A fair is a fair is a fair…

Ashraf Jamal

There is something inexplicably soulful and heartening when one’s fellow South Africans and those passionate about our country gather together at some international airport en route home. For me, on this occasion, it was Charles De Gaulle. I had just landed from Copenhagen, still reeling with the excitement of spotting a red fox on a green embankment. As to what it might signify, I had no clue, the exquisitely brief sighting was sufficient. Serendipity returned, when I encountered Abrie Fourie at the departure point to Johannesburg. The director of MAPSA, Modern Art Projects South Africa, Fourie was flying via Germany to install a collection of twenty black booths which form part of Willem Boshoff’s installation, Blind Alphabet, on-going since the 1990s. As the title evokes, Boshoff’s sculpture conjures the complex of lucidity and impenetrability, the ‘meaning’ of the works, wooden sculptures inspired by Latin words, are only explicable to those who can read braille, stamped onto silver sheets atop the black booths. Fourie and I continued our chat in mid-flight, in our socks, an outstretched clasp away from the beer rack. We were both also heading to Latitudes Art Fair the following evening.

A week has now passed since the fair, and I’m seated opposite Claudia Marion Stemberger at Father’s, a coffee ship in Rosebank. She is wearing a cerulean coat, deep blue in colour like a clear intense sky. At the fair she was bedecked in emerald green and bubblegum pink. The dopamine colours, which define the global runways and zeitgeist, were reassuring, as they strove to lift us from the fallout of a still recent global lockdown, and, along with it, a weighted moral probity which each of us found ourselves, turning inwards, felt compelled to exercise. It is unsurprising that imposed solitude should compel us to revise our values, and, as a consequence of two years of isolation, rethink the prejudicial and divisive state of art history. If brilliant colour proved an antidote to a monochromatic power-dressing, then a radical rethink of systemic racism and gender inequality proved an even greater seismic shift. Unanimously – barring those who deepened their commitment to fascism – we returned to the world with a vigorous commitment to righting inequality and rethinking the content of our dealerships and museums.

Of course, there are many other factors that critically inform the culture of revisionism. The rehang at Tate Britain is a hotly debated current instance of this revolution. I am discussing this matter with Stemberger, prior to her return to the US where she is to defend her thesis on Black South African Woman Artists under Apartheid. Recalling our brief encounter at the Latitudes Fair – her intense pink and emerald ensemble as striking as the red fox in an acidic green embankment – I ask after her thoughts on the event. ‘A fair is a fair is a fair’ she cooly remarked. It is true that fairs possess a certain uniformity worldwide, and yet, surely there was something singularly unique about Latitudes? ‘Its dedication to Johannesburg’, Stemberger suggested. For me, however, the question was rhetorical, as I too am well aware of the generic quality of fairs – the gladhanding, genuine or faux conviviality, the closely guarded cards of dealers, and of course, the baffling mystery as to what the hell is happening at an art fair – how do we reconcile objects and the price tag attached to them? What matters, and why?

As Ossian Ward remarks in Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art, art fairs are as disorientating and deranging as a souk. ‘More than ever before, looking has become a matter of Darwinian survival – only the strongest images make the grade, and even then, we only give a cursory glance to what we think we’re seeing’. Ward is pointing to the culture of instant gratification, the potency of an image connected to the hits it generates, but he is not in fact excluding the visceral intimacy of a felt encounter with a physical artwork – just noting that it gets increasingly more difficult to maintain one’s focus, given the hubbub, beguiling smiles, passing chatter. I don’t mean to be cynical regarding the culture of fairs, which is no different, say, to a gathering at Bath in a Jane Austen novel. Wry irony meets sincerity, the two held in a precarious balance. Thus, when Stemberger winkingly murmurs – ‘a fair is a fair is a fair’ – we should embrace both the matter of irony and sincerity. For my part – my view undoubtedly the fallout of two years of isolation, and a near-death experience to boot – I was struck by the warmth of the moment, the overwhelming sense of justifiable achievement on the part of Latitude’s organisers, Lucy MacGarry and Roberta Coci, in league with RMB, Rand Merchant Bank. Given the drip-drip-drip of despair that is consuming the nation, the assaults we struggle and fail to fend off daily, what Latitudes provided, for those immersed in art, was an intoxicatingly affirming event, housed in a stone warren in Shepstone Gardens House, which, unabashedly, expressed an old-fashioned love for Romanesque architecture, mixed with a postmodern zeal for bizarre accessorizing. The overall effect, along a lush slope, proved an earthily blond concertina of stone and fountain and green and fuchsia, stout koi fish twisting about in their greenly dappled ponds.

