Accepted Paper:

Critiquing the Institution through an Anthropological Lens: a view from South Africa  


Kathleen Rawlings (University of Oxford )

Paper short abstract:

This paper considers the anthropologist's role in the critique of art institutions from the vantage point of South Africa, taking the contentious Second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997 and the equally contested opening of Cape Town's Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in 2017 as its case studies.

Paper long abstract:

The anthropologist's role in critiquing art institutions has only recently begun to be negotiated, but the set of methodological and theoretical tools specific to anthropology grants it a unique lens through which to question the social phenomena that surround these cultural sites. In her seminal paper 'From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique', Andrea Fraser argued that when we, "speak of the 'institution' as other than 'us', we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions" (2005: 5). This paper will attempt to broaden the scope of that 'us' to include anthropologists, and will argue that the ethnographic gaze lends itself favourably to the study of global artistic enterprises like biennales and museums. Taking two significant and contested historical moments in South Africa's art world as its case studies - The Second Johannesburg Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor in 1997, and the momentous opening of Cape Town's Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa exactly 20 years later - this paper will consider the politics of representation, of access, and of value production that pervade institutions in the art world. Is it possible to really decolonise these forms? Does the MOCAA contain the potential to critically counter Eurocentric institutional practices, or is it bound to repeat the mistakes that Enwezor made at the Johannesburg Biennale? An anthropological approach to these questions will allow novel engagement with the relationship between history, geography, politics, and the sociocultural worlds that art institutions come to inhabit.

Panel P079
For an anthropology of the art world: Exploring institutions, actors and art works between circulation and territorialisation processes