ON VIEW: Thania Petersens Botanical Imperialism Series, from the Everard Read gallery.

The 4th edition of the Cape Town Art Fair will be showcased at the CTICC from Friday to Sunday. LUCINDA JOLLY previews.

THE deposition of a rebel comes in various forms. Two of the most polarised ones are an excommunication to outer darkness or the harnessing of rebelliousness through a highly responsible position.

Matthew Partridge’s recent appointment to the position of director of the Cape Town Art Fair suggests the latter. Partridge was 45 000 words deep into a book on the bad boy of art Ed Young, whose work on local fairs is seen by some to be absolutely vital, when head-hunted by the Cape Town Art Fair’s exhibition company Fiera Milano, which focuses on the BRICS countries.

His election to directorship was considered “a bit of a left field decision” in both Partridge’s perception and the art community’s. After all, his reputation is not built on significant experience in client-servic, or in the selling of art, but as a former art critic with a reputation for being, in his own words, “a bit of an outspoken critic from time to time.”

While writing for business papers might not equate with business sense Partridge has the advantage of knowing everyone in the field and has an art background. Furthermore, having an artist as a significant other and artist friends, he fights in the corner of the artist. And he came at the right price. The fit becomes more apparent when, as he points out, one considers that both Ben Genocchio, the recently appointed director of New York City’s biggest modern and contemporary art fair The Armory Show, is a former journalist best known as a critic, writer and editor, editor-in-chief Artnet News, and so is the director of Basel art fair, Marc Spiegler. Interestingly, this year’s The Amory Show which opens a week after the CTAF has an African focus.

Along with a new directorship, the fourth edition of the fair is now housed in the CTICC (Cape Town International Convention Centre) for the next foreseeable future. Both the address of these larger premises which reflect the fairs’ growth in size from 700 square metres to 4000, reflecting a yearly doubling each year, puts the fair on par with international standards. And its fixed location soothes exhibitors who found the yearly change of locations unsettling. The growth of international art fairs since the 15th century renaissance has been so prolific that a phenomena known as ‘fair-tigue’ was coined four years ago by Art Newspaper and Financial Times writer Georgina Adam to describe her reaction to the mushrooming of fairs which have increased from ten to 60 in a decade. But in Partridges book “competition only means that standards get better”, believing that “the moment you are intimidated by the competition you are lost”. One of the words that pepper Partridge’s speak is conversation. It best describes his approach to the CTAF.

His primary mission is to generate three primary conversations. Firstly, while he believes that the SA art market was consolidated at the Joburg Art Fair seven or eight years ago, he wants to “recenter” Cape Town within the SA art world. Secondly, he wants the fair to engage with neighbours on the African continent by including galleries from Cameroon, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Senegal. Thirdly, dialogue with Europe via galleries from Italy, Germany, France, Belgian and the UK reconfiguring Africa’s place – especially given that contemporary African art is so hot right now. This year’s Amory Show which opens a week after the CTAF has an African focus.

Partridge reflects on the changes of local art over the last 20 years. “It’s taken an interesting turn. The pre-94 art with its struggle agenda was followed by ’94 as the rainbow nation with its “fallacies” and then the post ‘94 generation who were seen as largely apolitical, without an agenda and not much to say. He suggests that the difference between ‘94 and post 94 is that “the politics isn’t as overt; it’s a little more subtle”. But he believes that the current generation has started to mature over the last few years. Fairs like the CTAF serve as platforms to address some of the contemporary societal questions and issues.

While it’s too much to expect the fair to provide all the answers, he believes “the beginning of the answers to society lie in the spirit of the artist.” It’s the opinion of guest speaker and Head of the African Artists’ Foundation, Azu Nwagbogu that “there are two major aspects where contemporary art from Africa is lagging. The first is critical discourse on contemporary art and the second is access to markets. The CTAF seems to be a step towards critically bridging both gaps.”

Trends reflected in this year’s fair are “a conceptual use of materials with artists redressing the way that they make and what they can make their material say. Figuration is here to stay with a move away from the figure as purely decorative, enabling a dialogue with the figure”. And abstract conceptualism and glitsch work makes its presence felt. The layout of this year’s fair moves away from what Partridge terms a “mashed potato” where a contemporary gallery was placed next to a museum in a step- and-repeat pattern.

In his desire to be “kind on the audience “and help them understand the role of galleries and museums Partridge has stripped everything down and made the “messaging as simple as possible”.

Contemporary art will all be housed together and the museums and historical collections will be housed together. This Partridge believes will help audiences, whatever their backgrounds, to understand the roles of the gallery and museum.

A special section for prints and editions has also been built. Two guided walks by guest curator and academic Andrew Lamprecht are also available. One of the highlights this year to be displayed at the entrance of the CTICC are the solo representations of eight emerging artists from the African continent who are considered to be “at the cutting edge of experimental contemporary art production”.

Gresham Tapiwa Nyaunde, Kyle Morland, Lady Skollie, Msimba Hwati, Mathias Chirombo, Rehema Chachage, Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze and Thania Petersen are exhibiting under the title Consuming Us, co-curated by Ruth Simbao and Azu Nwagbogu. The participants of Tomorrows/Today will be judged by a panel including Luigi Fassi, the Visual Art Curator at the Steirischer Herbst Festival in Graz, Austria and Ernestine White, Curator of Contemporary Art the South African National Gallery and the winner will receive a prize of R75 000.

Another highlight is that “probably for the first time” three national galleries from three Sub-Saharan countries are sharing a platform. “Just that alone is fantastic”, enthuses Partridge. This year is District Six’s 50th anniversary and the Museum will form part of the fairs post-opening event. Although District Six may not be considered strictly part of the art world it is a cultural institution. His thinking was that if Iziko National Gallery is included as part of the cultural section, so should District Six.” So often this museum suffered the fate of what it represents “that of being “marginalised and invisible and forgotten” he said. He is aware that sometimes “things become so visible that they become invisible”. But believes that the fair “makes the historical fractures in our society visible” and that “art and the role artists have to play in making society better. Artists, he says,”take the nuances of the everyday and make us pay attention.”

Partridge wants to dispel the myth “that business is done in Joburg and people come to Cape Town on holiday.” After all, collectors love to travel, so what better opportunity can you give them? What will be missed is the Southern Guild Design fair which operated as a healthy design counterpoint to the fine art of the fair. Look out for Art Week Cape Town, which coincides with CTAF and features live architecture – where audiences engage with contested architectural sites away from the customary white cube gallery approach.

l 021 410 5000