Francis Goodman, Change is Coming, 2023, acrylic, nails, silcone, fiberglass, wire and batting, 74 x 127 x 27cm

Entering the departure lounge of the Cape Town International Airport, returning to Johannesburg after ten days spent luxuriating in the city’s art world, I stopped in front of a massive billboard dedicated to the Investec Art Fair. It was wonderful to see the faces of artists who embodied the vision of ‘legacy’ and contemporaneity in a local and global context – Frances Goodman, Dada Khanyisa, Kimathi Mafofo, Athi-Patra Ruga, Chris Soal, and Sue Williamson, Brett Murray, Usha Seejarim, and Bonolo Kavula. I’d written on all of them, except the last. One had discovered me – kindly, and momentously, inviting me to co-author my first art book, Art in South Africa: The Future Present with her – while two others I ‘discovered’, one behind the counter of a design shop in Stellenbosch, the other in my class on film. It was her first year. After two months of silence, the lecture completed, the room empty, she’d asked me to look at her self-portraits on her android, posing alongside bottles of coca cola, the colour faked, the bottles originally empty. The rest, as they say, is history. In that same year, Tony Gum sold out in the Johannesburg and Cape Town fairs, was feted in Miami, and won the Pulse Prize in New York. That she still exhibits with the Christopher Moller dealership which shot her into the global stratosphere is a credit to her integrity, or better, the proven mutuality between dealership and artist.

That Gum was the mistress of the strongest booth at the fair, is a testament to her continued impact. A cross between irony and pastiche – a withering self-awareness and blithe acceptance of her commodification – Gum’s self-portraits, in bling black and white Xhosa headdress and dopamine green skin straight out of Tretchikoff’s playbook, her wide grinning teeth capped in gold and green, centralised the core focus – the monetization of art, the black body, women. Her portraits, however, were no pedantic moral lesson. Rather, through a burlesque self-performance Gum manipulated our viewpoint, and, implosively, challenged the fetishism still latent in the global ‘taste’ for representations of the black body, and black life.

But the artists celebrated on the billboard had very different notions of ‘legacy’ – why art mattered. As the doyen and queen, Sue Williamson, remarked – ‘I hope my art will remain as markers of South Africa’s legacy’. The author behind Resistance Art in South Africa, and a resistor herself – her vision cut from the fabric of insurrection in the 70s and 80s – Williamson’s on-going significance has everything to do with on-going inequity, dangerously misunderstood as the result of ‘white monopoly capital’, a meme concocted in a London-based PR petri-dish, which went viral in South Africa in 2014 – its targeted purpose, to misdirect the public away from state capture under the Zuma regime. That the meme incited the Fees Must Fall Movement and the birth of the EFF, is the grotesque symptom of its damaging consequence – for it has proved critical to the destruction of universities, the mockery of politics, and thoroughly undermined a once collective national democratic project. Today we live with the grim insight, by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, that Systems Work Because They Do Not Work. This, now, is our reality. Systemic dysfunction is the failed grid through which we must understand the efficacy, or lack thereof, of any collective or singular endeavour – including the endeavour of art.

For Athi-Patra Ruga, ‘those sparks that touch people are the legacy’. Fluid, ambivalent, uproariously playful – embodying and performing the radicality which Susan Sontag first celebrated in the 1960s in her ‘Notes on Camp’ – Ruga shares Gum’s delight in the burlesque and absurd. Both are stridently against moral righteousness. If Frances Goodman shares their macabre noise, if her work is as noisome, it is because it inhabits artificiality and affectation, because her relief works made up of cosmetic prostheses – fake nails, say, or glitter – announce the glaring presence of the simulacral, of fakery. This caveat renders deeply ironic her unctuously bling pink, blue, and white banner-work, CHANGE IS COMING. It is anything but – if one assigns a positive healthy spin – but change, whatever that might mean, is inevitable. This twisted resignation is at the core of Brett Murray’s vitriolic and satirical work, his bitter pithy one-liners, his notorious expose of Zuma as the ‘Spear of the Nation’, with his tumescent cock in full display – a work as brazen as it is unapologetic, witheringly aware that satire is null and void in a mirthlessly immoral world.

