Magazine article Artforum International

Moving Company: The Second Johannesburg Biennale

Magazine article Artforum International

Moving Company: The Second Johannesburg Biennale

Article excerpt

It was with a certain feeling of vindication that I boarded the plane to attend the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale last October. Visiting Nelson Mandela's homeland for the first time can confirm one's belief in the victory of democracy over dictatorship, of open societies over dosed systems. It means that finally I too, a West African, am free to go to South Africa, and am free to give my opinion on directions in contemporary art there. For this Biennale is tied to the end of apartheid, and it owes its specificity to what deputy president Thabo Mbeki calls the African Renaissance.

My first surprise upon arrival was that I was lodged not in a downtown hotel amid skyscrapers and lots of traffic, the Johannesburg I was used to seeing in the movies, but in the suburbs, in a three-story colonial-style building, with a courtyard and indoor swimming pool, surrounded by leafy trees. All the visitors were given accommodations in the same area, even though the headquarters of the Biennale was located a thirty-minute ride away in Johannesburg proper, at the Africus Institute of Contemporary Art (AIAC), near the Market Theatre and the Diamond Building. I soon realized that we were put up in the suburbs for security reasons. In downtown Johannesburg, near the AIAC, the only people ! saw walking the streets were poor blacks. The affluent whites and the new black bourgeoisie passed by, well-ensconced, in their cars.

My second surprise came while waiting in front of my hotel for a taxi to the Biennale. In the distance, I saw a woman walking at a measured pace toward me. She wore a black beret and a washed-out blue sweater over a white T-shirt, and her long blue wool skirt went all the way down to her ankles to meet her thick rolled socks and flat tennis shoes. As she approached, I tried in vain to make eye contact, ready to greet her in the friendly manner of West Africans. But she passed by without seeming to see me. I couldn't figure her age: her style of dress and rhythmic way of walking, like that of African Americans in the United States, made her seem young, modern, and free from tradition, while her large size and long, tired face made her seem an older victim of the violence of that same modernity that had enabled her to conceal her age. I felt threatened by her appearance because I could see that she had passed through what Richard Wright called the fire of modernization, the scars from which were still visible on her face.

But there was something else in this woman's look that seemed oddly familiar. The long wool skirts and sweaters worn inside out with the threads showing have become the fashion statement of Xuly-bet, a West African couturier based in Paris. In fact, when I saw a show of his recently at Pier 59 in Chelsea, the models seemed to be parodying the look of Soweto women, their individualistic and defiant disposition forged in the struggle against apartheid. During the show, Xuly-bet alternated between a Jimi Hendrix soundtrack and simply letting the models march by in silence, as if they were performing some world-transforming ritual. In his diasporic attempt to bring together Soweto and the music of the late '60s and early '70s, the designer has succeeded in creating an attitude in fashion that appeals to a downtown Manhattan multicultural and artistic sensibility.

To say that the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale is tied to postapartheid is to acknowledge South Africa's new position in Africa and in the world. The theme of the Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor and an international team and featuring some 160 artists from 63 countries, was "Trade Routes: History and Geography," and some of the subthemes in the show, such as "Alternating Currents" and "Transversions," reveal the show's preoccupation with hybridity, metissage, and globalization. The Electric Workshop, home of the core exhibition, was a haven for video-, computer-, and other technology-based installations that left the door wide open to artists residing in America, Europe, Asia, and Latin America (to the detriment, according to many, of African artists working with sculpture, painting, and other traditional media). …

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