“The historical definitely has much to teach us today, in fact sometimes far more than the contemporary”, says art critic Athi Mongezeleli Joja. A recent exhibition of the Johannesburg Art Gallery – All Your Faves Are Problematic – proves that using history not always works out in the way he has in mind. “Most of the work shown in the exhibit coalesces around the voyeuristic and primitivistic impulse of the white artist, which over the last century has constructed black bodies as objects of anthropological and artistic fascination.“
Author: Athi Mongezeleli Joja
A little reminiscent of the early 1990s Steve Hilton-Barber controversy following the white photographer’s unseemly pictures of naked Sotho initiates (largely an inaccessible site) aroused unflinching backlash from black theatre audiences. Hilton-Barber’s pictures not only instantiated a debased pornotropic and ethnographic palate prevalent in colonial photographic practice but, rather less memorable than the representativity of the disrobed native body, was the fact that Hilton-Barber’s access to the “sacred” site and exposed body of initiates was precisely due to the fact that his family owned those rolling mountains where black rituals were actualized.
Athi Mongezeleli on land politics in South Africa
The Landless People’s Movement outside the Constitutional Court, 14 May 2009 (photographer unknown)
For his work Gravitas the African American artist Hank Willis Thomas used a photo of South African photographer Graeme Williams. He turned the orginal work into a black and white photo highlighting the image of the children outside the context of the militairy patrol on the bus in the original photo. Williams got furious and called Thomas a thief, Thomas called for reflection but, in the end, removed the work from the fair where it was presented. Stealing or appropriating? A crime or just a commentary?
Athi Mongezeleli Joja brings light to the case.
Hank Willis Thomas, Gravitas, 2018
This article of the South African art critic Athi Mongezeleli is a “solidarity criticism” in what appears to be an interesting public provocation about the state or economies of the South African visual arts industry. He reacts on an article of the art historian and curator Thembinkosi Goniwe in the newspaper Main and Guardian.
A work of Mary Sibande at the Joburg Art Fair, 2018, © photo: Alon Skuy
The failures of this show are not immediately in the works, but how the curators chose to conceive it. The short-circuiting and catch-phrasing stunts that have come to typify curatorial practice are slowly leading towards sterility. But if we look beyond the show’s slightly unimaginative presentation, Mlangeni’s images intimately and charmingly indicate a complexity in the Zion church, a complexity only a caring artist has.