Is cultural activity really epistemological struggle?

Picture 044I spent a few days in Liverpool over the Christmas break, and while there I tried to take advantage of being in a Capital of Culture, as was. The main attraction was an exhibition at the Bluecoat of prints by William Kentridge, The Universal Archive. This solo exhibition provided an interesting contrast to my last proper High Culture experience, back in Oct/Nov, during my trip to Bloemfontein. Bloem’ has great art gallery, it turns out, the Oliewenhuis. They had an exhibition People, Prints and Process, of various print-based art works produced by artists associated with the Caversham Centre with which Kentridge is closely involved. This exhibition contained one or two pieces by Kentridge, but alongside the work of lots of the artists using print as their medium. The prints in the show currently in Liverpool (it’s moving on soon I think) are actually slightly out of context, in a sense – they are of course rather static, but bring to mind the more animated works by Kentridge for which they often seem to serve as templates or testing grounds, or perhaps, traces (this exhibition didn’t have any of his films on show – not necessarily a bad thing – I always find it really difficult to watch arty film in a gallery space).

It was interesting to see these two exhibitions in close succession – in the exhibition at the Oliewenhuis, Kentridge is one almost a bunch of other South African artists, and the sense of print as a distinctively African medium was to the forefront – as well as how print is a vernacular, mass medium rooted in the textures of local life, as exemplified by the widespread use of linocut techniques. Whereas in the Universal Archive exhibition, Kentridge is presented as the internationally famous artist from South Africa.

I am not making a political point (and this is not my field of expertise), just reflecting on the experience of seeing the same bits of art in two different contexts – not just two different places (sunny and warm, cold and rainy), but seeing one or two of the same pieces sitting alongside works by other artists compared to making up part of a whole collection by the same artist. The difference, in fact, between the two sites, the two fields, enhances one’s appreciation, all around.


Browsing as ethnography?

Does book-browsing in a foreign country count as a way of doing ethnography of the public intellectual culture of that place? I like to think so. Bloemfontein, where I have been spending this week at a workshop, and doing other bits and bobs, has a decent range of bookshops – at least two branches of Exclusive Books, the nation-wide bookstore, but also a good University-related Protea bookstore. There are a lot more Afrikaans-language books here than in Durban, where I have spent most of my time in South African before now, not surprisingly (including a Christian family bookstore called CUM books, believe it or not). The politics of Afrikaner identity is very much alive a live issue in the Free State, it seems.

Anyway, on my observation, there are a few publishing trends which seem interesting. One is the blossoming of SA-based and authored crime fiction – although more interesting, I think, is the work of Lauren Beukes, who writes sci-fi, of a sort, but really dystopic urban noir about South African cities the day after tomorrow – I am half way through Moxyland,  based in a near-future Cape Town, and have Zoo City, about Johannesburg, packed in the bag to take home.

There are also a lot of books about contemporary ANC politics, more than there were a decade ago or less even, some of them histories or biographies, and an interesting series of short books on current hot topics published by Jacana press, as well as lots of things about ANC politics right now, a month or so away from the big Indaba to be held here in Mangaung, where the conflicts about the Zuma leadership will be settled, one way or the other.

If I were here longer, I’d be reading all these – South African TV is designed to encourage reading. But I’m here just for a fleeting visit, enough only to start the newly published biography of JM Coetzee (600 pages, and he doesn’t write a novel ’til 200+ pages in – and nor had he led an exciting life before that), and the ever wonderful Ivan Vladislavic’s short collection The Loss Library, about writing-projects imagined and/or started but never completed – a topic close to my own heart.