View from the Tropics

A touring blockbuster exhibition comes to Cape Town

Candida Höfer, Hamburg I ('Zoo Series', 1990). C-Print, ©VG Bildkunst

Candida Höfer, Hamburg I ('Zoo Series', 1990). C-Print, ©VG Bildkunst

One book I’ve never seen featured in ‘Ideal Syllabus’, this publication’s snapshot of other people’s bookshelves, is a tome called Unpublished Conversations. Of course, it doesn’t exist, but my point is this: some of the most penetrating conversations about art never achieve the status of printed – or, in the digital era, printable – word. It is easy enough to understand why. To paraphrase D.H. Lawrence, they lack perfection or consummation, they leave nothing finished. Herein lies another reason why Unpublished Conversations will never hit the bookshops: being entirely wilful and utterly contingent, this vast polyphony claims no audience. The audience, after all, is the author.

I recently got tangled in an inconclusive conversation about a visiting blockbuster exhibition that had toured to Cape Town via Brazil and Germany. ‘The Tropics: Views from the Middle of the Globe’ gathered together a mishmash of painting, photography and video by a diffuse group of contemporary artists either from – or inspired by – that vast rump of land between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn known simply as the tropics. The exhibition, which was curated by Alfons Hug (director of the Goethe-Institut Rio de Janeiro and curator of the 2002 São Paulo Bienal) and Peter Junge and Viola König from the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, also includes a number of artefacts drawn from the latter museum’s collection.

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Female ancestral figure, Indonesia, Sulawesi, Toraj (20th century). Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum

The show arrived in South Africa in a subtracted form: of the original 21-artist line-up only 16 were present. Included in the Cape Town mini-exhibition were Candida Höfer’s dull photograph of Hamburg Zoo (from her 1990 ‘Zoo Series’), Walmor Correa’s mock scientific, anatomical paintings of two mythical Amazonian figures, Ipupiara and Ondina (both 2005), as well as Theo Eshetu’s Trip to Mount Zuqualla (2005), an impressionistic documentary centred around a pilgrimage to this extinct Ethiopian volcano and holy site for Coptic Christians. The ethnographic selection – a mix of pre-modern artworks and contemporary cultural artefacts – was also culled, down from some 200 objects to about a dozen. Primarily selected – as the curators put it – ‘according to aesthetic criteria’, the ethnographic pieces included Kente cloth from Ghana, Tau-Tau ancestral figures from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, as well as a Daspu wedding dress embroidered with condoms. This strikingly contemporary piece is the product of a Rio de Janeiro fashion house founded and run by a group of prostitutes; Daspu means ‘whore’ in Portuguese. With the ethnographic component significantly depleted, the outcome – at least in Cape Town – was a show tilted in favour of the contemporary, in particular the easy-to-travel mediums of photography and video. Still, the show’s distinctly anthropological focus managed to reveal itself intact.

Fascinated by the romantic status of the tropics in the European mind, ‘The Tropics’ is underpinned by a quixotic challenge: ‘to create an incorruptible, crisis-resistant stock of images that permits a non-hierarchical view of the world’. More than half a million people in Brasilia (in 2007) and Rio de Janeiro (in 2008) turned out to view the exhibition, which was structured into seven thematic sections that borrowed extensively from the language of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. One grouping of works, presented under the rubric of ‘The Broken Arrow’, included Osun staffs from Benin shown in close proximity to Guy Tillim’s paired photographs of historically resonant sites in the Congo and Belgium (from the 2004 ‘Leopold and Mobutu’ series). Deeper into the morass of the exhibition, ‘The Urban Drama’ juxtaposed the Daspu dress with a 2004 photograph of the ruined Inca citadel, Machu Picchu, by Hans-Christian Schink.

