SOCIAL ART, LifeTime Gallery Project
By Drew Hammond, independent curator.
I. Genesis of the Project
Philine von Sell went to South Africa to establish and document art education and exhibition workshops in two townships (or locations)1 and one remote rural area, a process that now culminates with an appraisal of the effects of these workshops years later, and with exhibitions abroad that fulfill the broader purpose of the commitment to exhibit to an international public works resulting from this engagement.
Entitled The Life Time Gallery Project,2 this program was not intended as a specific reflection of the residual consequences of the racist injustices of apartheid that had ended as state policy only eight years before. If this was to be subject of aesthetic inquiry, it was for the artists to decide, as they would decide all specific content. Philine chose South Africa among other countries partially for practical reasons. She had experience and good relationships in the country; it was within budget constraints; and like most of the artists with whom she would work, she shared English as a second language. In fact, South Africa was a logical choice not only for its specific character, but also because it typified underlying dilemmas of cultural and art practice shared by many countries and communities.
II. Cultural Production as a Universal Human Right
Since the beginning of humanity, every culture has practised some version of art, and the practice of art remains among the principal criteria for defining our humanity. Despite this fundamental human expression, even today, potent, organized groups continue to direct their resources to the destruction of art and culture in violent acts that we can properly characterize as inhuman, and which invariably foreshadow or accompany further violence against the human person.
But much more common than these deliberate crimes, is a condition that is not specifically intentional, but where instead there is a decay of the practical means to create and distribute art and culture—a decay that is an undesired byproduct of more systemic economic and educational failure, and yet which suppresses art and culture with as much force as an aggressive government campaign. Although it is beyond our current scope to treat the causes and responsibilities of such failures, causes that often transcend the borders and individual histories of the nations or communities that suffer them, there can be no doubt that they are extremely widespread in the world—to such a degree that we might well regard them more as a norm than as an anomaly.
And yet even in the most difficult circumstances, in areas of acute poverty, remote from centers of cultural production, without adequate access to art supplies or the funds to procure them—even in such places, the germinative impulse to make art bursts toward daylight. But all too often the sprout withers from drought.
The Life Time Gallery Project addresses precisely the problem of this human right to cultural production in three South African communities: Siyathemba Municipality, Northern Cape Province; Nkqubela, Robertson, Western Cape; and Venda Village Camp, Makhado, Limpopo, sites that marked not only a geographical and ethnic diversity within the nation, but which also marked a progression from “township” in relative proximity to an urban center to a completely rural environment remote from any city. The premise of the project appeared on the title page of its original summary: “Artistic talent is spread in equal measure all over the world—all it needs is the right kind of nurturing in order to make it grow and bear fruit.”
In each location, von Sell, accompanied by her bilingual Project Coordinator, Tschepo Tsotetsi, and an ad hoc camera crew of local volunteers, would begin by seeking artists (or aspiring artists) in each location, subjecting those interested to an interview process by way of application in order to gauge the sincerity of their commitment, and once mutual decision to participate was forthcoming, the project would provide funding for art supplies and any other necessary materials for the workshop, including a room sufficient to accommodate both discussion and production.
Once the workshop began, the only admonition to the artists was to choose a theme for each given work. These were for the artists to select without restriction, and they were even changeable should the work process itself inspire new ideas. But to begin with a theme was a sine qua non for giving direction to each work within the time available for gatherings, and especially in order to avoid arbitrariness.
As in any art workshop or art school, finished works were subject to discussion and peer review after introductory comments by the artist who created the work.
Although artists were free to work with various media within budget constraints, most of them chose painting.
IV. Theory Underlying the Artist’s Work: Two Senses of Narrative
IV a) The Art Work as Material Embodiment of a Narrative
It is a truism that in every culture, the premise of an artwork, like that of an idea, ideally ought never to be arbitrary. Even for art that is conceived traditionally, as an act of immediacy and therefore distinct from self-conscious reflection, to the degree that it is a representation, it presupposes an object combined with an association with the object that inspires something at least in the artist who represents it. In other words, constituents of the artwork must transcend
their mere presence in order to have a degree of tension commensurate with the status of awork of art as opposed to an illustration or reductive likeness.
Here it is noteworthy that the principle of The Life Time Gallery Project of choosing a theme, one that would arise from the artists’ own free associative suggestions, developed in a very consistent way from one artist to the other. This consistency resided not at all in the theme’s subject matter—which was as diverse as each individual—but in the theme’s conceptual strategy of derivation not from the image per se, but from an elaborate narrative the image would represent.
With one notable exception that might have been explained by the artist’s own modesty in demurring to recount the narrative and therefore disclaiming it in favor of the catchall word beauty, each painting embodied a story that transcended simple anecdote. One artist even goes so far as to make the process of reading existing narratives the very theme of his own narrative of which his painting is the material embodiment. In the left foreground of his painting, he depicts an open Bible with its text plainly visible (in abstracted lines). In the video record of his presentation of his painting, he recounts the allegorical narrative his image represents: “Each and every one knows about the Bible,” he says pointing to a transitional point in the image, “[Here] we leave the older version of the Bible and go to the New Testament. Also for the New Testament, people understand what it is about. But the question is, as you see here, I am nearly to the end of The New Testament.”
