Tuesday, 25 March 2008

The Art of Selling Art | South Africa

Source: Mail & Guardian South Africa | http://www.chico.mweb.co.za/art/2008/2008mar/080307-artfair.html
Image: The Jo’burg Art Fair’s Ross Douglas. (Photo: Lisa Skinner)

The Art of Selling Art

Anthea Buys speaks to Ross Douglas about the commercial possibilities of the country’s first art fair

It is not uncommon to find contemporary South African artists and critics who are still suspicious of the infiltration of money into the local art scene. Perhaps this is why it has taken the initiative of entrepreneur Ross Douglas, who lacks purist artistic commitments, to realise an event such as the Jo'burg Art Fair, a local art-buying initiative at the Sandton Convention Centre for three days next week.

Douglas is the producer of the first-ever Jo'burg Art Fair, which also claims the accolade of being the first entirely privately funded art-buying fair on the African continent. The fair will take place from March 14 to 16, but will be cushioned by a programme of non-commercial events throughout Johannesburg in the week leading up to it.

Artlogic, the arts production company of which Douglas is director, has cleverly marketed this as Jo'burg Art Week, attracting the support of the likes of Spier Contemporary, which opens at the Johannesburg Art Gallery on March 15, the Marlene Dumas exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery, as well as less prolific galleries and individual artists who want to piggyback on the art-fair hype.

Douglas says: "We've managed to package an extraordinarily high-end and internationally acclaimed week with not many resources … I think it will be quite extraordinary to have this sort of thing happening in Jo'burg for the first time, this sort of level of quality events."

Douglas began his foray into art events production in 2004, when he orchestrated the wildly successful screening of William Kentridge's 9 Films in Central Park, New York. This same production, boasting a live ensemble to play Phillip Miller's soundtrack, will be foremost of the art-week itinerary, showing at the Linder Auditorium on March 14. Douglas is also credited with co-producing Willem Boshoff's installation Garden of Words III at the Kirstenbosch Gardens in 2006, and most famously, with getting the South African run of Kentridge's The Magic Flute off the ground last year.

The primary aim of the art fair, Douglas says, is to create "a sustainable annual art event that year by year builds up to becoming part of everybody's diaries -- becomes a milestone in your year, something that you do: Jo'burg Art Fair, Jo'burg Art Week, you're there, you're meeting people, you see art, you buy art … Our intention is not to change the nature of existing cultural events but rather to add a new one to the calendar."

The nature of the event is remorselessly commercial, and Douglas is optimistic about the commoditisation of South African art. "You know, we don't actually realise how well African contemporary art does … the Jo'burg Art Fair has a really important place. It's the only art fair in Africa, it's the only art fair that focuses on African contemporary art. We are commercial. We have every intention of making a profit out of this."

The launch of the fair is not without controversy, however. A great fracas is bubbling between those who see the event as a cattle market and those who expect it, as Douglas does, to fuel a shift in the South African public from being art viewers to art buyers.

A common misconception from detractors is that the art fair is intended as a replacement for the Johannesburg Biennale, which never quite got to round two in 1997 after the withdrawal of state funds.

Douglas objects: "This is not an either/or for us. Ideally what you want is a strong state institution. You want biennales. You want state-sponsored institutions such as Tate Modern or Moma. We're not trying to say we are the alternative to a biennale. We're not trying to say biennales are rubbish things, they don't work, and the art fair is the alternative. We're saying there is space for both models."

Although the majority of serious sales by South African galleries tend to go to overseas buyers, Douglas hopes the art fair will encourage the local art-viewing public to whip out their wallets. "If we could reverse that trend and get about a 50-50 mix [of local and international buyers], I think it would be quite exciting," he says. "I think it's such an important thing in South Africa to show that you can do things on a world-class level."

