. As Kellner has previously shown, there is a greater demand for monographic exhibitions (solos or retrospectives), as they allow the public the space to understand the value and intellectual contribution of artists’ works. So why is it impossible for more Black women artists to be given proper space and recognition within the South African “museum” context?

Before we rule out the possibilities of the group show for Black women artists entirely, in the following sections we look further into this exhibition, to highlight its overlooked areas of thinking and conceptualisation.

 

First, the interchangeable use of the words, female and woman.

From a simple click on social media, you can find a host of comments and basic explanations about the troubling interchangeable use of the words, female and woman. To cite one example, in their Instagram post, @feminismandotherthings cautions the uncritical use of female and woman and how the careless use of these words can reproduce unintended demeaning connotations. To warn their followers, they state:


Post 1: Reasons to stop calling women “females”.


Post 2: Female and woman mean different things. Female refers to the sex of a species and woman specifically refers to a human being. Female could be in reference to any species.


Post 3: It’s grammatically wrong. The word in its primary usage is an adjective. When used as a noun, the subject you’re referring to is erased. Example:

“I talked to a female yesterday”

“a female what? A female kangaroo? A giraffe?”

It’s different if you say:

“I talked to a female presidential candidate” because the subject is added and now we know it’s about a human being.

It should be noted that the term female in front of the subject as in “female firefighter” should be used when it is necessary for context such as "the first-ever female firefighter" because otherwise, she's just a firefighter.


Post 4: When you refer to a woman as a female you are ignoring the fact that she is a female human. It reduces her to her reproductive parts and abilities which is dehumanizing and exclusionary.


Post 5: Nobody casually refers to men as “males.”

Imagine: “oh you know how males are”

…It’s just weird

Post 6: Because the word you are looking for already exists, it’s “women.”

 

While it may seem glib to reference a social media post about female vs woman, we’ve quoted it to demonstrate how common different gender understandings, even between simple words like female and woman, have come to be known in the public domain. Underscoring this post is the argument that while it is possible to use the terms “female” and “woman” interchangeably, if they are used correctly grammatically, today the use of such words goes beyond grammar, as the socio-politics of gender and sexuality calls for deeper consideration of  how such terms can negate many other bodies who identify as women but may not necessarily be born “female.” As such, by using the term “female” this exhibition ignores the fact that some of these artists might identify anywhere within the spectrum of gender and/or sexuality—which may or may not be one of the conceptual underpinnings of their practices. As Gqola reminds us, the “rediscovery and re-vision of the terrain of representation…and [t]he task of representing Blackwomen in postcolonial ways is challenging since it demands from us that we create and refashion forms of representation which continue to break new ground.”[16] This reminder calls for us to be mindful of dated and conservative understandings of representation. Obviously, there are many stances around the use of these terms. In certain instances, they are used for grammatical correctness, but in other instances the use is more deliberate as an ideological underscoring of gender inclusivity. Most contested is their biological and socio-cultural use to mark difference.

So, what does it mean to identify women artists as female in this exhibition, more particularly Black women artists?

 

Second, the word identities.

Art in South Africa since 1990 shows an intense awareness of the history of visuality in the country, how we have been trained to look at bodies, their differences and their histories. Art after 1990 not only registered the tectonic of the times in which it was crafted, but created a new way of seeing the world.[17]

(Gabeba Baderoon)

While seemingly expansive in its invocation of plurality, diversity, and multiplicity, the use of “identities” in this instance is problematic for several reasons. One, it is suggestive of a kind of perpetual generalisation and collectivisation of Black women artists' work, and thus their experiences, as in their victimisation. Generalised and collectivised, in this sense it seems as though Black women artists only make work concerned with identity issues. Two, based on this show's sub-themes—The Fall, The Body, and Hybridity—the word “identities” seems to only speak to the representation of the body in the sense that all these worlds in one way or another are concerned with the representation of the body. This unimaginative representation of Black women artists' work continues to make women the object of history and denies them their right to make themselves subjects of history. This is not to say that these artists do not have agency in how they have chosen to define themselves through their work, but that such framing tends to water down this position by reducing their work through the concept of “identity” as a purely bodily phenomenon. As such, it disallows the possibilities of women artists' work to speak to and represent identities outside of the physical body. This is something that curators Jeanine Howse (who ironically is a staff member of this institution, JCAF) and Amy Watson tried to avoid in their 2006 exhibition titled Women: Photography and New Media, “in which they located the female identity outside of the physical self and, in so doing, allowed women to transcend the entity that has held them prisoner since time immemorial.”[18]

