SAARTJIE Guide to the New Europeans. Neglected Histories: Part 2.3

The ‘A’&‘C’ brain-drain is a state of continual concern to business and political leaders in South Africa. It is a problem in this country that has reached alarming proportions, phenomena that is the result of an increasing number of academic and professional people emigrating to countries that promise security and wealth.

In art, the brain-drain process has been accelerated by the world demand for art from Africa. This demand has opened possibilities that were never available to South African artists in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Now the doors are open and the potential for art from Africa is an acknowledged reality. South African artists have the chance of making a living and being ‘understood’ in ‘other’ countries.

For a creative person it would seem pointless to exhibit in a country that offers little financial and physical security. The local galleries have had their budgets cut and are reluctant to acquire new artworks. They have a largely diminished purchase budget coupled with the lack of adequate storage spaces. Patrons of the arts are few (Australia a popular choice) and far between.

Apart from the evaporating creative pool, the Gallery became an unsafe haven for art admirers; with the ever increasing statistics of urban crime and violence many cultural houses host ghosts and cretins. Galleries have been forced to close their doors, leaving two or three successful independent galleries surviving on the left-overs of the 1980’s activist art, the affirmative cases of the 1990’s or sensationalist events.

The possibility of a new order, when the international doors of Art opened to local artists in 1991, took on a perverse logic when 70% of the electronic equipment disappeared from the multi-media exhibits at the First JHB Biennale. The ensuing survival course of the 1990’s that the Biennale launched, was to educate Artists and Gallery owners to survive by selling their items and services to the more lucrative international markets. So was the move of the Cultural Centre in JHB, and the loss of the Contemporary Everard (to name one gallery) to Cape Town and beyond, (the rebirth of the Castle, but this is another story) part of the symptom of demise, but not the cause.

The Capetonians, it seems at second glance, have kept the light of culture ablaze in South Africa, at least in this millennium! It is coincidently also the ‘happiest’ foreign visitor’s paradise and the last white outpost. Maybe it is also the last place left on the African continent that offers the promise of the Colonialist’s dream of power and freedom; the run by colonialists to flee violence has resulted in the recreation of another haven for laagered elitists.

So, in this light, Cape Town is possibly the city of the African Renaissance that President Thabo Mbeki so openly talks about, the place where the ‘cultural life’ is held high by tourism and a larger mentality. The rest of the country, to take the analogy to extremes, is part of the Dark Ages. Out there we sometimes find isolated centres of culture that are fighting a battle that is faced with impossible odds.

One wonders if it all means that artists and adventurers are forced to ply their trade to more affable markets. The result is hopefully one that mirrors the cyclonic effect often found in nature. There may be a trail of destruction in the current cyclonic wake, but there is hopefully also the promise of new growth after such an unnecessary waste of resources – and positive minds to reverse the depressive logic of post-violence disturbance.

Ghost in the Machine


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