Art fair highlights a year of visual changes

Patience Bambalele

Patience Bambalele

Art enthusiasts and private collectors would agree that 2008 was a year of change, exploration and growth in the visual arts.

One of the remarkable things that happened this year was the staging of the first art fair in South Africa. This was long overdue - the fair having been in existence in many countries for the past 30 years or so.

For the first time, local art lovers and collectors did not have to go to London, Chicago or Switzerland to view quality work.

The first Joburg Art Fair, a three-day event held at the Sandton Convention Centre, featured a large collection of African and South African contemporary art works that covered 5000 square metres of gallery space.

The works on display ranged in price from R1000 to R5million. What made the art fair so attractive was that buyers had access to a wide range of galleries that have the credentials and experience to profile top artists.

Top, experienced local artists such as Zwelethu Mthethwa, William Kentridge, Santu Mofokeng, David Goldblatt, Pieter Hugo and Sabelo Mlangeni, among others, were selected to participate.

Despite this huge event, however, many still did not understand the difference between an art fair and a biennale.

Art fairs are about the business of art; they combine art and lifestyle. Usually, art fairs are organised for buyers and members of the local and international art community to meet, discuss, appreciate and purchase contemporary art.

After the fair it was back to business for the galleries - nurturing and exposing talent.

In many exhibitions this year, there has been much evidence of young artists pushing boundaries and exploring new ground.

Gone are the days when people focused on paintings and wood sculptures. Through their creativity, the new generation of educated artists have introduced new and exciting techniques that even excite collectors.

One such artist is Kay Hassan whose exhibition featuring photographs and installations elicited mixed feelings among art lovers.

In his work Hassan expresses his concern with the rapid pace of urban life and for those who exist on the edge and in the underbelly of the city.

Hassan's work Urbanation reminds us that, though it has been 15 years since we tasted democracy, we are still not free.

Many of Hassan's works take us to places we would generally rather not visit and a discussion about Hassan and his work was held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery recently.

Among those who attended the event was Sandile Memela of the Department of Arts and Culture, who said that he was disappointed by the exhibition.

"I am disappointed because I wanted to see change, hope and resilience in Hassan's work.

"As an intellectual himself [Hassan] should know that freedom is more than the condition of the poor.

"Poverty is not something new, so we might as well accept it and move on with our lives," he said.

Memela also commented that Hassan appeared to internalise white racism.

One of the artists present, Sharlene Khan, said that Hassan's work was very provocative, particularly on the subject of poverty.

"We see a lot of poverty and it is clear that the state of the economy has not changed this either," she said.

Another artist who also takes us to places we do not want to visit is Jodi Bieber.

Her exhibition Real Beauty is currently on at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

Due to its subject, the exhibition attracted a number of art lovers who wanted to see her controversial works.

This exhibition of photographs of half-naked women of all races is a must-see, especially for South African women who think being slender is the right appearance.

Behind the photos is a story that the artist wants us to understand.

Bieber says the idea underlying her works started because she was not feeling any more comfortable within her own skin than when she was younger.

Bieber said she felt a strong need to create a body of work that goes against what the media has depicted as beautiful.

"Even within a complex society such as South Africa, across all communities, women hold unnecessary perceptions including self doubt about themselves and their beauty from an early age."

One of the issues that came to the fore in the exhibition was just how conservative South Africans are as a nation.

Real Beauty was probably not staged at the best time - it should have kicked off the 2009 calendar.