In a quest to find a South African artist of Chinese origin, I spoke to art industry experts, including gallery owners, art journalists, artists and academics to find out why there is a scarcity of Chinese South African visual artists. I came across some interesting Chinese art pieces.
At the corner of Main and Berea streets lies a ceramic plate depicting the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, in a contemporary Johannesburg setting. In this piece, I Did It Mao Weiwei, Julie Lovelace, a Johannesburg-based ceramic artist, plays on a triple entendre portraying Chairman Mao crying blood while referencing the work of a dissident contemporary visual Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei. Lovelace also plays on one of Frank Sinatra’s signature songs, My Way, about a man looking back fondly on a life he lived on his own terms.
This artwork inspired a quest for a South African visual artist of Chinese origin. The Chinese community has contributed to the South African economy formally and informally for decades. However, there seems to be an absence of visual arts produced by Chinese South Africans.
The China Johannesburg Connection
Lovelace’s piece highlights the increased focus on the relationship between China and South Africa which transcends pure politics and economics. Lovelace says she created the work to shed light on what happened to Weiwei: “Like many people around the world I was quite upset that he could be taken away like that,” says Lovelace on her Facebook page.
Weiwei was arrested in 2011 and held by Chinese officials for over two months without any official charges being brought against him.
Inter-relations and inter-connections between China and South Africa were explored in the Ruth Simbao exhibition Making Way. Simbao, a Rhodes University professor and art historian, curated Making Way showing contemporary art produced by South African and Chinese artists.
The exhibition took place at the Standard Bank art gallery in Johannesburg, after it was shown at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in July 2012. Making Way looked at the China-Africa engagement in terms of culture and the visual arts.
Simbao says Making Way increased an awareness of art and challenged preconceived notions and fears about the Chinese presence in South Africa and on the African continent by exploring cultural links between South Africa and China. Strangely, there was no representation by Chinese South Africans in the exhibition even though the Chinese South African community has a significant presence in Johannesburg.
“When you are on the fringe of society, your parents don’t want you to be artists, they want you to be professionals”
The quest to find a South African artist of Chinese origin takes me to Emma Chen, an art collector and owner of Red Chamber, a traditional Chinese restaurant in Hyde Park. Chen has a life-sized sculpture of a terracotta warrior in her restaurant, “I imported it from China. It is very heavy and identical to the ones that were discovered in Shaanxi province.”
There are also four traditional Chinese ceramics and a red dragon neatly placed on one of the window panes at Red Chamber. When I ask her if art as a profession is encouraged in the Chinese South African community, she shakes her head vigorously: “Unfortunately the South African Chinese, the SABC one, two and three are not exposed to art. I don’t think it’s encouraged.”
SABC one, two and three refers to the three waves of Chinese migrations to South Africa. According to a paper by Yoon Jung Park and Anna Ying Chen, the first wave of Chinese immigrants came to South Africa as indentured labourers in the late nineteenth century.
The second wave took place in the late 1980s and 1990s, which saw increasing numbers of Chinese industrialists and later small business owners and students settling in the larger cities and towns. The last distinct group arrived after the year 2000. This group came in as workers for the textile and garment factories.
Chen says Chinese South Africans want their children to have professional jobs such as accounting and law and do not consider a career in the visual arts an appropriate profession: “When you are on the fringe of society, your parents don’t want you to be artists, they want you to be professionals.”
After speaking to Chen, I left Hyde Park thinking it was not possible for an entire community not to have visual artists. The SABC twos and SABC threes left China at a time when there was a radical transformation created by the new generation who are a product of rapid change.
This transformation created a multitude of spaces, both physical and metaphysical, for new perspectives and visual expression. The current Chinese generation lives in a time when free-thinking and personal expression is possible, new values are being established while former ones are being abandoned.
