art, Events, Lifestyle

In review: the 10th annual FNB JoburgArtFair

Jessica Hunkin
Detail of works by Lucky Sibiya, Dumile Feni and Mmakgabo Mmapula Helen Sebidi shown as part of 'Truth, or some other abstraction' curated by Dr Zoe Whitley.

The 2017 FNB JoburgArtFair has officially come to a close. Over the next few weeks, reviews, photographs, videos and more will come flooding through, each trying to capture the excitement and the chaos of it all. But how does one put an event as large or longstanding as this into perspective? For starters, it is a terribly fancy affair – an event that can be both economically and spatially exclusive, but one that’s looked forward to every year by many. Then there is its scale – 60 exhibitions within five categories from 12 different countries across Africa, Europe and the United States. Finally, there is the thing of there being so much going on at any given time – be it the talks, performances, or the general force-mingling that takes place at these functions – that to try and remember it all is an impossible task. A friend of mine put it this way: ‘The FNB JoburgArtFair is just one big flea market for art.’ And, while most flea markets don’t sport champagne flutes, pulled-pork pitas and price tags that rarely dip below the R12 000 mark, I tend to agree. The aim of the fair has always been to showcase new work from a range of different artists and galleries, and to get that work sold. In this way, it is a huge success.
WATCH: four FNB JoburgArtFair hotshots share their insights in South African art now.
On Thursday evening outside the Sandton Convention Centre, I bumped into the painter Anastasia Pather. It was opening night and everyone was in high spirits. She told me to have a look around and to stop by the 99 Loop booth where she had a few new works up. I had seen Pather’s work popping up at a few exhibitions lately – Turbine Art Fair, No End Contemporary and Fried Contemporary Art Gallery, to name a few. This time, she was adamant on selling everything. A short while later, I stopped by the 99 Loop booth and saw Pather again, this time holding a glass of champagne and standing in front of her sizeable new work ‘Rejected Paintings’, which comprises old and repurposed works that had never been bought or exhibited. ‘I just sold this piece,’ she said with a grin. The work had been bought before she even entered the building. To see an artwork by an emerging contemporary artist being snapped up so swiftly on the opening night of the Fair is a brilliant thing. It’s reassuring to know that in spite of the many problems that face the South African art world, there is still a keen interest in buying and appreciating the work that artists create.
Part of a large-scale sculpture and mixed media artwork by Blessing Ngobeni at the Everard Read booth.

Over the next few days, more people filtered through and more artworks gathered little red dots – $ucce$$! But beyond sales, there were many instances over the course of the weekend that served as small reminders of the continued support and celebration of local art. Towards the front of the venue, a metal panel sat affixed to a wall with a brief description. It explained how the artist, Blessing Ngobeni (a standout artist at this year’s Fair) had produced a work and subsequently cut it into postcard-sized pieces before mailing each one off to a different individual, inviting them to attend the event and bring their piece of the painting with them. On the opening night, the metal frame stood empty. By Friday afternoon, every single piece had been returned and put back together, forming the artist’s original work. Not one person had allowed the painting to remain unfinished. At the back of the venue, publication booths such as those for ArtThrob and adjective remained lively and engaging throughout the fair, while the book stalls near the entrance had streams of art fairgoers browsing through the various publications on offer. It was a reassuring collective scene, a reminder that the practice of documenting, interrogating and showcasing art through considered writing and publishing is still alive and well. Of course, the FNB JoburgArtFair did not go down without its issues. A jewellery brand which situated itself smack-bang in the middle of the fair had run a campaign that involved partnering up with young artists and photography students to punt its latest piece. The results sat framed and for sale around the seating area, but the main problem was that none of these students had even been notified that their work was on show.
Works by Yinka Shonibare (left) and and William Kentridge (right) at the Goodman Gallery booth.

Then there was the case of the missing Peju Alatise installation. Although the artworks arrived and were installed on Friday evening, the space reserved for this year’s FNB Art Prize Winner, as well as her exhibiting gallery booth, Red Door, stood completely empty for the first half of the fair. As it turns out, there was an issue with getting the artworks through airport customs. This is no fault of Alatise of course, and ultimately, the works arrived and were just as spectacular and as harrowing as everyone expected them to be, but the fact remains: to have missing artworks from an award-winning, Nigerian artist is a mistake that an SA-based international art fair geared towards celebrating African art cannot afford to make. When it came to this year’s Featured Artist, Robin Rhode, a few things were amiss, too. His main work this year came in the form of an installation that doubled up as the site of a performance-art piece. In the piece, performers Kevin Narain and Maxime Scheepers moved about the white metal frame in black outfits with make-up to match, shouting out calls to the audience such as: ‘Is anybody listening? Can you hear us?’ and ‘Do you even care?’. The thing is – nobody could hear them properly on account of the idle chatter and clinking glasses coming from the seating area just up ahead. Now Rhode may very well have anticipated this sort of thing, and if so, his work was a huge success. To see a crowd of people happily eating and talking loudly while a politically loaded performance was carried out just ahead of them, was a deeply disturbing thing. In retrospect, it reveals the ugly bits of the art world – those few (or perhaps many) that concern themselves only with money, status, nice art and comfortable venues. As for the rest of the work at this year’s JoburgArtFair? Well, it was great, but you had to have seen it for yourself, really. I can say this: while the myriad themes and narratives of the exhibited works may still go unheard by many in this country, the mechanisms that allow for artists to keep telling these stories in new and striking ways seem to be firmly in place. And if institutions like the FNB JoburgArtFair can play their part in sustaining that, then that’ll do for now. Visit fnbjoburgartfair.co.za for more details.