Perhaps it was Lévi-Strauss’ historical associations with Brazil – he lived there from 1935 to 1939 – that drew in the Brazilians, or the winter rain in Cape Town (and televised coverage of the Indian Premier League cricket matches being held in the country at the time) that kept visitors away. Whatever the case, South Africans proved less enthusiastic. By the middle of its six-week run at the South African National Gallery the show hadn’t drawn even a 20th of Brazil’s half million viewers. The day I visited it the venue was empty. This is odd, given that the last international blockbuster to visit South Africa, Simon Njami’s ‘Africa Remix’, was both well attended and robustly debated when it arrived in Johannesburg two years ago. The popular press, which embraced ‘Africa Remix’, has for the most part ignored ‘The Tropics’. To be fair, Njami’s travelling spectacle was inadvertently helped along by Brian Sewell, whose rank Evening Standard write-up made the news in South Africa, contributing to a heightened awareness of the show long before its arrival. But still.

Discussing this apathy – both amongst viewers and commentators – I wondered out loud to a colleague whether the relative silence might not also have had something to do with ‘The Tropics’ curators’ invocation of Jean-Hubert Martin’s ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ in their introduction. His unequivocal response: yes. Rather than misquote at length from our unpublishable conversation, suffice it to say that his riff touched on the critical legacy spawned by the 1984-5 MoMA exhibition ‘“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern’, after which he did a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style dance over the semantic quicksand that opens up when words like ‘art’ and ‘material culture’ become interchangeable. After lingering briefly on the ethics of intention, he then headed for the door, leaving me to foot the breakfast bill.

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Marcos Chaves, Mask (2005), video still. ©Marcos Chaves

We haven’t escaped the long shadow of the 1980s. The indications are everywhere. Take the opening paragraph of Nicolas Bourriaud’s new book, The Radicant (2009): ‘To the great mixer that was “Magiciens de la Terre”, we can date the official entry of art into a globalised world shorn of master narratives, a world that is henceforth our own”. However, the ongoing impact of ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, staged in 1989 at the Pompidou and Parc de la Villette as a counterpoint to the 1931 ‘L’Exposition Coloniale’ in Paris, reminds me of its lesser-known South African precursor.

In 1985, Ricky Burnett, a South African painter whose work recalls Cy Twombly, put together the exhibition ‘Tributaries’ at the behest of BMW – the German car manufacturer has a big production plant in South Africa. ‘One of the simplicities that we lived with was that images belonged to the city, were generated from the city and found their highest calling in the city,’ Burnett explained in a 1997 talk at the University of Edinburgh. ‘This global urbanisation of the image, this locking of the image behind city walls, perhaps unwittingly but nevertheless with devastating effect, neatly dovetailed with apartheid simplicities.’ His exhibition ‘refuted these simplicities’ by looking ‘outside of the city walls’.

As ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ did for Congolese painter Chéri Samba, so ‘Tributaries’ did for the rural sculptor Jackson Hlungwani. Some were – of course – sceptical, dismissing the whole process as another Tintin in the Congo-style adventure. Veteran South African artist and curator David Koloane caustically observed, in 1999, that Hlungwani embodied ‘the perfect black artist’ for white metropolitans – he was rural, untutored in the formal conventions of art, a shaman in his community, in short wholly other. This sort of ritualized acrimony is, of course, familiar to anyone who followed the notices accompanying everything from Whitechapel Gallery’s ‘Seven Stories’ exhibition (1995), to the over-debated, under-curated African pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. It is into this contested terrain, where forms are ‘ceaselessly deconstructed yet untouchable’, to borrow from Bourriaud, that ‘The Tropics’ has stumbled, sincerely, but ill-equipped as a statement of any vigour. It is not that the stock of images selected is – to invert the curatorial language – in any way corruptible or crisis-addled, it is simply that they lack coherence, remain perpetually juxtaposed, distinctive units from a disjointed whole. Worse still, on one of the largest landmasses constituting the tropics, this disconnect prompts no conversation, no riposte, simply nothing.

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