While a focus on the body may be the central artistic theme for most artists in the show, the broad category of “female identities of the South” has the effect of lumping all women artists together within this framework, beyond these five artists. Individual differences are thus erased, and no consideration is given to what identity might mean to many other women artists, or even the possibilities that identities could be performed, satirically, ironically, or strategically. Of course, such a narrative is common to curatorial ideologies that struggle to “read against the grain of predominantly white art discourse”[19] which views Black artists’ work in particular, limited ways. As a result, this kind of framing tends to put a spotlight on who curates, calling attention to the fact that the show is curated by a white male curator. This places the curator on shaky ground, as Kellner ends up reinforcing the very history that he claims to undo. It is therefore no surprise that many articles have raised the question of race. In two instances, Kellner has claimed to have no issues with his position as a white male curating a show on Black female identities. According to Mary Corrigall:

Kellner says he doesn’t believe his racial and gender identity should prove a hurdle, given our society is trying to transcend these limits. He was deeply aware of each artist’s practice and they were supportive of him curating this exhibition, he says.[20]

Another article characterises Kellner’s stance in a similar light:

In answer to the question of whether or not he as a white male should be curating the work of women of colour, Kellner offers the idea that he, like the artists on the show and their works, is a hybrid. “I'm a white guy in Africa. My experience is fragmented and weird. If black people can only do black things and white people can only do white things then we have a problem. Not one of the artists has had an issue [with my gender or race] and they all know my track record. The point is, I love art and I love doing this.”[21]

(Tymon Smith)

Of course, it is easy for Kellner to dismiss the power dynamics that make him the trusted authority to be able to speak on behalf of those artists. Why should these artists have a problem with his race when he has had long relationships with them through his powerful positions running different South African art institutions for decades, institutions that have at times financially supported their careers by buying work for their collections? And if we are talking about a fair playing field, why does Kellner need to stress the colour of these artists—if we have truly reached a place of curatorial diversity beyond race? At what point does he consider the history of the white male gaze that has for centuries problematically placed the Black female body on display? This is not to dismiss the agency of these artists, who have good enough reputations and strong enough voices to walk away from damaging projects. But there is a slippery line between overlooking pseudo-radicality in pursuit of staying relevant. The workings of patronage are another threshold of power that can often be seen as unthreatening yet still reproduce forms of silencing and passivity. It is therefore quite reductive that today the curator can simply dismiss the nuances that make South Africa unique and complex when it comes to race politics.



Figure 1

Fig. 1. Installation view: Shirin Neshat, Nida (Patriots), Sheida Jafari (Masses) and Sheida Dayani (Masses), from The Book of Kings series, 2012. Photograph by: Graham De Lacy. Courtesy of JCAF.

Berni Searle, Lament I, IV, VI, 2011. Photograph by: Graham De Lacy. Courtesy of JCAF.

 

Yet again, it is clear that the entire approach has been that of simplification even in the use of terms like identity since, as we have argued, there is much more than identity in the works of the exhibiting artists. Evident across their work is the notion of violence, which, when read through the generic concept of identity, becomes erased or suppressed. An example of this is evident in the work of Neshat’s The Book of Kings (fig. 1). The work is named after the ancient book Shahnameh, a long poem of epic tragedies written by the Persian poet Ferdowzi. Originally comprised of fifty-six portraits, which were inspired by the Arab Spring, the work captures the faces of Iranian and Arab youth active in this political uprising. In this exhibition, only three portraits from the series are on display. A curiosity, that a work of both silent poetry—each portrait is meticulously scribed in Farsi calligraphy with poetry by both Ferdowzi and contemporary Iranian poets—and the undercurrent of political protest met with violence, sits in this exhibition, on the cusp of the themes of The Fall and The Body. While Neshat’s work holds presence, and the gaze of defiant youth confronts the viewer, the curatorial framing mutes the interwoven presence of history, poetry, and contemporary politics. Instead, we are encouraged into a space of simply thinking about the body, the woman’s body in particular, as the three portraits included in this exhibition are of women. What is the curatorial intention  here? Are we simply to look at these faces of Arab youth as striking black and white portraits of bodies of contemporary Islamic womanhood, without being given the opportunity (via textual or themed reference) to think about the unknown sacrificed bodies that are commemorated in this particular work?