All in all, the event was a delight, more so, a triumph, given this was Latitudes first interpersonal event since 2019. If it was generic – ‘a fair is a fair is a fair’ – we should remember that this insouciant remark finds its echo in Gertrude Stein’s well-known line, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’. Does a rose become anymore rose-like with its repetition? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Ernest Hemingway, who loathed aesthetes, countered Stein with the barb, ‘an onion is an onion is an onion’ – though I doubt that Hemingway, who championed plain prose, ever got the metaphoric power of Stein’s evocation. Likewise, a fair, repeated, also rallies its accumulative wonder. If I choose this stance, it is because I refuse to be complacent regarding the gifts life and art afford us. Curator Nkhensani Mkhari’s focus on emergent artists may have dotted an important ‘i’, but it did so with aplomb, featuring talent that refused to succumb to the fetish of race or gender, or the cult of youthfulness. In fact, throughout the event, I never felt boxed in or ideologically hailed, but allowed free reign in a free-form sidewinding space, for while the booths were booth-like white squares, the segue was obtuse. The usual suspects were in grand evidence – Kalashnikov, Goodman, Everard Read – but it was also heartening to meet with Heinrich Groenewald and Shona van der Merwe of Reservoir and Igsaan Martin of Martin Projects, the feisty new contenders in a thriving global South African market. Most keenly, however, the success of the smorgasbord presented to us, should, in large part, also be credited to the quirky buildings which housed the fair, so unlike the generic coldly lit airport hangar. Instead, we were gifted with a warren of buildings of varying sizes and shapes, the whimsical creation of which belonged to none other than Lucy MacGarry’s father, Christopher Rayner, whom we should also justly toast. There could have been no better place in which to re-launch the Latitudes art fair

I’d landed the day of Latitude’s opening, the timing deliberate. After six weeks wandering through a few of Europe’s galleries – Stedelijk, D’Orsay, the Picasso museums in Paris and Barcelona, and, most splendid of all, the museum in Rodez dedicated to Pierre Soulages’ black paintings, I was thrilled to be home, and part of a sharply quirky art fair. If it catered to varying tastes – including a room filled with trays of Pichulik jewelry – it also pointedly announced its own singular vision – why the duo, Lucy MacGarry and Roberta Coci, in association with RMB, mattered. For without an art fair, a circus, a souk, in which we are dazzled and blinded and seduced, how does one maintain the magnetic allure of the artworld? Galleries cannot do this work, they are too monastic. As Mikael Bakhtin reminded us, we need ribald laughter, and rituals of inversion, occasions that drip with pomp, unabashed in its excitation and glory. Even for those who had not just landed, like Abrie Fourie and myself, or Francesco Ozzola, the director of Suburbia, whom I’d met at his Barcelona gallery, there was, I sensed, a wonderful feeling of belonging, such was the depth and charm of the welcome. ‘European art is flatlining’, I recalled Francesco telling me on a bobbing yacht. In truth, I too sensed that the art I saw in galleries in European cities felt anemic, self-aware, burdened still by the daunting spectre of Modernism, while here, in Johannesburg, the burden that threatened to deform the contemporary moment were the spectres of colonialism and apartheid, and the counter-reformation, revisionism. At Latitudes, however, nothing so hurtful or righteous emerged. It seemed that maybe, just maybe, the contemporary South African artworld had turned a corner, swerved sharply away from a predictive path, rather as Lucy MacGarry’s father had done through his novel architectural remix, part Roman, part Greek, and then again, just ‘Greek’ in its lovable weirdness.