With this in mind I went to Maboneng precinct, “hipster” central in downtown Johannesburg. The area is a regeneration of old Johannesburg. Maboneng houses a bioscope, the only independent cinema in Johannesburg, the 12 Decades Hotel which has 12 rooms themed with South African history broken down into 12 distinct eras, a number of quaint restaurants and clothing stores. There were hipsters wearing their dark-rimmed glasses dressed in “ironic” wear, typing on their iMacs, iPods and iPhones while drinking international craft beers. Maboneng precinct houses Arts on Main and inside there are a number of art galleries and art studios.
“A Chinese South African visual artist? I have a client who is Chinese, that doesn’t count does it,”
My journey began at David Krut Projects. The gallery is known to give space to young artists who are not established in the industry. On arrival, I asked the receptionist if the gallery had work produced by Chinese South African visual artists. She stared me up and down then pointed her forefinger in the direction of a woman working on what looked like an early 20th century printer.
“I am not Chinese,” she said before I uttered a word. “My name is Kim-Lee Loggenberg.”
“Oh th-that’s q-quite ah-alright,” I stuttered. Could she have read my mind?
Loggenberg, a print maker, says the gallery has never exhibited work by Chinese immigrants or Chinese South African visual artists. She says they have neither been approached by a Chinese artist nor been made aware of Chinese artists in South Africa. Loggenberg says she thinks Chinese migrant families raise their children to run businesses so they can support their families: “In general I’m not sure there are any South African Chinese visual artists. I mean if you had to tell your Chinese mom that you want to become an artist, her reaction would be ‘there is no way you can make a living’ and that would probably kind of affect their choice to be an artist.”
I left David Krut Projects and walked upstairs to Kim Lieberman’s studio. Lieberman, an established artist who has exhibited her work both locally and internationally, was working on a piece for a client: “A Chinese South African visual artist? I have a client who is Chinese, that doesn’t count does it,” she laughs. Lieberman says even when she was at university there were no Chinese South Africans in her class: “There were Muslims, Africans, Coloured, but no Chinese.”
As I walked out of Lieberman’s studio, I ran into Ron Werndale, a jewellery designer and lecturer at the University of Johannesburg (UJ): “There is one guy in Cape Town that I know who’s a jewellery designer. I can’t think of any Chinese South Africans who are in art.”
“Immigrant communities around the world have different sets of dynamics to deal with in their new homeland. These immigrant communities are aware their existence is constantly under question”
I left Arts on Main and headed to Art on Paper, an art gallery at 44 Stanley Avenue where I met with owner and contemporary visual artist, Wilhelm Saayman, who also teaches contemporary Chinese art at UJ.
“There’s one print maker and she works with David Krut, do you know David Krut? And she has printed with him and her work is about these beautiful sack cloths.”
“Is it Kim-Lee?”
“Yes, yes, that’s her name.”
“She’s not Chinese,” I said.
“Oh my god, ok then, what is she then?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t want to ask.”
“Probably Taiwanese or Vietnamese. I don’t know any then.”
I made my way to Dion Chang’s office. Chang is a fashion stylist, trend analyst and a Chinese South African: “What? A Chinese South African visual artist? I don’t know anyone. I can’t think of one right now. I have so much work, I really can’t talk to you right now,” said Chang, clicking away on his computer.
A conversation with Raimi Gbadamosi
Defeated, I went to the University of Witwatersrand fine art department. The building is grey with white walls and looks more like a physics department. What it lacks in colour, the students made up for with their tattooed arms and multiple piercings. I made my way to Raimi Gbadamosi’s office. Gbadamosi is a Wits professor and contemporary British conceptual artist and writer whose work addresses themes of identity and art theory. Outside his office were massive art pieces: “It’s that time of the year, my students are getting ready to submit their final projects.”
Gbadamosi says immigrant communities around the world have different sets of dynamics to deal with in their new homeland. He adds these immigrant communities are aware their existence is constantly under question. As a result, the community finds ways of satisfying their immediate needs such as getting a roof over their head, feeding themselves and their family and educating their children so they will survive within that community.
