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Karen von Veh is associate professor of art history at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa and participant in the 2013 CAA-Getty International Program.

In 2013 I was one of the lucky recipients of a Getty travel grant to attend the CAA Annual Conference in New York. The first time I met the other grantees was when we had to give a short presentation about our research interests and show examples of the work we were studying. Ding Ning from Peking University was one of our group. Shortly after we returned to our home countries, he contacted me to ask about the possibility of showcasing the art of South Africa as an invited “special exhibition” for the Beijing Biennale in September 2015. Each year the biennale invites selected countries to produce what they call “special exhibitions” and to date they have never had exhibitions from anywhere in Africa. An exhibition of South African art would therefore be a “first” for them and a huge opportunity for us in South Africa—not only to showcase the excellence of our art production but also to align with the drive for cooperation between the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the various cultural and economic exchange programs that are currently underway.

Special exhibitions at the Beijing Biennale are expected to be showcases of the invited country’s cultural (fine art) production, and we decided to use this exhibition to reflect on the perceived state of our fledgling democracy. After the long struggle to introduce a democratic system and freedom for all in South Africa, one might imagine that an exhibition reflecting the current state of our democratic society might be a very cheerful and upbeat affair. However, twenty-one years after apartheid, we are still seeing the aftereffects of institutionalized inequalities, and the pace of change is not necessarily fulfilling citizen’s expectations. Annie E. Coombes’s book, History after Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), argues that cultural manifestations both reflect and affect this change in social structures and relationships. Transition is a difficult state to occupy; often beliefs or behavioral practices are so normalized that change is virtually impossible without a catalyst to shake us out of complacency and awaken us to the possibilities of alternative practices and thoughts. I believe that intellectually engaged, socially conscious art is just such a catalyst.

Bearing this in mind, my cocurators and I have chosen works by a cross section of high profile established artists—those who have been part of the struggle toward democracy and who have seen and reacted to both the good and the bad changes brought about by the new dispensation (William Kentridge, Diane Victor and David Koloane would be examples of this category). These artists have established careers and are well known at home and internationally. In addition, we made a careful selection of young emerging contemporary artists who we believe are embarking on successful careers and who have something pertinent to say about the condition of our society for the future of the youth. All the artists selected acknowledge the role of contemporary art in South Africa as a catalyst for change and raise social and political issues. Their work comments on the real impact of twenty-one years of democracy—a democracy that has allowed them the artistic freedom to comment incisively on some of the continuing challenges arising from inherited and ongoing inequality in society. The chosen examples also illustrate South Africa’s achievements in various traditional media (drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture) and, in addition, we have included some examples of digital media and/or mixed-media works.

As I write this, we are packing up the works for transport to China and preparing to travel there ourselves in mid-September to set up the exhibition. Thinking back to the initial invitation to visit New York in 2013, I had no conception at the time of where this opportunity might lead in the future, and what fruitful projects might come from the contacts made on this occasion.

Kim Berman’s monotype is a reminder of the 2009 xenophobic attacks in South Africa. She records the tented camps put up by local authorities and aid organizations to house dispossessed foreigners, who were victims of violence and intimidation. A barbed-wire fence running through the center of the image is reminiscent of records from the Anglo Boer War concentration camps of the early 1900s. Berman is perhaps suggesting that little has changed in terms of difference, intolerance, and unequal power relations.

Image: Kim Berman, Rifle Range I, Roodepoort, 2009, monotype, 78 x 108 cm (artwork © Kim Berman)


Mary Sibande performs her alter ego, Sophie, clad in Victorian attire. The color of her dress refers to the Zionist Christian Church (ZCC) uniform, and she is wielding a Zionist prayer stick. Sibande refers to the conflation of Christianity and traditions of ancestral worship that exist within the ZCC. This cultural overlap illustrates her search for identity as a young black woman living in the Westernized culture of contemporary South Africa. Her Sophie persona thus explores postcolonial South African identity and critiques stereotypical depictions of women, especially black women, in society.

