In a 2005 survey, many black residents of Cape Town misidentified the National Gallery, a grand, starkly white, semi-beaux-arts building, for a courthouse. This mix-up speaks volumes about the current lack of art education and, more ominously, about the not so distant past; during the Apartheid regime, only whites were permitted to enter museums or galleries. Sixteen years have passed since South Africa became a democratic nation, yet many instances of grave inequality and segregation remain. One facet of this is found in a particular domain of the very privileged, and in this country, the almost exclusively white: contemporary art. Cape Town's biennial, now in its second incarnation, is attempting to address some of these local deficiencies and disparities.
In a move fitting for our current economy, CAPE 09 turned away from the festivalist model of flying in big-name artists to focus instead on mostly African artists in local contexts through a series of events that attempt to directly engage and attract new audiences. One result of this is a selection of projects that sometimes resemble art education in their aim for accessibility and inclusion. A major component of CAPE 09 was the Young Curators program, in which five young black South African curators moved to Cape Town for the year and developed projects for the biennial through a mentorship program with a local curator. (There are very few black curators in South Africa, and the country has no curatorial education programs.) The biennial's director, Mirjam Asmal-Dik, denies that CAPE 09 is pursuing social activism, yet asserts that within South Africa today, local relevance is crucial.
CAPE 09's projects are scattered throughout the coastal city, and tend towards the temporary, performative, and participatory. One day's event, curated by Nonkululeko Mlangeni, was held at the Langa township high school that controversial pop star Brenda Fassie, aka "The Queen of African Pop," attended in the 1970s. Current students performed a dance to commemorate the five-year anniversary of Fassie's death, a play was staged with actors wearing Mandela and Obama masks, and the school's walls were decorated with murals celebrating Fassie's iconic look and her 1990 song "Black President," written for an imprisoned Mandela. The community turnout in Cape Town's oldest black township -- and site of volatile Apartheid resistance -- was enthusiastic and impressive.
For "Thank You Driver," curated by Lerato Bereng, members of the local artists' group Gugulective staged performances inside of Cape Town's cheap taxi-vans, which run through the city from township to township. One van featured a Guglective member in a neatly pressed airline attendant outfit who graciously gave each passenger a box of juice for their ride, and handed them change from a cash register she had brought on board. Such service on a notoriously chaotic form of transportation was unheard of, and the passengers were loudly appreciative. On another day, members of a gospel choir secretly rode along, spontaneously bursting into song, to the bewilderment of the unsuspecting passengers. Short films were screened in another van, showing scenes from the windows of taxis in other countries.
At Golden Acre, the sleek downtown mall, Alite Thijsen presented the project One-minute films. The selection of global short films was screened on televisions behind the plate glass windows of an electronics store, and downstairs at a booth in the middle of a wide corridor. This subterranean venue attracted more of an audience due to the loud Nigerian rap videos playing on one of the televisions, around which a small crowd of young men gathered, dancing in rapt attention. A fascinating juxtaposition was formed between the "art" films depicting slow motion footage of, for example, dreamy pans of Islamic architecture in Zanzibar, or a shot of hands folding a lizard into a knot (Richard Elekwa's moving meditation on racial oppression), and the highly American-influenced bling of the Nigerian music videos.
The highlight of the biennial was a project organized by the Cape Town-based journal of pan-African art and culture, Chimurenga. Installed in the peach-colored central library, Chimurenga created an overlapping catalog system to classify the library's books, with white cardstock labels guiding visitors to atypical categories like TRUTH, POVERTY, PARANOIA, and COMPLACENCY. Reminiscent of the institutional interventions of Fred Wilson, the most politically pointed aspect was a reclassification of the books in the South African History section. Here, Chimurenga covered the spines of the books with colored strips of paper, obscuring the titles. One shelf displayed only white spines, another only black, and two others the two shades of brown that, under Apartheid, would be deemed "Indian" and "coloured." These unsettling monochromatic rows underscored the general point of Chimurenga's ambitious and multi-faceted library intervention while questioning the politics of how, and for whom, knowledge is produced.
Despite the social stakes of CAPE 09, a welcoming spirit of playfulness prevailed over one of didacticism. This seemed particularly notable in contrast to some of the pedantic, socially-oriented art popular on the global biennial trail, which merely contributes to a closed circuit of smug concern. Projects that attempt to address inequalities rather than simply illustrate them might become more relevant worldwide as we admit that the champagne-fueled art party is over. They are certainly needed in political landscapes like South Africa, still struggling to emerge from decades of institutionalized elitism and exclusion. Funny how that last clause could be applied to the contemporary art world, too.
[The Cape Town Biennial, CAPE 09, remains on view through June 21, 2009. From the top: Mural at Langa High School for Brenda Fassie commemoration, and One Minute Films screened at Golden Acre mall. All images courtesy the author.]