Johannesburg, South Africa. During one of my many (almost daily) trips to Standard Bank‘s head offices in Johannesburg hoping to be compensated for the most atrocious customer service I have ever experienced in my life; I too a brief break into the bank’s Art gallery to enjoy some art. It was in fact a poster of a woman, standing in the middle of a dark disused room littered with bright orange carrots on the floor, that caught my attention. She, a Yoko Ono look alike, wore a delicate dusty pink layered skirt, shiny black boots, a denim jacket and a light blue head headscarf. She stood quietly, effortlessly in the antique room, wearing trendy dark sunglasses, carrying a walking stick in one hand and a red string / leash on the other tied to a white rabbit which was already gnawing at a carrot closest to it. The image was beautifully haunting and with my interest peaked I decided to step in and see if there were more carrots to be found in the exhibition titled: Making Way – Contemporary Art from South Africa and China (30 January to 28 March 2013)
“One of the most critical geopolitical shifts of the 21st Century has been the rise of China as an economic power, and its venture into the global south – particularly on the African continent. Too often however, the media sensationalizes China-Africa relations, simplistically framing China as either Africa’s new curse or as the economic savior to the continent.” Read the exhibition statement.
The exhibition was in-fact long overdue in my opinion, and I was glad that the curator(s) were equally aware of this fact. “While revived China-Africa relations have piqued the interests of economists, little meaningful cultural understanding exists and Sinophobia is hot on the heels of Afrophobia” explains the exhibition text. “Making way addresses the various ways in which humans “make way” globally and locally through broad patterns of movement as well as small, grounded movements of performance” concluded the exhibition mission statement.
China has been making way into Africa and into us all globally in a number of ways. One of the more “obvious” ways in South Africa being China’s acquisition in recent years of the Standardbank group which along with FNB and NEDBANK claims to be South Africa’s oldest banking institutions. It celebrates 150 years this year. A quick look into the banks’ board of directors will give you a idea of who is really calling the shots at standard bank and it is most certainly not the banks recently appointed joint CEO’s Sim Tshabalala and Ben Kruger.
Since the the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC)bought a 20 % stake in the bank in 2007, Standardbank now boasts the title of being the largest bank in Africa in assets and profits. In November 2012, ICBC reported that Standard Bank Argentina, approved a deal for ICBC to take control of StandardBank South Africa’s local operations, after concluding a $ 600 million USD or 5.6 billion rand deal. Standard Bank established operations in Argentina in 1998 to service corporate clients, following its acquisition of BankBoston in 2007 . ICBC now the world’s richest bank by market value will take 80 percent of Standarbank Argentina and its two affiliates StandardBank Investment and its commercial service provider Inversora Diaognal.
A quick reminder to those still oblivious to China rapid take over of the worlds asserts : China is now second only to the United States of America (USA) on the list of global superpowers and has over USD 7 Trillion in foreign currency reserves.
Locally Standardbank is a well-known as a patron or sponsor of the Arts in South Africa with a strong focus on promoting Jazz ( Cape Town Jazz Festival, Joy of Jazz) and the visual arts.
In the first room near the entrance of the gallery is a video installation, by Internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Chen Quilin. In the video exhibition titled: Colour Lines, Quilin plays with the iconic blue and white vinyl material made popular in South Africa (Africa) by street traders, refugees or travelers, and shoppers alike. The checkered blue, white red and white bags. Dressed in the same material she converts into an angel, a lost child looking for paradise. She walks slowly, aimlessly following and being followed long trail of this plastic/vinyl bag material every corner she takes. Four young boys assist her , they also wear the same material made into sailor like (school ) uniforms. The material and Quilin are the only colour that remained in the grey, deserted and degraded town of Chengdu. This according to the artist statement is Quilin’s own way of grappling with the dramatic economic and urban in relation to the development of the Three Gorges Dam.
The video art brought to mind works by South African Artist Tracy Rose (video installations) and works by dance and choreographer Nelisiwe Xaba (Platicizatio; 2007) who makes use of the same material ( China Bag) her dance pieces. Both artist were conspicuously absent for this Exhibition. Quilin continues to grapple with issues of environmental degradation in a complimentary video installation called the Garden. There two men each carry a pot of large flower to a celebration of sorts or a rich individual. Again in this piece these are the only bright colours that litter the streets in the grey town.