Simon Njami | As You Like it | South Africa

Source | Mail & Guardian Online | http://www.chico.mweb.co.za/art/2008/2008mar/080314-njami.html

As Njami Likes It

Simon Njami on the show he has curated for the Jo'burg Art Fair and why he has called it As You Like It

In an interview, the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat responded to a critic who tried to ascribe his interpretation to one of his own canvases. He said: "As you like it."

Basquiat's answer is charged with irony. He uttered it at a time when his career had impressively shot up. He had left the New York subway, the walls of which bore his signature, having been invited, along with two other very young artists, to Documenta in Kassel, Germany, where his work was very successfully received. In New York, he became the new idol.

At the time when he spoke these words he had moved beyond the phase of empathetically wanting to impose his own interpretation as the only possible one. Even better, he understood how the art world worked and set himself apart through his personality and character. Thus he erected an insurmountable wall between himself, his work and his commentary on it. The work no longer belonged to him. It entered into the public domain and, from that point onward, everyone could add their two cents' worth. Not that Basquiat considered the specialists' opinion an absolute truth.

But, because of the way in which the art world is organised, the specialist's opinion, according to his or her influence, will be decisive in the manner in which the artwork's arrival in the public domain will proceed. If the critic is influential, the work will inevitably attract the interest of a gallery or a dealer, as well as institutions, whose role it is to endorse the aesthetics and seize the opportunity so as not to be left behind. There is, therefore, an objective collusion between the various players, even if some deny it.

We simply have to face the fact that it has become difficult to draw a clear divide between the dealers and art historians or critics, seeing that some dealers display the qualities often ascribed to critics.

It is the complicated analysis of these sometimes incestuous relationships that exist between the market and art production that governs the design of the exhibition, As You Like It.

Obviously, we do not use this expression ironically in the same way as Basquiat used it. Here we are rather dealing with Shakespeare and the concept of freedom. This freedom means that all markets are regulated by the law of supply and demand. The market is the specific space in which the customer is king. The galleries, which operate like supermarket shelves, offer products that the "customer-king" is free to buy, or to ignore. The customer suddenly becomes the main character of this new scenario and both the artist and the gallerist are reduced to playing a secondary role.

For the Jo'burg Art Fair we have aimed to pervert this well-established system by throwing in a contradictory element: the exhibition. As You Like It is a journey on the other side of the mirror. Its purpose is to initiate an open dialogue between the two extremes of the art world: the producer and the buyer.

The Jo’burg Art Fair takes place at the Sandton Convention Centre from March 14 to 16 and includes commercial shows and the curated exhibition As You Like It. There will be a programme of discussions on March 15 at the Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein about the African art market and the impact of art fairs on cities. The extract by Simon Njami was taken from the art fair catalogue. On March 15 there will be a party at the old JSE building in Newtown. More on www.joburgartfair.co.za

This story was commissioned by Art Logic for the Jo'burg Art Fair

Mail & Guardian Online | South Africa

Jo'burg Art Fair Stirs Up Debate

Celean Jacobson | Johannesburg, South Africa

14 March 2008 04:04

The first fair in Africa to focus on selling contemporary African art offers plenty of work reflecting the continent's war, disease and poverty: sculptures of guns with spikes; dark, bloody etchings; installations on the dangers of unprotected sex.

Masks, fetishes and the odd protest poster from South Africa's resistance art movement also are on display. But so is art with more universal themes, such as a wistful sculpture of mother and child. Other work is irreverent, pop and cheeky.

The kaleidoscope of images and themes is a fitting backdrop for the debate the Jo'burg Art Fair has sparked about what it means to be African and an artist. The fair also has the art world buzzing about tensions between art and commerce.

"Whatever we call African art, I think the African artist exists," said Simon Njami, a Cameroon-born, Paris-based curator who spoke at Thursday's reception, the night before the fair opened to the public. "To be an African ... means to see the world from a specific point of view, which doesn't mean we don't look at our world or only look at our neighbourhood."

The Jo'burg Art Fair, in the city's wealthy financial and shopping district of Sandton, brings together 22 major galleries from Europe, the United States and Africa showcasing works on sale from R1 000 to R5,92-million.

