Curatorial Statement by Jay Pather
Public art is neither recent nor new. Certainly not for the African continent.
Theatres and art galleries are new, but interpreting and understanding our material and spirituals worlds through symbol and metaphor have been part of public ceremony and ritual for centuries, passed on by ancient societies. This open access created community as well as engagement of the imaginations and the creative lives of individuals without expecting them to obtain special access. It follows, therefore, that the idea of a public art festival has deep resonance for us on this continent.
Of course, changes in power, colonialism, the disruption of community and the proliferation of different cultures have meant separation – not just us from one other but also separation from this open access to metaphor and imagination. This makes easy exposure to artists and the possibilities for rich discourse amongst people from all walks of life very difficult. Infecting the City is a small step towards ameliorating this.
For a few days each year since 2007, this event has infected our ordinary days in extraordinary ways. Pedestrian malls, parks and promenades, streets and side streets, the taxi rank, the station – all have played host to art, music, dance and performance. In 2016 and 2017, the festival was smaller in its output but no less effective in its impact; and last year, due to funding challenges, the festival was paused. Now, with support from the University of Cape Town, the Mellon Foundation and the Africa Centre, the Institute for Creative Arts is proud to present this full iteration of ITC. We are staying true to the festival’s original format of daytime and night-time pedestrian routes showcasing 50 local, national, international and collaborative works that we hope will energise, invigorate and enthral audiences, city dwellers, pedestrians and passers-by.
Something rare happens when intentional audiences encounter and experience emotionally charged work alongside those passing by, to or from work, lunch or tourist sites.
Cape Town is no stranger to controversy around the diversity of its publics. Recent outcries in response to public art works bear further testimony to a wide range of opinions and approaches in our society, and mark territory that can be as hazardous as it is rewarding. Increasingly, we are being forced into confronting something we have possibly avoided for twenty-five years: that 1994 did not signify automatic oneness, one thought, one way, one view.
Art in public spaces affords us moments of dreamy enchantment and doses of reality that come with being exposed and vulnerable to these publics pulling in different directions.
An art work inside a white cube gallery can be experimental and controversial but ultimately enjoys a degree of safety and controlled viewing. In public, works navigate scrutiny that is unparalleled. Artists are made supremely vulnerable as audiences respond in ways that are unexpected. There is no accounting for who will show up, no accounting for the range of publics. This is the kind of risk, courage and forthrightness we need.
I am proud to include in the curatorial team two outstanding Fellows who have provided invaluable input in the festival’s curation: internationally acclaimed artist, Elvis Sibeko and visual art curator, Amogelang Maledu.
Infecting the City is about interrogating Cape Town city centre spaces for cleansing and “reclaiming the stolen memories of our past and healing the wounds” as Mandla Mbothwe would say. One of the programmes I am working on is called Safi – ‘pure’ in Swahili, a spiritual cleansing ceremony. The other is called Kuamka – ‘awakening’ in Swahili. This movement to the past, not neglecting the present, is to bring back the deeper meaning of Ubuntu and its customs and values to develop a sense of an aesthetic African Utopia.
It has been quite impossible to take on this opportunity as a Curatorial Fellow for this year’s ITC without thinking about the heightened cautiousness of my being and safety as a Black woman in South Africa, especially in public spaces. The endemic violence against women in this country similarly intersects with the xenophobic attacks on Black African migrants. More so, since the witnessing of growing tensions in institutions of higher learning through the resistance of specific so-called national symbols and monuments, the role of public national (re)imagination has never been more relevant than today.
Temporary art works live on in the memory and challenge the need for purely object-centred public art and memorials, especially in this contemporary moment. Many of the artists at the Infecting the City festival remind us that the idea of making place with the materiality of something solid and fixed still eludes us; the concept of place is, in and of itself, in constant motion. Whether what we experience is immediate turbulence or aftershocks of the catastrophes of our past, these nudges and nods and tentative answers to how place may be remade are overwhelmingly temporal. As they should be.
Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall in “Writing the World from an African Metropolis” remark that:
The conceptual categories with which to account for social velocity, the power of the unforeseen and of the unfolding, are in need of refinement. So too is the language with which to describe people’s relentless determination to negotiate conditions of turbulence and to introduce order and predictability into their lives.
Might that refinement in language exist in some form of public art practice? The range of works featured on the Infecting the City programme imply that as beginnings or as kernels of ideas, they may well do in ways that embody social velocity, the emotion of change, of collapse, of rebuilding – unabated themes in the remaking of South Africa.
While the temporariness of the works lays bare the pressing need for something integral to take root in our society – easy flows of access and ownership that afford all our citizens the luxury of a ground beneath them that will not again shift, displace and expel – public art performance allows us to speculate, experiment and engage in a manner that includes all publics.
Jay Pather, Curator