Curated retail is the antidote

Luxury shopping at the V&A’s Watershed and Zeitz Museum is not about price tags but rather authenticity and limited editions.

The World Design Capital 2014 year has been busy for Trevyn and Julian McGowan. Having spent the past few years establishing Southern Guild, internationally and locally, as the go-to for collectable South African design that goes for fine art prices, this year was about using their reputation.

In February they hosted South Africa’s first international design fair, Guild, and in October launched the Business of Design seminars. In November they opened Southern Guild’s first permanent gallery in Woodstock, having shown the collection at fairs in Dubai, Basel, Miami and New York. They also curated and launched the Watershed design and craft emporium under the contract of the V&A Waterfront, which included their first retail space, Odeon.

“The [local] design industry has come of age just recently, and it’s now ready to go from weekend markets and once-a-year affairs to 365 days a year of retail and staffing,” Trevyn McGowan said of the Watershed, named to reflect this serendipitous moment.

Trevyn McGowan

More than 400 local brands are presented in a remixing of the exhibitors from the old Red and Blue craft sheds, with hip young emerging and exclusive established designers thrown in to ensure there is something for everyone in every category, with prices ranging from R20 to R50 000.

“If something is R20 or R50 000, I’m as interested in presenting it in the discussion because if the product is good, the impulse is good, and it’s not clichéd, tired, copied, crappy stuff, then there’s something worth looking at,” says McGowan. He confirms the world trend for luxury not to be about price tag but about authenticity, limited editions, and being handmade and unique.

The age of isolation

There’s something new to luxury, though, in a social media-driven world in which everyone is both more connected and more isolated than ever before: human connection. “Meeting the people behind the brands is the absolute definition of luxury for me in a world where everything is nameless, faceless and generic,” says McGowan.

Besides many of the designers and crafters staffing their own stands at least some of the time, the architecture is intended to foster cross-pollination, collaboration and interpersonal inspiration.

An industrial shed from the dry docks of the harbour, Cape Town’s Wolff Architects prioritised translucent building materials and clear lines of sight between the storeys. Looking like a street market on the ground level, floors suspended from a fortified steel frame host the University of Cape Town’s Innovation Hub for the Graduate School of Business, co-working as formal office space, and exhibition areas. It recently hosted the world-renowned Lego art exhibition by United States artist Nathan Sawaya.

With 24-million visitors a year, the V&A Waterfront is the most visited site in Africa, yet it’s hardly news that money does not buy happiness. As George Monbiot writes in “Materialism: a system that eats us from the inside out”, a Guardian article in which he sites research linking loneliness and shopping: “Social atomisation may be the best sales strategy ever devised, and continuous marketing looks like an unbeatable programme for atomisation.”

Curated retail is increasingly being touted as the bricks-and-mortar antidote to the online retail game, and it’s not just about products but about drawing the right crowd. For instance, McGowan explains, curating is not just about “editing, selecting and having an opinion” but also about “being a connector” and “curating people that you think will be symbiotic or who will get on”.

Artist’s impression of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa

“Selection is a minuscule part of curating,” agrees Mark Coetzee, executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which has set up an interim pavilion for itself, just down the walkway from Watershed, on the bridge towards the Cape Grace. “It’s also about defining how the conversations add to the work. So part of our strategy is to open things up so that all people participate, regionally and globally.”

A safe space for tough art

Coetzee, who has returned to South Africa after 15 years abroad as director of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami and programme director of PUMAVision, is using the pavilion as an audience research project to inform decisions regarding the museum. A refurbishment of the historic Grain Silo undertaken by British architect Thomas Heatherwick, the museum is due for completion in 2016.

Using facial recognition video technology, Coetzee says they have amassed readings of about 250 000 visitors in the past nine months. The technology recognises how long they’re spending in the gallery and rooms, and with each artwork, as well as their use of public space and ablutions. “Some people think we have to dumb the art down but I can’t compromise what the artist wants to say. If you start dumbing it down and making it populist, why have a museum?”

