Cape Today, Cape Tomorrow
Finally Cape07 has come and gone. (See my earlier blog entries on Cape 07) It will be remembered for its many successes and its many failures. Heralded with much enthusiasm – at least by the international community – when it was first announced at the Dakar Biennale in 2004, it was treated with suspicion within the local community. In spite of its first national discussion session eKapa in December 2005, which according to reports apparently ended in bitter acrimony and a divided art community, the organisers forged ahead with their plans. After the now defunct Johannesburg Biennale, Cape Town wanted to signalled its arrival on the global art circuit with its own 'not a biennale' international exhibition. Gavin Jantjes a South African curator based in Europe with international experience was appointed artistic direction with two young curators Gabi Ngcobo and Khwezi Gule (curator of contemporary collections at Johannesburg Art Gallery).
With an artistic vision aimed at reaching out firstly to the southern African region and then the wider African continent and the African Diaspora, an important curatorial visit for the team was the 2006 Dakar Biennale. The first time all 3 curators were visiting West Africa and probably interacting with so many African artists in one place. This resulted in some artists such as Bright Eke, El Anatsui, Mounir Fatmi amongst others being invited to Transcape. However it seems financial woes began to set in curtailing further travel apart from to the RDC. By August just over a month to opening Transcape had to be postponed from September to March 2007 to the dismay and annoyance of artists and other intending visitors many of whom had already organised and paid for their trip.
But we got over it and waited patiently for March. Then another bombshell, with the financial situation now dire, the artistic director resigned barely four weeks to the opening and the remaining team decided to soldier on by announcing a 'reconceptualisation' of the exhibition into a 'process driven project'. This it became not so much by design but by default. Activities to a large extent were planned based predominately on the generosity of individuals, artists and organisations. With minimum or no funding but lots of determination and energy the team of director Miriam Asmal-Dik, curator Gabi Ngcobo (only member of the original curatorial team left) and project manager Jonathan Granham went about making sure they made the best of the resources available. The result was not spectacular but it definitely was professionally presented. There were no surprises or new discoveries and the team was criticised for relying too much on artists from the stable of from the Goodman and Michael Stevenson galleries jeopardising a rigorous curatorial research. For visitors especially on a short visit the distance between some of the venues spread all over the city and surroundings was a big problem. Even though I was part of the press party and launch party with transport was provided it would have been an arduous and expensive task getting to see the work in the major venues on my own. As for the numerous X-cape exhibitions it was difficult to see more than 2 or 3 of them.
Bringing a project such Cape07 to fruition in South Africa is still fraught with tension and curator Gabi Ngcobo must be commended for rising above the adversity at such a critical and tender stage of her career. It signals the arrival of young, adventurous, energetic curators who are not afraid to fail and are willingly to take a chance. This is something that is needed on the African continent. It is a disappointment that Gavin Jantges didn't bring to bear his wealth of international experience and his network of contacts, to think creativity and adapt to the situation, basically to pull out the stops to make this event more than it was. Any African country organising a large scale internationally exhibition experiences teething problems and needs all hands on deck to make it half successful. In hindsight it continues to put into perspective the Herculean obstacles that Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor had to overcome to the make the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale happen.
The future bodes well for Cape tomorrow, Miriam Amal-Dik has resigned her position as director of Pro Helvetia to focus full time on developing Cape into a truly ‘African cultural soup’. Reaching out to African artists as originally planned was not possible on this occasion. At an impromptu discussion session during the opening week, I remarked at how I was the only visiting curator/writer from the entire continent at Cape07. Few if any of the African artists based on the continent could make it to Cape07 due to funding constraints. As they move forward the Cape team must where possible and in collaboration with relevant country stakeholders take the activities beyond their borders, beyond their comfort zone and engage pro-actively with African artists, curators, writers and organisations. What is wrong in having the next eKAPA session in Mozambique only an hour or two from Cape Town. In that manner, like Dak'Art they can begin to develop another important platform for visual art and culture on the continent.