There is work by some of South Africa's top artists such as William Kentridge, photographer David Goldblatt and Gerard Sekoto, regarded as one of the fathers of African modernist painting.

The rest of the continent is well represented with Ghanian Owusu-Ankomah, Beninese artist Romuald Hazoume and Nigerian Otobong Nkanga.

From Cameroon and based in Paris and Brussels, photographer Bili Bidjocka prefers to be seen as an "international" artist. "I am an African, without any doubt, but I am also a contemporary artist and I have no difficulties with this," he said.

The fair is something of a homecoming for Cape Town artist Robin Rhode. Since leaving for Berlin in 2003, Rhode has had huge success with his hip, athletic performances and photographic work. Represented by the New York Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Rhode is a special guest artist at the fair.

"I consider myself an artist of the world," he says. "The labels will continue to exist. But let the art question the validity of that. Then art is not about geography, then the art becomes of the world."

Claude Simard, from New York's Jack Shainman Gallery, said African artists "are rooted to Africa through issues such as race, politics, poverty and social issues". He points to South Africa's Zwelethu Mthethwa's striking portraits of African migrant workers.

Interest in Africa
There's no doubt African art -- however you define it -- is hot. An African Pavilion set up at the Venice Biennial for the first time last year grabbed headlines, not least for reports of collections being funded by blood diamonds.

"In America there is also a renewed interest in African art," said Durban-based curator Carol Brown, who consulted on the fair. She said "the Big Five" draw the most interest -- Kentridge, sculptor El Anatsui from Ghana, British stars Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare of Nigerian families, and Kenyan potter Magdalene Odundo.

South African-born Marlene Dumas is the most expensive living female artist after a painting sold in London for $3,34-million. Based in Amsterdam, Dumas is holding her first solo show in her native country at another Johannesburg gallery.

Two years ago, London auction house Bonhams hosted its first sale focusing on South African art. Old masters, like Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, are back in vogue now after being cast put aside for their associations with the apartheid past. Prices fetched for works by expressionist Irma Stern and Maggie Laubscher have also hit record levels locally and internationally.

South Africa, buoyed by nearly a decade of economic growth, has seen an increase in the number of wealthy individuals looking to spend money on art and new galleries have opened across the country.

But the South African art-buying public remains small -- and still almost exclusively white.

With post-apartheid South Africa grappling with high unemployment and mass poverty, the handful of public galleries barely have budgets to buy emerging artists' works, let alone South African artists fetching record prices on the international market.

Africans rarely even get a chance to see, let alone buy, contemporary art of the continent. Major international exhibitions of contemporary African art rarely come to Africa. Njami's acclaimed Africa Remix, which showed in Johannesburg last year after a world tour, is an exception.

Njami wants there to be more contemporary museums in Africa, more African critics and more involvement in setting the price for the continent's artworks. "I think it is important for Africa to create its own value and an art fair is very instrumental in that," he says.

He is mindful, though that the fair is also a test of the market and that "what the galleries are showing is what they expect to sell".

Critic Anthea Buys wrote in the Mail & Guardian of what she saw as the "remorselessly" commercial nature of the fair. That sense has left many artists and critics, already suspicious about exploitative dealers, feeling uncomfortable.

"Sceptic" read one of the badges being handed out at the opening night by a top Johannesburg gallery -- along with "Collector" and "Artist".

"There is a lot of unease about the interaction between art and money," said Sean O'Toole, editor of Art South Africa. In a recent article he described art dealers as drunk on champagne and "self-congratulatory".

Ending his speech on Thursday, Njami urged the well-heeled crowd of art aficionados to buy the works -- before they got too expensive, he joked.

"I think it is our responsibility to the future to make sure African creations remain in Africa -- or at least some evidence of it," he said, more seriously.

It's not yet clear whether Njami's call will be heeded out of altruism or in the pursuit of good investment returns. But by the end of the evening, there were quite a few red "Sold" stickers on the walls. -- Sapa-AP