Gbadamosi says the fear or awareness, whether conscious or unconscious, leads to a level of pragmatism within the community that should a crisis occur, they should be safe. He adds that a sure way of being safe is having money because having status protects you from the ravages of xenophobia and racism. He says he is not surprised at all that art as a profession is discouraged within the Chinese South African community: “The immediate needs of that community will come before what is often seen as frivolity.”
I left Gbadamosi’s office and found Gabi Ngcobo, a Wits fine arts lecturer, curator and co-founder of a Johannesburg-based independent collective platform, the Centre for Historical Re-enactments. I told her about my quest and she started clicking frantically on her computer.
“There’s a Chinese graffiti artist, he goes around the world tagging buildings. His name is DALeast … he tagged a building somewhere in Maboneng.”
“That’s impossible, I was just at Maboneng,” I said, but jotted down the exact location of the building.
The other side of town
With that information in hand, I headed back to the Maboneng precinct, determined to find the artwork. I walked past Arts on Main, away from the hipsters with their international craft beers and their “ironic” looks towards the other side of Fox Street. Four young men were standing next to a blue corrugated iron container with the words Chinese shipping written in both Mandarin and English, popping beats and free-styling, drinking 750ml Carling Black Label beer straight from the bottle.
“DALeast expresses life-emotions and the environment, and uses different artistic forms to speak”
When I arrived at the Maverick Corner, on the other side of Fox Street, there was a 3D mural of seven antelopes chasing a cheetah. The cheetah had wheels instead of legs, speeding away from the attacking antelopes. The painting, simply called Creature, looked as though there were metal shards protruding from the wall.
DALeast expresses life-emotions and the environment, and uses different artistic forms to speak. What he does is paint giant animals onto the sides of buildings using black spray paint, which he builds up with grey and white paint colours to create a 3D effect. His illusions are big enough to admire from a distance yet detailed enough to observe up close.
In an interview with the UK Daily Mail, DALeast says he uses the animals to reflect the human condition. The animals are typically depicted in two disconnected parts, often disintegrating at the centre or falling away at the sides.
DALeast, who does not want to reveal his real name, can be compared to Banksy, the mysterious “guerrilla” street artist from Bristol in the UK. Banksy, who was born in 1974, displays his art on public surfaces such as walls. The two have turned being anonymous into a sport, producing murals at a flash, not wanting to be detected.
DALeast was born in1984 in Beijing and currently lives in Cape Town. He travels the world tagging walls in different countries, including France, Israel, China, Namibia and the United States.
The last word
I was not able to get hold of DALeast. I am only certain he exists because his murals exist and he has over-active Twitter and Facebook accounts. His Twitter timeline suggests he is preparing for a show in London, UK. He is as elusive as the quest to find him has been.
During my interview with Prof Gbadamosi, he said galleries in Johannesburg were still fixated with the Eurocentric idea of art and this could be the reason there are not a lot of South African Chinese artists: “If I were an artist of Chinese origin and I see another artist of Chinese origin being exhibited, it would make me aware there are possibilities still, but if I go from gallery to gallery from exhibition to exhibition and at no point do I see myself, do I recognise myself, do I hear myself being spoken about, I would simply think there is no future. Sometimes we need to see ourselves in order to recognise ourselves.”
This is a summary of a conversation I had with Raimi Gbadamosi, a Wits professor and contemporary British conceptual artist and writer whose work address themes of identity and art theory. The conversation was inspired by my quest to find a South African visual artist of Chinese origin. Having gone to galleries and interviewed a number of gallery owners, art critics and other people in the industry, with still no leads, I interviewed Prof Gbadamosi and this is what he had to say:
Immigrant communities around the world have different sets of dynamics to deal with in their new homeland. They are aware their existence is constantly under question. As a result the community finds ways of satisfying their immediate needs such as getting a roof over their head, feeding themselves and their family and educating their children so they will survive within that community.