Coetzee says his team of curators are trained to be on their feet for eight hours, greeting everyone who looks in, inviting them in, offering glasses of water and initiating conversations. This emphasises the human touch as opposed to the aloof elitism of many galleries.

“The more difficult the art gets, the more user-friendly we have to be in every other aspect. If you don’t feel you’re in a safe space, you become defensive, vindictive, vengeful, angry. But if you feel you’re in a safe space, you’re a little more open to difference and dialogue. So I don’t think we must underestimate the role of service industry-orientated practice in public institutions,” Coetzee reflects.

The V&A Waterfront contributed R500-million to the museum and Jochen Zeitz bequeathed his collection of African and diaspora art and underwrote the running costs. It is a not-for-profit institution that holds the art “in trust for the people of South Africa”, says Coetzee.

The museum is a powerful statement of community. But should such a democratic institution be on private land, which can still control the right of admission?

“There’s something that’s particular about the V&A Waterfront – it’s private land, yet it’s the most used land in Africa,” Coetzee responds. “It’s also one of the few spaces in Cape Town that are shared spaces – black and white, rich and poor, Christian and not, etcetera.”

It’s a social inclusion that remains a luxury in the Mother City.

Mail&Guardian, 19 December 2014

Changing the world of art – to click or not to click?

Clicktivism – can logging into a website and adding your name to a petition really change the world of art?

If 2011 was the year that “clicktivism” made it into the Collins dictionary, 2014 is the year it made it into the art world, courtesy of Cape Town.

In September, a Change.org petition against showing Cape Town artist Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B at the Barbican Gallery in London drew worldwide attention – and 22 988 supporters.

The exhibition – a performance artwork that recreates a colonial human zoo in which black people are put on exhibit in historical scenarios – was again petitioned in November to prevent its showing in Paris, drawing 20 433 signatories, who believe that it is racist.

Meanwhile, right in the Mother City, an Avaaz.org petition calling for the removal of the Perceiving Freedom artwork from the Sea Point promenade has received just over 1 000 signatures over the past month.

The appeal to Mayor Patricia de Lille and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille demands a full investigation into the process whereby the controversial supersized Ray Bans by artist Michael Elion was approved.

Can logging into a website and adding your name to a list really change the world of art?

The self-righteous mob

The London showing of Exhibit B was cancelled, but only after protestors created a disturbance on the opening night. Immediately, prominent theatre, art and museum curators from around the world rallied around what was labelled an act of bottom-up censorship.

Bailey has labelled the protestors a “self-righteous mob”, and decried the fact that none of them have actually seen the exhibition.

In Paris, however, the show goes on, despite protestors having smashed the door on the opening night.

Just a month since Paul McCarthy’s inflatable Christmas tree that resembled a buttplug was vandalised, forcing it to be removed, Fleur Pellerin, the French cultural minister, has come out in full support of Exhibit B, saying that they refuse to give in to censorship and intimidation.

A Paris court concurs, with a judge ruling against a collective of artists calling themselves “Against Exhibit B”, who brought a case against the City of Paris on December 8, to close down Exhibit B on the grounds of it being humiliating.

On Tuesday the judge said that: “The artistic representation in question unambiguously condemns the enslavement of black people during the colonial period and their treatment, contrary to the principle of respect for human dignity or human rights in the contemporary world.”

“The huge city block-sized building is completely sealed off by 300 policemen. One has to go through a labyrinthine security rigmarole to enter the cultural centre.

“We are performing in the bowels of the building with no access to what’s going on outside: apparently 100 or so protesters … Somebody in security said to me: ‘Its costing a fortune, 300 policemen, outside, in the rain, on a Sunday’.

‘Is the centre paying?’ I asked. ‘No. We are. Our taxes’.

