President David Wippman, South African artist Berni Searle and Karen Milbourne, curator of Senses of Time, engaged in a conversation that explored issues around art and politics on Oct. 18. Senses of Time, the current exhibition at Wellin Museum, includes two works by Searle, A Matter of Time and About to Forget.
Having just left the South African campus riots, Searle reflected on how A Matter of Time, in which she is filmed repeatedly walking up a greasy glass plane and sliding back down, emphasizes the circular experience of time in South Africa, the result of persistent social inequities. She is now teaching at the University of Cape Town, but as a child, Searle was told that it was only a matter of time until conditions would be better for people of color. She pointed out, however, that to this day, people cannot talk openly about matters related to social equality.
The current protests in South Africa and accompanying demands that education costs be reduced to increase accessibility for low-income individuals who are predominantly black, are evidence of this.
President Wippman raised a question about the extent to which Searle provides a prompt in her works to guide viewers in the perception of her intended message. “It is more interesting when works speak to different contexts, and people can respond to these works intuitively,” responded Searle. She went on to confirm that artworks should not only trigger questions but also speak without detailed explanation and leave enough space for different kinds of engagement.
A Matter of Time is a great example of this, for although the work addresses an issue in South Africa, it can be seen as a reflection of a similar issue in the United States where initiatives that demand racial equality “have not had a radical influence on education or leadership distribution,” asserted Milbourne.
Milbourne, who is a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, mentioned that Senses of Time was consciously meant to include videos produced at different times throughout the past 15 years to “show the longstanding contributions African artists have made to video arts.” Thus, the works attempt to mitigate the cultural gap between Africa and the modern world.
Based on African socio-political issues of identity, decay, racism and infrastructure, the works establish an informative context of the challenges Africa has dealt with. However, the works do not limit the audience to contemplating African themes; rather they elicit prospects for a dialogue about similar socio-political issues between their local place of exhibition and Africa.