On arriving here, I saw the same patterns as I did in Britain and in fact here it is in fact more deadly. Now if you are in a community within a larger set of people and you see people being burnt alive, even though you are not the immediate target of that attack, you are aware that you are one step away from it happening to you.
The fear and awareness, whether conscious and unconscious leads to a level of pragmatism within the community that should a crisis occur, we will be safe. A certain way of being safe is having money because having status protects you from the ravages of xenophobia and racism. I am not surprised at all that art as a profession is discouraged within the Chinese South African community.The immediate needs of that community will come before what is often seen as frivolity.
Galleries and their role in promoting art
Galleries are still fixated on Eurocentric ideas of what is considered visual art. They represent a small number of artists within the artistic community and at the moment it is clear certain types of artists aren’t represented.
If I were an artist of Chinese origin and I see another artist of Chinese origin being exhibited, it would make me aware there are possibilities still but if I go from gallery to gallery from exhibition to exhibition and at no point do I see myself, do I recognise myself, do I hear myself being spoken about, I would simply think there is no future.
Some times we need to see ourselves in order to recognise ourselves.
Gabi Ngcobo, an independent curator, creative researcher and educator: There is more about Chinese art than China. Like that painting over there, we need to unpack. That could be African. It is a mixture of Afrikaans culture and calligraphy.
Perfect integration of Chinese inspired art and Johannesburg depicted by the guy holding a bottle of black label beer.
The search for a South African artist of Chinese decent has led me back to Wits university. The next step would be to search for a South African artist of Chinese descent at the Wits School of Arts.
None of the galleries had work by South Africans of Chinese descent. Photos: Thuletho Zwane
The little white dress (Lwd) made its debut today after my mentor, art journalist Karabo Kgoleng, adviced me to “dress immaculate” for gallery runs. This was after my colleague and I were turned away at the Standard Bank Art Gallery because “we didn’t have an appointment”.
Dressing up is always distressing for journos’ because we don’t dress up or have anything “dress uppy” to wear.
I dug deep in my wardrobe and found the little white dress. This was the closest item I had to “immaculate” and prayed I would not be snubbed by the gatekeepers of the art world.
Armed with my Lwd, camera and notepad in hand, I went in search of a Chinese South African visual artist. The first thing I learnt was the need to unpack, “Not a Chinese South Africa artist but a South African artist of Chinese decent,” said Wits School of Arts Prof Raimi Gbadamosi.
My first stop was at Maboneng precinct, hippie central and my second home since the inception of this project. The gallery run started at David Krut. Inside I found a print maker by the name of Kim-Lee. I immediately gave thanks to the Art gods who were obviously very impressed with the little white dress and slim belt to match.
“I’m not Chinese,” she said as I approached her.
“Oi this deep voice of mine that penetrates walls,” I thought as I realised she may have overheard the conversation I had with the receptionist. I asked the lady if she knew any Chinese South African visual artists and she pointed me in Kim-Lee’s direction.
“Oh, that’s alright,” I said coolly, tightly holding my notebook “I am working on a feature article as part of the Chinese-Johannesburg research project, I was hoping I could ask you a few questions.”
“Yes you can but I hope you don’t mind me talking to you while working,” she said as she pulled out a large piece of paper with markings from what I discovered was a printer. This printer was not attached to a plug. Anything without a power button is a mystery to me.
Kim-Lee said she didn’t know any Chinese South African visual artists and hadn’t worked with one since her career at David Krut. She said she wasn’t comfortable making general assumptions about a community she has not worked with but thought the Chinese South African community didn’t dabble in the arts for economic reasons.
“You don’t get rich as an artist especially as an artist from South Africa,” she said.
However, she noted there was no parallel between the manner in which art and artists were perceived in China and the way the Chinese South African community viewed art.
“In South Africa, art is viewed as a non-profession but in China, it is placed on the same level as doctors,” she said.
