I approached the tour of the exhibition The Rise and Fall of Apartheid (10 April 2013 at Haus der Kunst) featuring curator Okwui Enwezor and photographer Gideon Mendel with equal parts hopefulness and skepticism. The conversation and the galleries of photographs and videos were very interesting and relatively straightforwardly informational, and impressively accessible.
The event was arranged in quite a different manner than other “conversations” of this type I’ve attended before. Enwezor and Mendel actually occupied the same space as the 30 or so low-key attendees who surrounded the speakers attentively but not crushingly, giving listening and looking but not acting at all starstruck from being inches away from one of the most influential curators in the world.
The centerpiece of the talk was perhaps Mendel’s music and photo installation Yeoville, created especially for this exhibition and featuring the music of Dynamics, a South African band Mendel says he strongly associates with the mid-1980s when many of these photos were taken. Cropped to isolate details alternating with full-frame shots, these projections show Johannesburg residents during these years interacting in leisure and daily life in quotidian activities that nonetheless show, through the engagement of the mix of races and generations, the gradual, natural, erosion of the Apartheid system.
Mendel has much other work in the exhibition including a stunning color series of some Afrikaans “heritage” re-enactors. South African Jürgen Schadeberg’s work spanning 50 years is also wide-ranging. Most stunning, to me, were some of the covers and images from the 1950s magazine Drum, one of which stunningly restored the recently deceased Miriam Makeba to vibrant zenith.
I think what was most intriguing to me was how this presentation pushed back the impressions I have inhered of Enwezor over the years. I find it very difficult to forgive the Don’t Trust Me and other videos of animals being tortured and killed in an exhibit by Adel Abdessemed at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2008 under Enwezor’s directorship (I have written about this previously). Enwezor also spoke at my previous school, and event I associate most strongly not with the appearance itself but with my then-adviser ranting and raving over Enwezor’s “demands” to fly first class to Tampa International Airport. I realize now that this same person is at this very moment trying to wrest a third cup of espresso using the same grounds from this morning’s steam tower, but at the time I was very impressionable. Also, I had just read the famous dueling 2004 articles, Enwezor’s Mega Exhibitions: Antinomies of a Transnational Global Form and George Baker’s The Globalization of the False: A Response to Okwui Enwezor. As most of you know I am against the local elite, let alone the global elite, so I was very persuaded by Baker.
However those articles are nearly a decade old, and immediately followed Enwezor’s curation of Dokumenta 11. This was very obvious taking in The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, which eschewed any opportunity to become either elitist or theoretically obscure. Most of the photographic images were simply of people, with a few collages and interpretive “changing landscape” puzzlers, and the political messages – Land Rover’s supplying of the South African police with riot-control vehicles and a post-mortem image of Steve Biko, were 100 percent legible.
Mendel was a self-effacing and charismatic conversationalist, interspersing anecdotes about his childhood and tutelage by other South African photographers with precise recollections of the capture of certain images.
I was thinking about Enwezor’s position as curator of Haus der Kunst, with its changing exhibitions housed within a conventional museum-y façade and interior in a city with some of the most beloved permanent collections and curators in the world – my colleagues here assure me that there will be a stampede to the Lenbachhaus (which will include me) the moment it reopens in just a few weeks.
As KBoiV noted peevishly, Munich doesn’t seem to change very much. I am not sure that is true, actually, though there is a very conscious veneer of stability. I think one of the most wonderful aspects of the magic Bavarian capital is that, whether the city changes or not, it lets you change, and maybe that is what has happened with Enwezor.
William Kentridge has some videos in and will be here later this month to discuss his work. I am very much looking forward to returning to Haus der Kunst for this event.