Displayed next to Neshat’s The Book of Kings are three photographs from Berni Searle’s Lament series (fig. 1). In these self-portraits, Searle’s naked body, delicately covered from head to bust with a black lace veil, reveals golden painted hands, as if gilded or gloved. Searle’s gaze, in these portraits, never confronts the viewer. It is either downcast, averted, or covered by her hands. The black-veiled head reminds one of a mourning wife, mother, or woman at a Christian funeral. However, the veiled woman’s body, next to Neshat’s Farsi text, also makes one think about the brown body beneath this covering. A body that, in the history of South Africa, is layered with associations of the enslaved, Muslim, and coloured. We cannot think about Islam outside of race and the historical violence it is somewhat rooted to. As Baderoon states, “Islam has an intricate history of race in South Africa...The Muslim community at the Cape developed its character and practices under conditions of enslavement, enforced prostitution, colonial rule and the fraught post-emancipation period.”[22] Thus, we cannot neglect the inherent violence present in works that seemingly portray Muslim bodies, especially when this history is presented through the flattening lens of identity. Golden hands, pleading, gripping or covering, communicate through the portraits, gesturing simultaneously to Muslim prayer and serving, gripping and pulling, not wanting to see and weeping.

Searle’s portraits, in conversation with Neshat’s, require a longer pause. They require a space that allows us to read beyond biblical themes or simplistic notions of “the woman’s body.” The possibilities of violence that the works could respectively and then simultaneously conjure, are muted in this brief encounter of the in-between space along the passageway between the sections The Fall and The Body. Even though the press release issued by the institution presents the exhibition as a contemplative gesture, “to slow down the experience of looking at and engaging with art, so as to instil an approach to viewing art that is reflective rather than consumerist,” it is interesting that this contemplation fails to take account of the glaring violence in the work. Instead it gets buried under the title “female identities,” a gesture which in turn enacts a form of violence on the works. It is the avoidance of this violence that manifests as a silencing of the artists and some of the themes that are central to their work—that we question here. Or, is the exhibition insinuating that violence is part of Black “female identities”? Is the curatorial intention to suppress body politics, which ignores the complexity of the range of myths, histories, and political encounters that the works respectively demand of us, but are not given room to do so within this exhibition framework?

The last “world” of the exhibition that we enter is that of ethereal creatures/beings, in the section Hybridity. As described on the website: “Hybridity refers to the mingling of species, races or cultures, a crossing of one thing with another. These figures are both abject and powerful, beautiful and repulsive. This uncomfortable ambivalence is meant to provoke a response in the viewer, who must consider the relationship between themselves and other, different subjectivities.”[23] What is worrying about this “world” of the exhibition is that, much like many racial slurs heard in this country, Blackness is somehow always equated to something “animalistic.” The agentive choice of the artist to portray “themselves” or characters in this way, as if merged with some form of “animal” is disregarded when framed under the banner of “hybridity.” We are once again not given room to explore the possibilities of why Mntambo chooses to merge her body with a bull, or why Kher’s quiet self-portrait has not been given the chance to hint at its Hindu referentiality. Linked to various mythologies, such references in these artworks pointedly disrupt the gendered origins of the characters they conjure.      

If the audience is meant to “consider the relationship between themselves and other, different subjectivities,” what are these different subjectivities about? The body? Blackness? The animal? Perhaps all three?



Third, the notion Global South

The broader framing of Female Identities in the Global South is the central area of research in a series of three exhibitions under this theme, according to the JCAF website. The prospect of such focused research into work by women artists from the vast geopolitical space of the Global South is innovative and exciting. It allows for the possibilities of truly making the works by women artists from these regions accessible and could create an interesting South-South dialogue, without the need to centre the North. However, what narrative of the Global South does this particular exhibition choose to centre? And what trappings does it fall into?

Arjun Appadurai, in his address The Planet, the Universe and the Museum: Territories of the Imperial Imagination presented at the launch of the JCAF, stated that, “The work of art and artists in the Global South [...] may be viewed broadly as part of the struggle to create what I may call ‘artscapes,’ outside of the rule of the commodity and the narrative of the nation. These works, successful or not, were produced to escape the burden of repetition.” As stated previously, the body, present in the three worlds of the exhibition, is constantly put on display. Black women's bodies, in hybridised forms, in racialised forms, and in forms that evoke a gender binary, start to echo this burden that the artist of the Global South supposedly carries, of constantly repeating the thing that “works,” of putting Black women's bodies on display. To illustrate this habit of repetition, in one year Mntambo’s The Rape of Europa (2009) was exhibited in three exhibitions: Bongi Bhengu’s Innovative Women: Ten Contemporary Black Women Artists (2009), Ingrid Masondo and Rita Potenza’s Face Her (2009), and Melissa Mboweni and Jackie McInnes’ Domestic (2009). All these exhibitions presented Mntambo’s work within the framework of identity politics without ever unpacking its reference to mythologies and fantastical elements beyond the Global South and its geographical archive. Corrigall writes about this inclusion of Nandipha Mntambo’s The Rape of Europa (2009), pointing out that, “Given that she tries to shirk fixed notions of identity through this work, it seems ironic that it would find its way to an exhibition that pigeonholes her as a black woman.” We have to ask, does Kellner not also fall into a trap of repeating dated understanding of "identities," and thus the “burden of repetition”?