She mentioned the difficulties migrant communities face and how survival would require them to focus on more practical professions, “This could be the reason there aren’t many Chinese South African visual artists.”
I left David Krut and made my way to Brundyn+. I asked them the same questions: Have they ever displayed work produced by a Chinese South African visual artist; Do they know South African visual artists of Chinese decent.
Tim, who was facebook’n, refused to answer the questions: “I don’t want to say anything that could potentially paint the galley in a negative light.”
To make up for his non-compliance, he offered me inside S13Q13 Samsung and Art and suggested I read the article Joburg meets Seoul, an online conversation between a South African visual artist and a Korean one.
I made my way to Kim Lieberman’s studio.
“You are looking for a Chinese South African visual artist? I don’t think you will find one. Do they exist?”
Kim is a conceptual artist and she was working on a piece a client was about to collect when she agreed to be interviewed.
“The strangest thing is when I was at school, a long time ago, I never saw any Chinese people and there were other minority groups,” she said.
She added: “I would like to know why there aren’t Chinese South African visual artists. Don’t they come from an art rich history? I would like to know where they are.”
Nothing good came out of today’s meetings. I am starting to think this project wasn’t well thought out. Is it not possible to write about the Johannesburg Chinese community without concrete information from them? I mean, why not, the West has been writing about Africa without bothering to ask for the African opinion.
My feature article was meant to look at the consumption of art by the Johannesburg Chinese community. All the interviews I had with members of the Chinese community said pretty much the same thing: we don’t do art.
For inspiration, my colleagues and I drove to Cyrildene, the new Chinatown in Johannesburg. The place where the project started.
Then I got the fabulous idea to door-step Dion Chang, a Chinese South African trend analyst, design consultant and journalist and Wilhelm, owner of art gallery on 44 Stanley called Art on Paper. Having stalked these two individuals, Fred (my mentor), suggested I change my incredibly boring feature article from Consumption of art by the Chinese community in Johannesburg to A quest to find a Chinese South African visual artist.
The day started off well, there was a plan in place. We were to go to Hyde Park and meet with Emma Chen, a Taiwanese restaurant owner and art collector who moved to South Africa in the 1980s.
Emma spoke to our class a few weeks ago about her experiences in South Africa since the 1980s. She explained the manner in which she dealt with segregation and how, at the time, she thought Apartheid didn’t directly affect her because she was in SA to study. At the time, she believed she would only be around for a few years and head back home after her degree.
I was there to ask her about the consumption of Chinese art by South African Chinese and the perceived “absence of Chinese art” in Johannesburg. She said South African Chinese were in the “fringes of society” and were not in a position to enjoy art. She mentioned that contemporary and traditional art was flourishing in China and was seen as a high-end investment.
Emma attributed the ascent of Chinese contemporary and traditional art to the people’s struggle against the Mao government. She mentioned Ai Weiwei and his controversial art against the Chinese government.
With regards to South African Chinese, Emma said most were still at the low levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have haven’t reached the stage of self-actualisation where creativity and spontaneity are nurtured and promoted.
“Art is not considered a profession. Parents want their children to be accountants and doctors.”
This is when I started to look around her restaurant and realised that maybe the West and Chinese’s idea of “consumption of art” is different. With the West, it is as external as buying a painting or producing a sculpture. This idea of art has transcended to mainland China with galleries opening all over the place and both traditional and contemporary art being sold and bought at exorbitant prices.
However, art as enjoyed by the Chinese is not a separation between self and art. There isn’t a separation between what we call Chinese traditional art and what they have in their homes.
At this point Emma pointed at the lines on her window panel and the chair designs.
“I have always been fascinated by how the Chinese draw their lines, they are never equal, they are never straight and they are all made of wood. This is not made for function but as a thing of beauty,” she said.
All I know is, the more information I find, the more people I interview and the more work I do on the consumption of Chinese art by the South African Chinese community, or the absence of Chinese art in Johannesburg – the more lost I become.
Back to mid-square-1.