Joburg Art Fair: Corner of Polyester &Vine

I elected to see this year’s Joburg Art Fair at the last hour of the last day for two reasons: (a) I’d spare myself the pretensions of people who weren’t even remotely interested in the art itself but rather in the social currency that comes when one poses for a selfie among such misunderstood ‘elite’ objects; (b) so that I can pretend to be above such lowly venality.

Outside the Sandton Convention Centre, where the thing was held, was a mildly temperate sky, the clouds filled with promise of rain. Inside, one was immediately assailed by a distinct smell of wine, polyester and human exertion, suffusing the entire affair with a Made in China quality. I wasn’t dissuaded in the least. Art fairs, by their very nature, aren’t about art but the business of art, which smells, no doubt, like something Made in China by tiny suicidal hands.

In spite of everything I’ve read about the ‘white cube’ and its alienating qualities I wished, for a moment, that I was inside one instead of this food market-cum-nightclub-cum-exhibition space. My heart, at that moment of confusion, was with the artists who surely had to come and do the schmoozing to pay rent. Right then I bumped into Ed Young. He was a snapshot of my imagined frustration of the artist at this affair. He seemed broken in parts I could not see, which were rendered a certain palpable quality by the cast which encased his right hand and a sanity which clung quite desperately on a warm glass of white wine, giving off an impression of salmon swimming upstream, to the final destination where it can reproduce and die.

Oh god, and then my partner, who was earnestly curious about the art, was spotted by one of those nouveau riche Joburgers in an expensive dashiki. They were about to take pictures. I ducked and went for the bar. The bartenders were a pleasure to behold. They had stood watch for nearly three days, supplying booze to a crowd of potential buyers and by the time I approached them were as eager for a glass of something poisonous as much as the patrons themselves.

I walked around for a while. I felt free to look at some work. The work on display was impressive, I must say, particularly a portrait by Zanele Muholi at the Stevenson stall. It was of herself and another subject. Her eyes directed your gaze to the subject next to her. But made you insist on training your gaze on her and when you tried her gaze rejected you and again moved you away. In a small but profound way accusing you of attempting to possess not only the woman’s body with your hungry gaze but especially the queer black woman. This kind of possessiveness made me think, for a moment, of the ‘corrective rape’ of black lesbians in townships and the black masculine idea of owning a woman, queer or not. I found in this image an intersection where as this violent social impulse is awakened the male viewer it is simultaneously rejected by the refrain of the gaze from within this self-portrait.

After 6, the fair finally came to its conclusion. Four security guards walked up to us, my partner and I, and asked us to leave. You could cut the thickness of their aggression with a blunt bread knife. So here we were, soaked in polyester and wine, being thrown out. The workmen in blue and grey overalls, who wore wrought and tired faces, were pulling apart, piece by piece, the entire production. We were ushered towards the exit doors of the Sandton Convention Centre and into a mildly temperate sky that promised rain that would not come.