Exhibitions & Events

Critical Friend

Jun 29, 2024
Exhibitions & Events
Ashraf Jamal

Critical Friend

Ashraf Jamal


 DESDEMONA: What wouldst thou write to me,

         If thou shouldst praise me?

IAGO: O gentle lady, do not put me to ‘t,

         For I am nothing if not critical.

                            – William Shakespeare, Othello


For my last birthday I was gifted a black jacket from the c77 series made in Lesotho by the industrial workwear company, Johnson. The Cape Town based A4 Arts Foundation logo was modestly embroidered on the front in cerulean, blue while immodestly on the back, in glittering bold blue, the words read – Critical Friend. For someone not given to dressing up it has become my go-to jacket for any art related function, in this case the 2024 Latitudes Art Fair where, on behalf of the Doha based ARAK Collection, I ran a workshop on art writing.

In February the first workshop was run in Windhoek, Namibia. Johannesburg followed in May. Up next are workshops in Kampala and Lagos. The objective? To introduce young African minds to the matter of writing about art, a task scantily grasped, perfunctorily expressed, hobbled by sycophantic commentary, enamoured by its newly sanctified object – the contemporary African artwork – which over the past decade has assumed a global centrality as a newfangled art commodity and fetish. In the haste to canonise the contemporary African artist – as well as artists of the African diaspora – it has largely fallen to writers outside of the continent to stake their claim. This strategy is unsurprising, given its extractive colonial precedent. In saying this, I by no means endorse the dichotomy of the indigenous and exogenous, inner and outer realms, preferring to recognise the fact that all continents and cultures are interfused, despite claims to the contrary. That cultures are intrinsically hybrid and essentialism, a dogmatic and dangerous cult, the ruse of those who seek to oppressively maintain cultural-historical differences.

It is the interpenetrative nature of life, the fact that art is the sum of globalised contaminants, which allows me to refute provincial and continental divides. It is true that African art is distinctive. This is not because it is peculiarly ‘African’, but because it is intensively responsive to the fallout of slavery, indenture, Empire – matters that persist today. However, against the impunity of ongoing exploitation and gross disregard for the rich complexity of the continent, Africa remains profoundly counter-intuitive and immensely capable of confounding prejudice, presumption, hatred and stupidity.

 It is unsurprising, therefore, that African visual art should assume such an acute presence in the global art market. While other continents founder, trapped in the parochial, or the edification of their own hubris, African artists have provided a unique combination of the local and global, in effect producing deftly sutured contrasts, anomalies, perversions, perplexities. Dubbed innovative because of its ability to reimagine the global waste thrown into its dumpsites, African artists have both literally and imaginatively converted that perceived waste – a bale of used garments, a mountain of defunct computers – as the sources of novel reconversions. Because, in a capitalist world tone deaf to its excesses, it has largely proved to be Africa which has heeded the desperation concealed beneath beguiling power and immoral greed. That the great South African leader, Steve Bantu Biko, declared that it would be Africa that would give the world a ‘human face’, speaks to the tragic absence of global humanity, or, rather, the greater need to restore its failing humanity. 

It is within this troubling context that the ARAK Collection, with the support of the Latitudes Art Fair, ran its second art writing workshop. The objective was never prescriptive. However, after the celebrated New York based art critic, Roberta Smith, one vital rejoinder and wager was proposed – that “Criticism isn’t really an academic subject. I don’t think it can be taught at school; its much more visceral. It happens when you’re in front of art, examining it, articulating opinions and trying to convert those opinions into clear prose”. If Smith’s view is salutary, it is because we are facing a global dumbing down of intuitive complexity. Of course, Smith is being provocative. After all, criticism is integral to the Social Sciences and Humanities programmes in universities worldwide. However, it should also be said that it is precisely the reflexive critical faculty which has been rooted out, the discourse defined by collective opinion. If dogma is dangerous, it is all the more so in a time when one of the greatest civilizational achievements – democracy – is under threat everywhere. How can one think critically in an ethos that negates context, compassion, complexity, singularity, difference? How does one remain a ‘Critical Friend’?

In the epigraph to his wittily aggressive collection of essays, Nothing If Not Critical, the Australian art critic, Robert Hughes, reminds us that vanity must not be borne, let alone humoured. Praise, always, must be tempered. Criticality understood as a necessary form of invasive surgery. How else will we override the dulling praise-song to the contemporary art world everywhere? If criticality matters, it is because it allows for productive difficulty. This, certainly, was the objective of the Arak workshop’s Johannesburg iteration. Located in situ, in an art fair, students were expected to engage with the artworks, dealerships, culture, people, and setting – a sprawling faux classical stone mansion with boundless nooks and crannies, winding paths, restorative fountains, and soothing green and fishy ponds. Conducted over three days – between 10am and 5pm – the process was both intensive and compassionate, for it was never my aim to impose any punitive law. Rather, through vocal interaction, healthy mutuality, site specific contemplation, the objective was to nurture the peculiarity of each writer – be it one who could not ignore the privileged nature of the contemporary African art world, another wholly drawn to a particular artist’s inspirational embrace of black African womanhood, or yet another struck by the digital frontier and Africa’s centrality therein, because of its greater youth market and boundless entrepreneurial capacity, despite the ongoing prejudice directed towards Africa’s supposed failure in this sphere. Business too must alter, as must the digital realm. And who finally truly knows what Africa can offer the world? Indeed, the rapaciously avid interest in Africa today – beyond its immense mineral and human resources – is a sure indicator that the world is well aware that there can be no future without Africa – its origin and its final frontier.

Ex Africa semper quid novi … From Africa always comes something new. This ancient proverb remains true today. If it serves to embolden the young African art writers it is because it remains an enduring reminder that commentary is secondary to vision, that insight might become widely recognised, but that it is singularly honed. That dogma and prejudice are not only presumptive but profoundly dangerous. That open-endedness is not a sign of failure but a humane and generous act. That wonder overrides knowledge, and grace remains the mark of a fine writer, no matter how despairing or virulent the argument. And that what we all need, in this benighted and immoral hour, is a critical friend.