The painting which also depicts a journey of human figures whose tiny scale with respect to the field of view is dwarfed by the comparatively immense open Bible, evokes a spiritual progression from the narrative of the Old Testament to the New, but seems to leave open in the mind of the artist, and presumably for the spectator who seeks to divine the narrative implicit in the artwork, the question of whether continued spiritual progress is possible once the lessons of the New Testament have been assimilated. The figures in the painting ultimately flee the confines of their church, and the immediate zone of the gigantic Scripture to seek spirituality at a monumental cross that is not only outdoors and remote from any human settlement, but which also blends formally with the natural order that surrounds it. In effect, the work poses a narrative of the protagonists’ dialectical progress from one narrative (The Old Testament,) to another (The New), to an implicit transcendence of narratives in their aspiration toward an idealized spirituality that perceives the cross at the center of the natural order.
In work by another artist, a memorial portrait of his uncle, there seems to be no overt narrative at all, until the artist reveals that the portrait is really a metonym for the narrative of the artist’s own coming of age, the maturation of his own identity, a process that became possible for him by virtue of his uncle’s kindness and instruction. This instruction itself entails a degree of narrative with an unconventional interpretation of a common proverb. “From him I learned more; I learned what life is; partly I am what I am…from him I learned so many proverbs that helped me in life. He used to say to me, ‘Where there is smoke there is a fire.’That means where there is joy, there is life.”
In this sense, the fact of his portrayal of his uncle smoking and surrounded with the smoke rising from his pipe as though crowned with a halo, acquires its true sense not from an inherent and overt formal content alone, but by reference to an accompanying autobiographical narrative of the artist.
Although some in the West might imagine that they have something to teach these young African artists about the conceptual strategies of making art, in fact, their deeply held assumptions about the role of a work of art as the embodiment of a narrative of the artist’s making or choosing, may well serve to teach us something about the origins of the aesthetic act. These artists take it for granted that art is a representation of reality, that art ideally must communicate something, and that what it communicates is a story. Whether the story has a conventional Western structure derived from Classical paradigms is beside the point—most often it does not rely on such a Western structures—but it is to the point that the story most often presupposes a moral or ethical dimension in order for it to be fully constituted as a work of art. This link between art and the precepts of daily life is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of these artists, and it is remains the outstanding premise that links their work more than any formal criteria.
IV b) The Meta-Narrative of the Project’s Effect on the Artists
Beyond these links between the metonymic artwork, the biographies of the artists and their perceptions, inevitably, the story of any group over time yields another collective narrative that is external to the artworks themselves. And since this collective narrative reveals itself in the ten years since the Life Time Gallery Project began, it also comprises an integral part of the project’s exhibition.
It is a fact, for example, that some of those who joined the project did not survive those ten years, but perished before their time. One of these committed suicide. Another, an assistant who carried money to purchase some of the paintings from the project, was murdered by a robber.
For the artists to learn that they had talent, to develop this form of self-awareness, provoked an epiphany that yielded unpredictable results. For some, it became a source of sense of dignity that sustained them through the hardships and monotony of their daily lives. “I am working as a security guard,” said one before smiling with pride, “but I am an artist.”
For others, it compelled them to see the difficult conditions of their lives with the detachment of an observer, and this made them much more acutely conscious of the depths of their hardships, and the difficulty of their prospects. Whereas before their condition seemed quite natural, the only life they knew, suddenly this new self-awareness, this detached view of their circumstances, could at times become terrible to bear.
In this sense the process of creating narratives in their work as artists itself generated its own system of narratives the exhibition also reveals.
The entire exhibition shall be transported to the exhibition venue in a single steel 40 ft. intermodal shipping container. Although the contents of the container would be deployed throughout the exhibition space, the container itself would also remain a part of the exhibition. Besides its obvious symbolic features that include the revelation of process that is consistent with the overall conceptual strategy, the container also fulfills a practical aim of making the exhibition efficiently transportable to additional venues at relatively low cost. Accompanying the exhibition will be a feature-length documentary film for distribution in cinemas and for television cultural programming.
Consistent with the assertion of the expression of culture as a universal human right, the exhibition also aims to offer the Life Time Gallery Project as an art education paradigm, with a proposal for an organized program of fundraising and implementation of similar initiatives in greater Africa, and ultimately throughout the developing world. In this sense, the project would become one of many means to achieve the long term goal of the integration of cultural expression of the developing world with those of the world at large in order that they should emerge from their current marginalization to assume their rightful place in the body of cultural discourse.
As documented process, narrative, recent art history, educational paradigm, and display of works, the exhibition becomes the fulfillment of a development that long precedes the actual organization of the exhibition itself. In his own phrase, one of the artists of the project speaks of the prospect of exhibiting works as “a way to pick up our culture…to pick up our culture from´under the rocks.”
— Drew Hammond, Curator, Life Time Gallery Project
Former Senior International Correspondent for The Art Economist, where he was the first to publish in a US journal on the South African artist, Nicholas Hlobo. Hammond has also held lectureships in Contemporary Art for Global Architecture History and Theory Program of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Landscape, Architecture and Design, and the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He has also lectured in contemporary art theory for the University of Zürich’s Executive Masters in Art Market Studies (EMAMS) A resident of Berlin, he serves as a curatorial consultant to Heldart, a nonprofit art organization that makes site-specific contemporary exhibitions. As an independent curator, he has curated exhibitions in New York, Latin America, Beijing, and Berlin, and published in Flash Art, Texte zur Kunst, Text, El Diario de Caracas, and other periodicals. Since 2009, he also directs an ongoing catalogue raisonné project on the California light and space artist, Mary Corse (b.1945).