Along with this “burden of repetition,” Appadurai expanded to comment on how often artists from the Global South are caught in “the prison house” of their own “archive,” as many of their artworks often refer to “national civilisation and geographical archive.” In the case of Female Identities in the Global South, one could argue that the archive is experienced through the displayed body. Even when artists are working with and from myriad references, beyond  their own “national civilisation or geographical archive,” which is the case with many works on show, the curatorial staging still imprisons them within a particular framework. To return to Baderoon’s prompt, how does this framing within the Global South represent “a national conversation about who ‘we’ are”?[24] And, more particularly, who is the “we” in this case? Is the body, here, further burdened to hold and respond to questions of nationhood and geography?  In many respects, Kellner’s curatorial framing flattens the potential for showing how these works could speak outside of a placement in geography, as it insists on locating the works within the Global South.



Fig. 2. Installation view: Wangechi Mutu, A Dragon Kiss Always Ends in Ashes, 2007.

Fig. 2. Installation view: Wangechi Mutu, A Dragon Kiss Always Ends in Ashes, 2007.

 

Fig. 3. Installation view including Wangechi Mutu, Water Woman, 2017; Nandipha Mntambo, Europa, 2008; Bharti Kher, Self portrait, 2007;  and Nandipha Mntambo, Sengifikile, 2009. Photograph by: Graham De Lacy. Courtesy of JCAF.

Fig. 3. Installation view including Wangechi Mutu, Water Woman, 2017; Nandipha Mntambo, Europa, 2008; Bharti Kher, Self portrait, 2007; and Nandipha Mntambo, Sengifikile, 2009. Photograph by: Graham De Lacy. Courtesy of JCAF.

 

Furthermore, as we viewed and read the displayed body through the exhibition, we became strikingly aware of a binary palette of black and white in many of the works, made in materials that evoke light or dark, black or white. While a beautiful aesthetic in the language of the exhibition, one cannot help but read the subtext of curated racialised bodies. The only works on show that shift outside of this palette are Wangechi Mutu’s A Dragon Kiss Always Ends in Ashes (fig. 2) and Bharti Kher’s Self-portrait (fig. 3). These works, surrounded by the burdened black and white bodies, cannot be read outside the context of racialised "femaleness." In this way, they too are imprisoned in the curatorial packaging of the Global South as three worlds of curiosity and artscapes that always centre the Black woman’s body in relation to each other, not allowing for the possibility of different readings and meanings to emerge. The intended South-South dialogue fails to deliver beyond the “prison house” archive of the body.

Thinking about the designations “female,” “identities,” and “Global South” recalls Goniwe’s assertion about how imposed identity constructions are used to describe Black artists “as victim within the taxonomy of a particular landscape with an absurd colonial and apartheid history based on race, class, gender and other inhumanities.”[25] The words “female,” “identities,” and “Global South” thus emerge as imposed labels that bring about what Goniwe calls the “burden of racial representation,” akin to those of gender, race, and geopolitical representation that Appadurai invoked in his opening address.

