ART AS THERAPY
By Ashraf Jamal
My copy of Art as Therapy, by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, is jammed with pink post-its. It’s my go-to book whenever I need an antidote to the snobbery of the art world. It is filled with good cheer and kindness. As the writers remind us, ‘the main point of engaging with art is to help us lead better lives – to access better versions of ourselves …assist the individual soul in its search for consolation, self-understanding and fulfillment’. Art commemorates, they say, gives hope and dignifies suffering, rebalances and guides, inspires self knowledge and communication’, expands horizons. All importantly, art is democratic and all-inclusive. This is not the accepted view in the art world, certainly not one enshrined by the art canon which, as De Botton and Armstrong remind us, ‘is in many ways disconnected from our inner needs’. This is because the art we come to value most is ‘the result of complex systems of patronage, ideology, money and education, supported by university education courses and museums, all of which guide our sense of what makes a work of art especially worthy of attention’.
In South Africa, this exclusivity was famously, or notoriously, exemplified by Irma Stern and the board she headed, which refused Vladimir Tretchikoff entry into the AVA. Undeterred, Tretchikoff, before Warhol, pioneered the sale of his photo-lithographic prints in chain stores. His response to the ban? That the art world was ‘riddled with bitchiness like a gorgonzola with penicillin’. Years later the Michaelis School of Art would try to shut down the Tretchikoff retrospective at the Iziko National Gallery – unsuccessfully. That the show by the Russian-South African, curated by Andrew Lamprecht, remains its most popular is a sobering fact. What mattered was not whether Tretchikoff was a good or bad artist – we all have an axe to grind in this regard – but that he was, and remains, greatly loved.
De Botton and Armstrong conclude their book with this salvo: ‘The true purpose of art is to create a world where are is less necessary, and less exceptional; a world where the values currently found, celebrated and fetishized in concentrated doses in the cloistered halls of museums are scattered more promiscuously across the earth … It is not that we should one day lose our devotion to the things that art addresses: beauty, depth of meaning, good relationships, the appreciation of nature, recognition of the shortness of life, empathy, compassion … Rather, having imbibed the ideals that art displays, we should fight to attain in reality the things art merely symbolises, however graciously and intently. The ultimate goal of the art lover should be to build a world where works of art have become a little less necessary’.
While I share this sentiment, I do however hold fast to art’s necessity. It is not only a symbol of human value but the deepest expression of the need for it. This view is shared by Zeitz MOCAA. In its press opening for ‘Home is where the art is’, and the Q&A which followed the tour, it was evident that the institution, and those who represent it, were wholly focussed on the need to sustain art as a democratic principle. Within an alarmingly short time frame – three weeks – over 2000 entries were collected in Khayelitsha, Langa, Muizenberg, Stellenbosch, and at Zeitz.
People lined up for hours. All the works were accepted, all exhibited. Richard Kilpert, who works for Zeitz’s educational arm, tells me that this might be the first ‘unjuried’ expo ever shown in a leading art institution anywhere in the world. The radicality of this decision was trenchantly in evidence. Koyo Kouoh, the director of Zeitz MOCAA, spoke to us via zoom while billeted in Basel. ‘We are working very hard to write another narrative of this museum’, she said. There is a time ‘before and after COVID’ which compels us to rethink what we value, why art matters, what makes art institutions sustainable. Tapping into our collective conscience and consciousness, she reminded us of the global escalation in racism, police brutality, and the need for ‘accountability’ in institutions and museums. Against the rise of global fascism, we needed ‘solidarity’, to rethink cultural practice and enshrine ‘collegiality’. It was impossible to ‘resume business as usual’.
Like museums the world over, Zeitz MOCAA has been under lockdown. ‘Home is where the art is’ is its first offering in seven months. Kouoh’s rousing call to inclusivity, her need to re-evaluate the culture of art and its institutional rigging, was shared by the museum’s key curators. As Storm Janse Van Rensburg noted, ‘a museum without people is a horrible place’. And as Tandazani Dhlakama added, the exhibition was ‘a love letter to Cape Town’. The city of Cape Town,its people, were the primary target. What better way to inspire interest in art and the institutions which house it, than to make a direct call to the city’s occupants? Kouoh was adamant that this was the museum’s
primary focus, notwithstanding the fact that Zeitz is on the world map as Africa’s leading institute of contemporary African art. Janse Van Rensburg is correct, a museum without people is a ‘horrible place’.
One hopes, now that Zeitz MOCAA has reopened, that it will find a more committed local audience, not an easy thing given the continued socio-political and cultural divisiveness of the city and country. That the city’s premier, Allan Winde, was in attendance, amplified this urgency and commitment. Liberalism, the basis of De Botton and Armstrong’s vision, remains in abeyance in this country. Systemically, structurally, this is a country that cares little, if nothing, for the ‘individual soul’. And yet, despite the odds stacked against us, Zeitz MOCAA and the city of Cape Town has chosen to up the ante and give us what we long for most, a mirror of ourselves.
‘Home is where the art is’ occupied the entire third floor, the art packed to the rafters, hung cheek by jowl. Themed uncannily in accordance with De Botton and Armstrong’s vision – preoccupied with the fragility of time, relationships, the importance of nature – it broached our most tender needs. Crammed together, leaving little room to breathe, the show conveyed the defining problem of our age – the lack of living room, space, the right to life – while, at the same time, telling us that despite the fact that we ‘can’t breathe’, we can still find a way to do so. To bemoan the lack of breathing room, given the crushingly brief time it took to put up the show – one week – would be churlish. Despite the fact that I felt caught in a honking blaring traffic jam, I nevertheless found the wherewithal to focus on the works which attracted me. That we all have differing tastes is the point. That we all exit a show with wildly alternative takes equally so.
I was struck by a small portrait of a young girl flush against the floor … a tangled forest inspired perhaps by Jackson Pollock … a view of the city seen from Tamboerskloof caught in a dance of windblown plant debris … a vision of a woman painting in a garden accompanied by a bird and protea … a transparent plastic shift stitched with flowers, hanging from a gnarled stump … a shallow bowl holding a bough of delicate pink flowers and pale leaves … an exquisite landscape filled with palm trees, wildebeest, and a lone elephant … a vision in blue, pink, and yellow of a child beside a pool, alongside works by artists I recognised, Sepideh Mehraban’s sticky rug, Swain Hoorgevorst’s vase. I saw an adorable ceramic figure plonked on its bugeyed head, brightly spotted in yellow, orange, green and red, and a striking series of portraits on newspaper which I coveted. A black mood board sparsely filled with reminders to ‘keep praying’ and ‘to stay with my mom’. A sculpture of a jaunty red figure determinedly heading somewhere.
First, off the starting blocks, this playful, open, ever-ready figure conveyed the abiding mood of the show. There is life before, within, and after COVID. While we all remain in situ, our movement compromised at every turn, there is no stopping us from getting somewhere good.