Upstairs I was pleasantly surprised to see the work of South African performance artist Athi Patra Ruga artist whose rise to fame surprised many insiders to the country’s Art-world. However, I was a little disappointed to see that he had offered something very similar to a piece he produced and circa 2007/8. Then another man wore high heels black stockings and was dressed in a ball of black hair pieces, the artist also walked around the streets of Johannesburg at night and at galleries back in 2007. This time his work was less dark or morbid. Ruga walked down the streets of Grahamstown in pink tights, high-heels and the main piece like in the hair piece of yore, his entire body from the bottom to his head was covered with colorful balloons full of some liquid. Making way.
Art is art. The “art” was in the public’s reaction to a man wearing high-heels walking around Grahamstown in a cloud of multicoloreda balloons. The Essay explaining the work was not immediately easy for a layman like me to understand but the gist of it was – “invited” guests were left waiting at the top of one building were the show was meant to happen while Ruga walked around the streets forcing invited guests to strain to see the moving – mobile – organic art piece. Many of them missed it – according to the write up, which is exactly what the “performance art piece was about”.
I was moved by Chinese artist Gin Ga’s 3000 kilometer re-enactment of the March of the Chinese red army. The artists tattooed a map of china on his back and etched in all the points at which he stopped in commemoration to the army and artists who had gone before him. A drunken sing-along and dance with a community of a Tibetan community revealed to me a never seen before insight into the daily lives of the community.
Gerald Machona’s work was conceptually more interesting. The artist had used de-commissioned ZIM Dollars to create different objects in his work titled Made in China. The piece in my opinion a more real account of what china has come to mean for Africans and citizens of the world in general. Thenjiwe’s Nkosi’s Boarder Farm, a re-enactment of border crossing by Zimbabwe’s refugees who re-told their story of “making way” was also touching.
China has more money than computers have Zero’s so this piece was more interesting conceptually. The exhibition curated by Dry Ruth Samba – held much promise, a vast selection of interesting works individually but failed to deliver the promised the exhibition’s objective of “an exploration of local and grounded moments of engagement in the context of broader socio-economic and political changes that currently affect Chinese and South African Societies” collectively.
It seems clear to me that the exhibition has high and low moments, but overall I got the feeling of a hurried curating process. The e pieces in and of themselves are important explorations of a people” making way” despite harsh and difficult socio-political conditions – but they do not deal effectively with the question of how the rise of China as an economic and cultural super power means for Africa especially.
The Show’s curator Dr Ruth Simbao says ” the exhibition is not aimed at either glorifying or demonizing African or Chine Culture. It isn’t about being pro or anti Chinese but about human stories and shared culture”
The latter is what I found lacking in the exhibition. I was expecting some kind of a artists’ exchange program to provide artist from both countries with a view into each-other’s worlds and then produce art-work that would at the very least challenge commonly held stereotypes on Africa and China – however from the South African/African side things I found the exhibition to be lacking in its interrogation of what China means for Africa and Visa versa. The work seems a disjointed piece of the puzzle strung together by the clever use of words
Despite the continuous backlash against China ( it’s labour law practices and its larger than like appetite for natural commodities which Chen Quilin deals with in a very clever a nuanced way in the colour line and the garden) and now more recently South Africa making International headlines for all the wrong reasons. There’s so much to be said about China’s role in future of our world – the continent as we know it and this exhibitions failed to scrape the surface of what we all already know. The exhibitions in ts failure to probe in a more nuanced way the sociopolitical and cultural challenges and opportunities China presents to Africa and the world, revealed the huge cultural gaps that exists between China and the continent. South Africa (and many other countries in Africa have had a long rarely documented history with mainland china) pre-dating the rise of China as a superpower. The Chinese community in South Africa enjoys BEE status ( officially Chinese are considered black).For me the best part of the exhibition was the poster with a blind woman and a rabbit in a room littered with carrots– because it seems even within the relatively “free-world” of art – we are all still very blindly following dangling carrots to holes of antiquity. The rabbit had the right idea. East the damn thing.
Making Way- Contemporary Art from South Africa and China is showing at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg until the 28th of March. Catch if you can.