In conclusion, it was certainly not our intention to put white writing views on yet another pedestal, by foregrounding opinions that may not be concerned with Black discourses in this essay. However, we chose writings that have widely documented this exhibition's content with the hope of demonstrating the sociologic of the South Africa art world and its contradictions. This essay's main point is to offer a new hypothesis that challenges certain characteristics of the art world that continue to reproduce an uneven representation of Black women artists.  It is also to examine not only an art historical question around gendered and racial representations but to direct this question towards an examination of exhibition histories, which are still limited in South Africa. To this end, other parallels between the art world and the larger narrative around gender and race representation now demand further scrutiny, and we felt that this exhibition offered a significant opportunity to begin re-imagining Black women artists' visibility not only within the art world but in the broader society. The many themes that come through the exhibited artworks deserve space for further theorisation. We hope this hypothesis has demonstrated the missed opportunities and the possibilities that emerge through exhibition-making practices. A confirmation of the hypothesis has in fact come from the many Black scholars from whose work we have tried to illustrate that the logic of the art world can no longer belong to the repeated conservative authoritative views that still dominate exhibition practices, overriding the progressive work presented by the exhibiting artists. As we have demonstrated, it is not just that artworks are aestheticised, but that broader societal concerns become overburdened by conservative ideologies and the logic of a powerful few. This is not to say that there is no space to rejoice in the intersection between diverse creative worlds of the Global South, but that such moments of interaction should offer something that truly speaks to these artists' works. They should speak to current debates and the work that many scholars have done to challenge the redundant hegemonic discourse. Our concern is not to dismiss what the exhibition achieved, but to draw critical attention to the limiting frameworks that contained this Global South conversation.

The concerted effort to create visibility for Black women artists, given recent histories around public mobilisation and hype within the art world about the lack of focused attention on their work, was seemingly a move in the “right direction.” However, as discussed above, such groupings come with the imposed racialised and gendered gaze of the “Black story” that easily gets flattened and collectivised and that perpetuates as a kind of victimisation or a hypervisualisation of the Black body in ways that don’t seem to allow Black women artists to exist outside of the history of the gaze, race and gender confines. As we have seen here, too much political correctness can become a burden. The burden of racial, gendered, and identity representation that flattens diversity and pronounces the burden of repetition, which we have seen come through in Kellner’s “worlds.” That even beyond the curator’s unique sensibility of exhibition design, there is a demand to face the politicised nature of exhibitions, what they communicate, and how they get received. This certainly speaks to Gqola’s proposition of languaging in how form, structure, and aesthetic choices in conveying meaning beyond the level of content, and contribute to the broader ideological environment.  

While Kellner tried to offer something different than the usual group show through his spectacular space design and selection of fewer artists with more than one work by each artist, which allowed the viewer to get a sense of their artistic progression, it, however, gives us little in terms of showing how these artists deal with certain concepts in their artworks over time. This is certainly an improvement over the “one hit, one artwork,” common in group shows.  This critique is important given the depth of each artists’ oeuvre, which hardly gets any attention because of the grouping, even in an attempt to expand the showing, by giving each artist room for more than one work.

Reviewing these promising starts, and missed opportunities, we left the exhibition wondering what would happen if JCAF planned a series of monographic exhibitions on ten Black women artists over a period of ten years, thus giving the kind of in-depth focus that would deepen public knowledge of individual practices that they have so long lacked, and so richly deserve?


The Two Talking Yonis is an ongoing collaboration that is structured as a conversation between Reshma Chhiba (artist) and Nontobeko Ntombela (curator). Deliberating as creatives, thinkers, writers, conspirators, and sounding boards, The Two Talking Yonis was born out of a long argument about the problematic categorisation of Chhiba's art as “Indian,” conferred through race and gender stereotypes. Daring each other to challenge and defamiliarise these stereotypes, The Two Talking Yonis' first project, under the same name (2013), produced a solo exhibition on Chhiba's work in three different sites in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, which took place simultaneously. Since then, this conversation has continued to expand as The Yoni Book in 2019 and now through an exhibition review. Experimenting with ways of seeing, speaking, and thinking, this is the first exhibition review that The Two Talking Yonis have produced together. The Two Talking Yonis see this review as an extension of their conversations with other women artists, which is premised on their individual and collective understandings of intersectional feminist lenses.


Notes

[1] See: Linda Nochlin, "Why Are There No Great Women Artists?" in Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness, eds. Vivian Gornick and Moran, Barbara (New York: Signet Book, 1972).

[2] Black Aesthetics Exhibition panel discussion at the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, 16 March 2019. Panellists: Charles Nkosi, Nkululeko Khumalo, Thembinkosi Goniwe and Same Mdluli.

[3] Gabeba Baderoon, “Intimacy and History: the art of difference and identity in South Africa” in Visual Century: South African Art in Context Volume Four 1990-1970, eds. Thembinkosi Goniwe, Mario Pissarra, and Mandisi Majavu (Johannesburg: Wits Press, 2011), 77.

[4] The concept “Global South” occupies a national conversation by virtue of the show being exhibited in Johannesburg.

[5] Pumla Dineo Gqola, “When Feminists Fight” in Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist (FM Book, Johannesburg, 2017), 62.

