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Speech | Joburg Art Fair

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Sunday, March 28, 2010 | 15 – 15.30/Galerie Peter Herrmann
Peter Herrmann: Political and Cultural Relations between South Africa and Germany

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon.

In the late 90s, I was invited to a World Bank congress as an expert on African culture. In spite of my serious reserves about this organization, I accepted the offer. I followed the events of the meeting with great interest and was surprised by the strategies pursued.

Talk was largely focused on economic interests and the funnelling of significant sums to the African continent. National cultures were barely mentioned, though it was made clear that these funds should be pumped into a strong South Africa, perceived gateway to the rest of the continent. I don’t know if the billions of dollars proposed at the meeting ever actually materialized. If they did, they did not find their way to the cultural sector – that I would have noticed.

In any case, let’s take a closer look at this sector and its primary players. There are, of course, the usual country-representative cultural institutions; in Germany’s case, the Goethe Institute. In South Africa, this institution serves basically as the control centre of German cultural politics for the entire continent. In that capacity, it theoretically functions in accordance with the World Bank’s strategic vision. But no truly significant initiatives or artistic currents come from the Goethe Institute. My only cooperation with the Institute thus far was a 2003 exhibition with Jürgen Schadeberg in his hometown of Berlin, and even then, the project was born in Berlin, not Johannesburg.

One could say, then, that the South African Goethe Institute is not a very powerful force on the local public stage. Many critics go so far as to argue that it would be more economical to shut down the Institute entirely and simply send its students directly to Germany to learn the language. Even if the flights and accommodation were entirely paid for, it would still be cheaper than maintaining the expensive institute and its armada of civil servants. I don’t want to come off sounding too negative here. There are always multiple points of view. Mine is deeply personal; it is the perspective of someone functioning in an independent art scene that demands and acts according to other, higher quality standards.

The way that funds are distributed always troubles us in Germany. Of a recently allocated 20-million-euro cultural budget for Africa, about 19.5 million went to the already richly endowed Goethe Institute and other official institutions. One third of that budget was, astonishingly, used to promote athletic projects. Only the remaining half million was divided between approximately 15 independent projects. Of course from the African perspective, this may just be splitting hairs; these are admittedly luxurious complaints.

In Berlin, we have the House of World Cultures, which cooperates closely with the Goethe Institute; in Stuttgart and Berlin, we have an Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations; we have fellowships like the ZKM in Karlsruhe, the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, and the German Academic Exchange Service in Berlin, as well as a variety of smaller institutions that fund projects and offer stipends that have increasingly benefitted African and South African artists.

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So much to a brief summary of the German side of things. Turning now to Africa, we see a negative phenomenon. Asia and the Americas are much more present in Germany than Africa is. Even South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised country, is sadly no exception. In terms of economic importance, art is particularly underrepresented. Africa – and in Germany, one doesn’t differentiate all too much amongst the various countries – is perceived as a permanently open hand asking for hand-outs. The one-sidedness of cultural engagement is striking. It is rare for African countries to actively promote local artists abroad; even South Africa has not executed many well-known initiatives. Germany certainly doesn’t have a South African cultural institute in any structural form. And yet still, Germany is becoming ever more interesting for artists from Africa, particularly those from South Africa. It must be said, though, that these artists usually come here because of a fellowship and only then begin to put down roots. Due to the difficult residency requirements, it is not easy for artists from South Africa to come to Germany on their own, without the backing of a cultural institution.

At the behest of Dr. Uschi Eid, the best-known German politician of African descent, more than forty African diplomats met three years ago in Berlin, all active proponents of cultural engagement in Germany. But even now, very little is known of those rare individual implementations that resulted from the conference and that tended to last only as long as the term of a personally engaged diplomat.

A country like Burkina Faso or Niger is hardly in a position to support a cultural institution in Germany. But South Africa? South Africa is one of the three largest buyers of German munitions; clearly, there is money available. And for what or against whom are the people arming themselves? What makes this armament more important than cultural work? Is the allocation of World Bank billions a western imperialistic manoeuvre after all, one in which South Africa plays a miserable cultureless role?

The World Bank funds flow into political and government structures controlled by people who have little to do with art. To wrest culturo-political change from these people is a difficult undertaking. There are, however, other ways to make progress, and cultural relations must not necessarily be managed by civil servants all the time. Indeed, there is a certain automatism inherent to cultural work conducted within governmental or political structures. As in the old days, when the clergy played an important role in funding the arts, modern tax collectors now demand that part of their haul be distributed in the form of cultural grants and subsidies. In an idealized sense, it is certainly a good thing for the state to reinvest part of its revenues in order to make art more readily available to the general public. Museums and public art are certainly social necessities. Things get unpleasant, however, when the money collected from the taxpayers is almost exclusively used to maintain state institutions with bloated workforces. As previously mentioned, the Goethe Institute is a living example of this unfortunate phenomenon and in that regard, can only serve as a very limited model for South Africa.