Image: Mary Sibande, I put a spell on me, 2009, digital pigment print, 90 x 60 cm (artwork © Mary Sibande)

Filed under: International

Early last year, in my role as president of the South African Visual Arts Historians (SAVAH), I was asked by Professor Federico Freschi (at the University of Johannesburg) to send out a call for participants to apply for a travel grant to attend the CAA Annual Conference in New York in February 2013. After mailing the request to SAVAH members, I read through the requirements and found that it was an extraordinarily generous grant for which one only needed to be a full-time practicing art historian residing in a country not well represented in CAA membership. The grant, which was funded by the Getty Foundation, was aimed at encouraging dialogue between art historians from around the globe and included a year’s membership to CAA.

As a lucky recipient I was one of twenty people heading for the icy snow-laden New York in February and arrived on the first morning that JFK airport was opened again after being closed for two days due to blizzards. My first activity in New York was to head for Central Park and enjoy the novelty of walking in the deep snow.

The day before the CAA conference, travel-grant recipients had a preconference gathering where we met the other grantees and gave five-minute presentations to introduce ourselves. This allowed us to get to know each other and identify like minds and areas of collaboration, so from the first meeting there was already a networking frenzy taking place. The grantees reminded me of the League of Nations, with people from various African countries, South American countries, India, Pakistan, China, Haiti, Korea, Iceland, and several Eastern European countries (and I have probably missed a few). There was a lot of lively discussion every time we met, and we got on very well with each other as a group. It was wonderful to meet so many diverse people who shared a passion for the development and teaching of art history.

The CAA conference was huge and frenetic with many parallel sessions, so one had to choose the papers very carefully. I heard some wonderful presentations by Amelia Jones, Griselda Pollock, and Whitney Chadwick (among others) in a feminist session that was packed to the hilt, with people sitting on the floor and lining the walls. As part of conference attendance, everyone had free access to many galleries and museums in New York for the duration of the conference, so there was much rushing to see exhibitions between listening to papers.

I was also lucky enough to be invited (with the other African delegates) to the opening of El Anatsui’s glorious exhibition, Gravity and Grace, at the Brooklyn Museum, where the artist made an appearance as well. For this and other wonderful visits (such as a private tour of the African collection at the Metropolitan Museum) I must thank Jean Borgatti, who was assigned as host to two of the African delegates but was kind enough to include all the visitors from Africa in her plans. At the end of the conference, we had a final “debriefing” session where we could state what worked and what didn’t. From my point of view, the entire event was splendidly arranged and I cannot fault anything, although on a purely personal note I would have enjoyed more time with the group as a whole.

After the conference we were invited by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute to visit their museum and research center in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Most of the group were able to extend their visit for the extra three days required for this trip, and we were bussed off to Williamstown, where we stayed at the delightful Williams Inn. At the Clark we were given a tour of the library, the print archives, and the museum, and joined in discussions of possible future projects for the Clark’s Research and Academic Programs to pursue. We were also taken to one of the biggest art spaces I have ever seen: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (or MASS MoCA), which had a room large enough (one football field long) to display Xu Bing’s enormous flying Phoenix.

After returning to New York, most travel-grant recipients returned to their countries, while I and a few others were able to stay another few days (in my case until the weekend—two more days) to make the most of the city. I spent this time literally running from one gallery to another to try and fit them all in before leaving. New York is amazingly rich in terms of what it has to offer culturally, and I feel this trip was altogether an enriching experience—from the intellectual stimulation and visual excitement to the wonderful people I met. This affords great networking opportunities such as reciprocal arrangements between institutions (student or staff exchanges) and invitations to conferences or ongoing discussions about the state of art history on a global scale (via email, of course). As a direct result of this trip I have already been invited to speak at a global conference in Slovakia this September, and am making arrangements for exchange programs with other institutions.

First image: Me (the “Michelin Man”) in Central Park.

Second image: The “African Contingent” admiring El Anatsui at the Met.

Third image: Our group at the final “debriefing” in New York.