Usha Seejarim, Mpeg embossed, 2022, Pegs and Wire, 74 x 46 x 8 cm (Detail View)

As George Orwell ominously noted in his visionary novel, 1984, ‘Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure forgotten, the lie became the truth’. With this terrifying prognosis in mind, we must reconsider Williamson’s hope for the continuance of her legacy. Will the world – the art world included – keep the faith and hold fast to her struggle, her belief in the fluency of ethical purpose? Or, have we not already destroyed the integrity upon which Williamson’s generation built their careers? Are we not, in other words, trapped in some quicksand, some freefall, some vertiginous radically relative moment in which Truth is no longer viable? Murray certainly thinks so. If legacy supposes ‘Metaphorical hooks that people can hang their understandings on’, it is because, as metaphor, legacy is a lie, and any understanding thereof sheer fantasy. Language, as Nietzsche reminded us, is ‘an army of metaphors’. As for ‘legacy’, it is perhaps one of the most abused values in a cynical and pragmatic world.

Frances Goodman, capturing the wry irony of the current moment, notes that ‘Legacy is when someone tells you your work moved them’. For her, legacy requires a deeply subjective reaction. No overriding system can account for the personal response to Goodman’s art, or her own relationship with it. As for Usha Seejarim, her generational peer? Legacy is a ceaseless quest, an ‘approach’ to a ‘search in the most meaningful way’. A provisional distance is kept in play, a calculated detachment, which allows Seejarim the ability to expose the wonder that lies in the most banal things and experiences – in a wooden clothing peg, say. What, then, are we to make of the dreams and hopes of the other younger art stars celebrated by the Investec Art Fair?

Dada Khanyisa, more cryptically, notes that legacy is ‘what you volunteer to the next’. Some benign baton in an on-going relay? A realisation that contingency and duration are inseparable in the understanding of art? As for Khanyisa’s art? Afropolitan, graphic, pop wood carvings, they conjure the reckless thrill of urbanity – night life, salon life, some edgy nocturnal frontier in which pleasure is triumphal, grief non-existent, the black body, black life, caught in a celebratory thrall. Perhaps this is why Khanyisa cannot provide a finite definition of legacy, because it is a verb carved out of pleasure and night.

Kimathi Mafofo, the mystic, wholly immersed in light, has a very different vision. ‘I aim to awaken, inspire and heal women with my art’. Bonolo Kavula shares this spirit, for she too seeks to ‘Inspire people enough to want to carry on the work’. The directive is clear – the utilitarian and dreaming worlds are one. With Mafofo and Kavula, we are in what Achille Mbembe calls an ‘anticipatory politics’, a world rich in possibility, a world in which promises are kept. And yet, beneath Mafofo’s affectless hope, there lies a darkness – the knowledge of on-going misogyny, abuse, and murder, a world in which women’s lives are grotesquely imperilled, in-and-through which art – the art of women – can stitch together this damaged soulless cruel world. Mafofo’s lyrical utopian embroidered works are the inverse of Goodman, Ruga, or Gum’s conjuring of doubt and irony. Perhaps Mafofo shares Williamson’s belief in an enduring legacy, and, as such, belongs to a time in which Truth was infallible, the Right to Justice inviolable?

Perhaps … because these days it is well-nigh impossible to ascertain the critical value of anything. Gum’s seemingly narcissistic fascination with how her personal ‘journey … translates’ into her ‘artistic endeavours’, perfectly captures a millennial disinvestment in anything other than The Self as the prime arbiter of meaning, value, being. Chris Soal, similarly, places the Self at the epicentre, noting that his legacy can best be ‘considered through the consideration I give my art’. Both Gum and Soal are clinically self-involved in what they do, and what they present to the world. Soal, however, does not portray himself, but his conscious mind and tactile hand, in works made with concrete, rebar, bottle caps, and toothpicks. Their affect is instantaneous – we feel his works, understand their warp and weft, their flux. For what Soal gifts us are artworks made of waste matter or the excesses of mass production which, after T.S. Eliot, he has shored up against our ruin.

Chris Soal, 2023, Save your skin

Perhaps the most visionary of all the artists championed by the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, because of its ecological focus, Soal’s work, however, cannot be understood without understanding how it intersects with the works of the others, with Goodman, Williamson, Seejarim, Murray, Mafofo, Khanyisa, Ruga, Gum. These were not of course the only artists on show. It is, however, to the fairs credit, that it has chosen to take a stand, and represent this current moment through an inspired selection. Art is a complex business. It is omnivorous, unceasing, gluttonously seductive in its drive. No other art form anywhere on earth possesses the same irresistibly perverse allure. If, in light of the monstrous machine that is the art world, that the 10th Investec Cape Town Art Fair was an astonishing success, this was not only because it perfectly combined international, continental, and local business and talent, but because it generated a mood, a spirit, amongst its attendees, which was electrifyingly life affirming. Never before, at any fair in South Africa or abroad, have I come across such a lust for life, a great thrill in the moment, a humility and awe, bravura and cautious nous, a sense of being profoundly in the world. That this event achieved such vitality is, by far, its greatest achievement.

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