Political bodies have a natural tendency to believe that as financial managers for the general public, they know everything and have the unequivocal right to exploit their position, particularly when it comes to the arts. Compliant dilettantes are patronisingly paraded through the country on a silver tablet, while controversial geniuses or quietly consistent masters fall through the cracks of state expediency. These institutions utterly fail to act according to the mandate to seek out and promote representative artists. All too often, the bureaucratic apparatus seems like a modern-day robber baron.

It is difficult to break this mould, though that doesn’t stop countless small initiatives from trying. In the process, many fruitful relationships have developed amongst those numerous individuals and groups who, rather than wait to see if the cultural civil servants will get up from behind their desks, choose instead to engage in lively artistic exchange on their own terms – usually at a financial loss, but always with a great deal of enthusiasm and motivation. One can’t, of course, use the term Cultural Policy to describe their activities as individuals; but viewed as a group, these actors fulfil all those requirements of concrete cultural exchange that the state organizations fail to. I offer the following brief example to show you how hard the path can be and how much of a pioneering spirit it requires.


A few weeks ago, with the support of the Daimler Art Collection, I showed a special exhibition at art KARLSRUHE, one of the three largest German art fairs. Works from several internationally-known South African artists and a small selection of up-and-comers were intended to pique the visitors’ interest. And they did. There is, in fact, a great deal of interest and curiosity for African art in Germany. But two things bear mentioning in the context of today’s topic. First, the fact that media coverage of our exhibit made more mention of animals and Apartheid than the artworks displayed – a painfully obvious reminder of just how superficial German knowledge of the African continent is. And second, the fact that despite serious reservations, the Johannesburg gallery MoMo decided to rent a stand next to our well-attended display. This was a huge risk for the gallery, and unfortunately, did not produce the desired results. The African names were ultimately too foreign for the German public; curiosity, after all, is not the same as the desire to purchase. But even though almost nothing was sold, the groundwork was laid for the future. The risks taken and the courage shown by pioneers like those at the MoMo gallery are very important for the continued promotion of African art in Europe.

I exclude the work of charities here only because it seems downright absurd when a German aid industry agitates for South Africa by recruiting artists to serve its own purposes, mostly without remuneration. First of all, there are many people in Germany who desperately need help, and if aid is going to Africa, there are countries where it is much more urgently needed than it is in South Africa. I mention this because it is very difficult to garner financial support in Germany if your work is not related to the typical issues of concern – child soldiers, female circumcision, drilling, and AIDS, to name just a few. As important as these issues are, they distort the West’s image of Africa and South Africa by crowding out other, more positive impressions. It is the nature of art, by contrast, to create multifaceted images or icons and disseminate them across the world. We are the creative ones.

This rare reference to a fact that should already be clear to everyone is nonetheless important because it is a fact frequently forgotten by those outside the art world. The Artist and his broker are too often presented as exotics who produce things they were never asked to produce and then complain that no one buys them. This is patently false.

In Germany, the so-called creative industry, of which Art constitutes a significant part, generates greater profits that the entire chemical branch. With 80% of its workforce operating individually, it is also the sector that generates more total revenues by human labour than any other industry, most of which turn profits via machine. It is art that interprets, mirrors, questions, provokes, sets aesthetic standards, serves emotions, and produces works beyond economic constraint, free from interference. No culture can become great without art, and it is primarily art that reminds us of the splendours of ancient civilizations.

Cultural policy does not mean a slew of outmoded civil servants patronizingly providing us with a pittance, a token show of financial support. It is we members of the creative industry who fill the state’s coffers with our thousands upon thousands of taxes paid by individual workers. In the best case, cultural policy means that these funds that we have collectively provided are directed to promote projects for the general public that cannot be executed by an individual creator. Cultural policy means, in the context of today’s theme, culturally connecting countries that already have economic relations, visualising their attributes and idiosyncrasies through art, and presenting them to the public.

On the one hand, art must never relinquish its intrinsic worth by letting itself become dependent on culturo-political structures; it must always remember the strength and independence it has in its own right. Naturally, an art fair like this one is part of that independent self-conception. On the other hand, art can and should try to work within political structures when the context is right. There are, after all, those admirable civil servants who are sensitive and thoughtful in organizing structural supports in order to provide artists with platforms through which they can share their work more closely with a broader public.

I would like to end my talk with a few concrete suggestions as to how cultural policy can function in a transnational way. For a start, civil servants must cease to think of themselves as scouts who dig up “new” artists. They are not trained to do that. For that, we have gallerists, critics, and art historians. The state must cooperate with these actors. It is they who have daily contact with artists and have a handle on organizational processes and commercial details. It must also be made easier for artists to take advantage of transnational educational opportunities. Much greater efforts must be made to include artists in “percent for art” projects. And as part of political delegations and state visits, artists and their brokers must be taken just as seriously as representatives from the technical or chemical industries, even if they don’t wear a suit and tie. The working situations of artists must be included in urban planning projects. And last but not least, red tape must be cut so that non-university affiliated artists can obtain residency permits for work stays in other countries. We must not forget that crafts, art, and architecture have always been closely intertwined and should always please stay that way.

On that practical note, I will conclude my talk. Thank you very much for your attention. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have in the time remaining.

Translation: Jenna Krumminga