[6] Clive Kellner, “The Grammar of the Exhibition, Biography of a Building and A Phone Call” in Constructure: 100 Years of the JAG Building and Its Evolution of Space and Meaning, ed. Tracy Murinik (Johannesburg: Johannesburg Art Gallery, 2015), 98.

[7] Ibid., 97.

[8] Ibid., 98.

[9] Nkule Mabaso, “Black Women in Art,” Africanah.org, 10 July 2017, accessed 23 January 2021, https://africanah.org/black-women-in-art/.

[10] Mary Corrigall, “The Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation is the City’s New ‘Serious’ Art Space,” Business Day: Wanted, 21 April 2020, accessed 21 January 2021, https://www.wantedonline.co.za/art-design/2020-04-21-the-joburg-contemporary-art-foundation-is-the-citys-new-serious-art-space/

[11] Ibid.

[12] JCAF website, accessed 21 January 2021, https://jcaf.org.za.

[13] Echoing this, the Culture Review Magazine states, “The exhibition design presents three other-worldly or dream-like spaces, connected by metaphorical ‘bridges’ that nonetheless draw attention to the constructedness of the exhibition environment.” Author Unknown [specialist correspondence], “Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South,” Culture Review Magazine, 1 September 2020, accessed 20 January 2021, https://www.culture-review.co.za/contemporary-female-identities-in-the-global-south.

[14] Jennifer Fisher, “Exhibitionary Affect,” n. paradoxa: international feminist art journal 18 (July 2006): 27–33.

[15] Chika Okeke-Agule, “The Twenty First Century and the Mega Show: A curator’s round table,” NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art (Spring/Summer, 2008): 152–189.

[16] Pumla Dineo Gqola and Ufanele Uqavile, “Blackwomen, Feminisms and Postcoloniality in Africa,” Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity 50, African Feminisms One (2001): 15.

[17] Gabeba Baderoon, “Intimacy and History: The Art of Difference and Identity in South Africa,” in Visual Century: South African Art in Context Volume Four 1990-1970, 75.

[18] Mary Corrigall, “Women Themed Exhibitions: Aaargh!,” 30 August 2009, accessed 19 January 2021, http://corrigall.blogspot.com/2009/08/women-themed-exhibitions-aaargh.html.

[19] Khumo Sebambo, “Hybrids and Transformations ‘Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South’ at JCAF,” Artthrob, 5 October 2020, 43, accessed 21 January 2021, https://artthrob.co.za/2020/10/05/hybrids-and-transformations-contemporary-female-identities-in-the-global-south-at-jcaf/.

[20] Mary Corrigall, “How the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation promotes ‘slow’ looking,” Mail & Guardian, 27 November 2020, accessed 21 January 2021, https://mg.co.za/friday/2020-11-27-how-the-joburg-contemporary-art-foundation-promotes-slow-looking/.

[21] Tymon Smith, “JCAF's debut exhibit is an intriguing exploration of female representation,” Sunday Times Lifestyle: Art, 27 September 2020, accessed 19 January 2021, https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/lifestyle/2020-09-27-jcafs-debut-exhibit-is-an-intriguing-exploration-of-female-representation/.

[22] Gabeba Baderoon, Regarding Muslims: From Slavery to Post-Apartheid (Johannesburg: Wits Press, 2014), 12.

[23] JCAF website.

[24] Baderoon, “Intimacy and History,” 77.

[25] Thembinkosi Goniwe, “From my Sketch Pad: Notes of a Black South African Artist,” in Coexistence: Contemporary Cultural Production in South Africa, eds. Pamella Allers, Marilyn Martin and Zola Mtshiza (Waltham: Brandeis University, 2003), 39.


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Issue 52

Instituting Feminism

 

by Helena Reckitt and Dorothee Richter

by Secretariat for Ghosts, Archival Politics and Gaps (SKGAL)

Emelie Chhangur interviewed by Jennifer Fisher

by Husseina Hamza, Joyce Jacca, Tracey Jarrett, and Janna Graham

by la Sala (Alba Colomo & Lucy Lopez)

by Alex Martinis Roe and Helena Reckitt

by Romane Bernard, Sofia Cecere, Thelma Gaster, Jeanne Guillou, Barbara Lefebvre, Séraphine Le Maire, Oksana Luyssen, Rose Moreau, Jeanne Porte, Laurence Rassel, and Miska Tokarek

by Ann Sutherland Harris, Daria Khan, Rosa Martínez, Camille Morineau, Maura Reilly, and Catherine de Zegher

by Ève Chabanon, Anna Colin, and Madeleine Planeix-Crocker