Opinionista Anthony Posner 2 October 2013

The Jo’burg Art Fair: a media circus in four dramatic acts

In retrospect, I wonder what The Three Witches would have said about the disappearance of Ayanda Mabulu's painting at the Jo’burg Art Fair, "when the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle's lost and won". Were malevolent supernatural forces at work? Or was it just a simple case of censorship on the part of Ross Douglas and Dr Cobi Labuschagne, the organizers who ended up centre stage? But whatever the reason, "so foul and fair a day I have not seen" at the Sandton Convention Centre.

A fortnight before the drama commenced, and not suspecting that it would be consumed by Ross Douglas’s tragic Shakespearian demise, I miraculously decided to make my own T-shirt with the slogan “JOBURG ART FAIR OR FOUL” emblazoned in bold on the front and back.

I would be lying if I said that I had some sort of Scottish premonition or that I could readily predict the future. After all, I don’t even buy lottery tickets, as my only premonition is that… I will lose.

Actually, my purpose was to discuss issues of freedom and expression and the Jo’burg art scene, and I decided to photocopy a short pamphlet to hand out at the fair. T-shirt on, I arrived ready to engage with anyone who was prepared to nod their head and quickly move away. It was Friday morning and following a circular route, I soon strolled into Commune.1’s gallery space to be informed that Ayanda Mabulu’s painting, Yakhali’inkomo—Black Man’s Cry, was no longer on show. Having reacted much more than just vociferously for Brett Murray in the aftermath of “The Spear”, I was angered by this news and quietly murmured to myself “double double toil and trouble”.

A crowded press conference soon commenced in Commune.1’s small space. Ayanda saw my T-shirt and asked if I had one going spare. Luckily, I was prepared for this request, so he was able to immediately put one on, henceforth armoured, ready for the battle to commence. Press cameras were clicking, tape recorders were rolling and I was sitting next to Ross, recording a video of the whole of Act 2.

And as Ross attempted to excuse his culpability, I chirped that we were not living in North Korea. I frequently interrupted him and asked, “From whence you owe this strange intelligence?” Lord Ross told me to keep quiet, but I persisted remembering The Bard’s words “answer me to what I ask you”.

Fast forward my video recording of this drama; in Act 3, David Goldblatt, The Thane/Thorn of Johannesburg, removed his exhibition and in Act 5, the denouement, Ayanda Mabulu’s painting reappeared from the cauldron of the convention centre. This was a truly historic moment which was applauded not only by myself, but by a joyous audience that had gathered to witness its return.

I wondered what was all the scare mongering about? No violence had ensued, daggers were not drawn to rip the painting apart and blood did not stain Lady Labuschange’s hands. It was after all an art fair, although it had for the most part been re-cast as a media circus.

It is worth rewinding and recalling that an hour earlier in Act 4, Lord Ross had looked exhausted, rumpled and defeated at the second press conference in the lecture area which was besieged by the media; he seemed rather crestfallen, unable to fully comprehend the marvellous turn of events. Clearly, he had failed to anticipate the cunning plot woven by David Goldblatt and Liza Essers. Perhaps Lord Ross was hampered by the lack of a Shakespearian education?

So, who will write the script for the Jo’burg Art Fair 2014? Will Lord Ross and Lady Macbeth-Labuschagne continue to extoll the benefits of a close collaboration with government and will artists be censored and self-censored once again?

Will the fair’s organisers reinvent themselves, recalling Ross’s words in Act 4 Scene 3, “let not your ears despise my tongue forever”. But what sort of constraints will they continue to impose on freedom of expression and will the South African arts community accept them as fair or foul?

But for the sake of us all, let’s hope that resistance art has actually been revived by Douglas’s inept machinations, and that censorship continues to meet the ignominious defeat that it so richly deserves. DM


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