The immensely troubling recent re-emergence of xenophobic attacks in South Africa’s major cities and the ongoing activities of the Rhodes Must Fall movement have served as sobering reminders of the highly contested nature of space within South African society, and the signs and symbols that function within it. We are reminded that public space, and indeed the public itself, are fractured and heterogeneous entities, divided along enforced lines of “centres” and “peripheries”, both physical and psychological. The question of what role public art can play in such a contested space thus becomes even more relevant; and the Centre for Curating the Archive’s live screening of the Whitechapel Gallery’s sold out event “Out of time, out of place: Public Art (Now)” and local panel discussion, which took place on Thursday the 16th of April, was a felicitous opportunity for exchange and debate around these evermore pressing concerns.

The event at the Whitechapel also served as a book launch for the book “Out of time, out of place: Public Art (Now)” (Art/Books, 2015) edited by Claire Doherty, who also served as chair of the panel discussion. Doherty is the director of Situations, an independent public arts agency in Bristol, and the event forms part of Situation’s Public Art Now series, “an on-going public programme of events, discussions, publications and debates…which seeks to improve the conditions for, and skills to produce, new forms of public art nationally and internationally”. The panel was completed by Magdalena Malm, Director of Public Art Agency Sweden, Nato Thompson, Chief Curator of Creative Time, and artist Heather Morison. Central to their panel discussion were issues of transformation in public art, and the various obstacles at play when commissioning, curating, and producing progressive forms of public art. Public art, as a medium that circumvents the straightjacket of museological frameworks, is to be seen as a fertile platform for the mediation of space and time, permanency and ephemerality, and the effective civic deployment of cultural discourse.

Before the modest but engaged gathering in Michaelis’s Old Anatomy Lecture Theatre tuned in to the live stream, however, our own local panel discussion began with Robin Jutzen, currently head of policy and programmes for Arts and Culture Cape Town, discussing the challenges of developing structures and policies within local government for the furthering of public art. A firm believer in the power of public art to create wonder as well as affect change, Jutzen nevertheless admitted that there exists a serious lack of adequate resources in the form of funds as well as trained experts in the field of public art, which inevitably slows progress and sometimes leads to embarrassing errors, such as last year’s Sea Point sunglasses debacle. However, Jutzen’s enthusiasm and professionalism did much to inspire faith in future directions of public art in Cape Town; and one audience member’s impassioned argument for protection and recognition of those who make a living through public art, such as buskers, drove home the importance and relevance of transformation for South Africa’s public art and artists.

Khanyisile Mbongwa, artist, poet, and graduate of the Centre for Curating the Archive’s Honours in Curatorship programme, was the second panelist. Mbongwa is a founding member of the collective Gugulective, an artist in residency at the Africa Centre, and has exhibited extensively both locally and internationally. Her presentation entitled “We are the Beautiful Ones: Legitimate and Illegitimate Spaces” included discussions of local performance artists and public art, and postulated performance as a process for healing, rethinking and reimagining a different future for South Africa.  Public space, Mbongwa reminded us, exists as a body of memory and an arena in which certain “legitimate” narratives are repeatedly reinforced over other, “illegitimate” ones.  Thus, when seeking to discuss public culture and enact effective transformation in a society as shockingly inequitable and violently divided as South Africa, the questions should always remain foremost in our mind: whose public? Whose culture?

Article by Charis de Kock. Charis is a curatorship honours student, see her student profile here.