Book: Johannesburg Art Fair Directory

Book: Johannesburg Art Fair Directory

Editors: Cobi Labuscagne and Cathrine Green

Publisher: Artlogic

Reviewer: Edward Tsumele

The Johannesburg Art Fair, the first of its kind to have taken place in South Africa, has come and gone.

Art enthusiasts, collectors and artists got what they wanted at the fair - be it buying art, concluding deals or getting an understanding of the complexity and diversity of the African contemporary art market.

But the fair, which ended on Sunday at the Sandton Convention Centre after having been launched last Thursday, was more than just a meeting place for artists, curators and collectors.

Sponsored by FNB and organised by the innovative art company Artlogic, the fair was a window on the state of African art, its problems and its place in the world market.

The premier of Gauteng, Mbhazima Shilowa, who opened the fair, said those like him, who had no clue about art, should not bother but just buy whatever art they fancied and find a good space for it in their homes, finish and klaar. No worries about aesthetics or investment potential.

This is probably good advice within the context of the South African art market, particularly when it comes to art appreciation.

Art is only appreciated by a small, elite class.

Shilowa's comment might have shocked many people, had he said it at an art fair in a sophisticated art market.

Collectors there spend fortunes on insurance premiums to make sure that their art is protected from sophisticated art theft syndicates.

Art is worth billions of rands in that world, but in South Africa it is treated like some kind of non-commodity.

The fact that the country has only managed to organise two important biennials, in 1995 and 1997, should make South Africa's art market ashamed.

The ignorance of the art market goes beyond just the question of affordability, especially now that the monied class has drastically changed and quite a significant number of the formerly disadvantaged are in the monied league, thanks to economic transformation.

At the bottom of this amazing ignorance about art is the lack or very little art criticism in the country.

The small body of art critique is often found in fringe publications such as the quarterly South African art online art publication and the monthly publication South African Art Times.

Otherwise there is the odd article in mainstream publications here and there, often written by a small pool of art writers.

This is in sharp contrast to the sophisticated Western art markets that have a long and strong tradition of art criticism, giving art lovers a deep understanding of the aesthetics of the art market and its financial benefits.

This view is shared by Simon Njani, curator of the Joburg Art Fair and Curated Show, which ended on Sunday.

Writing in the catalogue, Joburg Art Fair Directory, a book that gives some good insights into contemporary art, he demonstrates the influence of art critics in the world of art.

"However, because of the way in which the art world is organised, the specialist's opinion according to his or her influence, will be decisive in the manner in which the second phase of the art work's arrival into the public domain will proceed," Njani writes.

If the critic is influential the work will inevitably attract the interest of a gallery or dealer, as well as institutions, whose role is to endorse the aesthetics and seize the opportunity so as not to be left behind."

The question is, can the same influence be attributed to a South African art critic. I doubt it.

It would be helpful if South African art critics were to take Shilowa's advice at the art fair, just for the benefit of ordinary people who have no clue about the sophisticated art market.