“‘Hmm’, I thought. Maybe if your taxes were used to provide better opportunities for disenfranchised second-class citizens in the first place, the harvest wouldn’t be so bitter,” wrote Bailey.

Yes, just 100 protestors from 20 433 petitioners.

The number game 

The organisers of the Perceiving Freedom petition, John Nankin, Candice Breitz and Lizza Littlewort, know that they can’t “play the numbers game”, given the niche interest of visual art.

Instead, they have aimed to make their 1 000 signatories really count. Rather than a self-righteous mob, they have curated a who’s-who list of art experts as supporters.

“Many really well-known and influential academics, curators, critics, artists, as well as prominent people in other fields of culture signed,” says Nankin, making a special point to highlight the support of the original selection committee of Art 54, the project that Perceiving Freedom forms part of, as well as other artists involved in the project.

Nonetheless, the fact that the petition calls for the removal of the artwork may be why there are not more supporters, since it can be perceived to be censorship.

However, despite the widespread criticism of the actual artwork and concept, the organisers stipulate that they are not calling for its removal because of the nature of the work, but because it has become clear that due process has not been followed.

As one of the original Art54 curators, Farzanah Badsha, explained to the Daily Maverick, neither the artwork in its current form nor its location is what was originally approved. In other words, the petition calls for some form of justice, not an insurrection of popular opinion.

Will that give the petition more clout? Now we wait. Nankin says that they hope to present the petition to the City of Cape Town early next year, and it is still open for signatures – uh, clicks.

Mail&Guardian, 10 December 2014

The quiet violence of dreams: Mohau Modisakeng

MohauUntitled2012

A black riempie chair bristling with erect sjamboks is hardly what you expect to see when you walk into a colonial museum. Then again, who still walks into those dusty old mausoleums of white power?

Well, there’s one in Cape Town that has replaced its mothballs with a retrospective exhibition of work by Mohau Modisakeng: Chavonnes Battery. This site-specific installation of the 29-year-old artist’s arresting race, violence and power-infused work is, frankly, profound.

Dug up in 1999 by the V&A Waterfront construction team, Chavonnes Battery was a heavy artillery fortress completed in 1726 to protect the Dutch’s Cape outpost from potential invasion. It remained in working condition until about 1860, when construction on the harbour saw it slowly demolished and covered up in warehouses.

The museum’s ground floor is currently home to more than 20 of Modisakeng’s sculptures, videos and photographs, 17 of which form part of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art’s permanent collection.

Curated by Mark Coetzee, the installation is arranged as a linear story emphasising the tools of control and power used as symbols of repression in Modisakeng’s work.

The first floor is little more than a passageway around the building, allowing viewers to peer down into the basement below the art installation. Gangplank-like glass walkways allow one to explore the museum’s story of “shipwrecks and isolation wards, soldiers and slaves, exiles and explorers, locals and settlers, knechts and convicts”, according to the website.

It’s hard not to see the fort’s crumbling foundations as a representation of colonialism, and Modisakeng’s lavishly produced work of art as a sign of a new era, literally floating above it. In his photographic and video work, he engages the viewer with a smirk, a cocked eyebrow, nonchalantly swinging a panga. There’s no blood or guts or gore. Everything is in perfect control; it is only the threat of violence and a sense that the tables are turned.

This potential for violence draws an interesting parallel with Chavonnes Battery, which, according to its website, only once actually fired a single weapon in anger. The strategy to build the biggest fortress with the flashiest canons to deter invaders seems to have worked.

The Quiet Violence of Dreams, the title of K Sello Duiker’s seminal novel exploring the divisive social geography of Cape Town, comes to mind. In a city that continues to struggle with spatial apartheid and the lack of redress to its predominantly colonial public sculptures, memorials and museums, this exhibition visualises ways in which a revisionist history can be realised without erasing or replacing.

As for Modisakeng, he’s one to watch after having both his first solo gallery exhibition and first museum retrospective in one year.

Published by City Press, 7 December 2014