Media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic has focused on the unprecedented nature of the current challenges. Yet lockdowns, socioeconomic precarity, and prevailing uncertainty are not new to many in this generation nor its predecessors. Artists often innovate collectivities, drawn from everyday practices, to surmount such difficulties. It is perhaps no surprise we are seeing the return—in economic shifts, political stance and mutual aid—even as the novel coronavirus keeps us socially distant. Artistic thinking has a lot to offer.
Sitting in my backyard, in self-isolation, with disinfectant swimming in the sink, I picked up a glass sphere that previously formed part of an art installation. Inscribed with a one-liner from my grandmother’s journal, it collapsed past and present: “In Jeppe [Johannesburg] at the time of the great influenza epidemic people were dying like flies. Mom told that little handcarts went up and down the streets gathering corpses—some houses they found people who had been gone a day or two … She told us she had soaked sheets in Lysol and hung them at the doors to prevent infection.”
Shortly afterwards, during national lockdown, I finally completed Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, sourced from archival fragments of overlooked young black womens’ lives in early 20th century America. Hartman narrates how the generation born after emancipation wanted real freedom. However: “The state of emergency was the norm not the exception.” It was the threshold of a new era of attempted social reforms yet defined by extremes from imperial wars to epidemics, racial segregation and riots, threatening new forms of servitude. To live free and otherwise required a leap into the unknown, “creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical art of subsistence, an embrace of our terribleness, a transfiguration of the given.”
As Hartman relates, leaping into the unknown is familiar territory for these young black women for reasons that are often structural. I’ve seen a similar relationship between artists and uncertainty in my research. Artistic thinking is a combination of refusals and re-imaginations in response that manifest in strategies of collectivity. It’s resilience through nested capacity.
Take the example of Gordon Froud, an artist whose Cone Virus work I followed back in 2015 when the Johannesburg inner city building he worked in was put up for sale. As a partial solution, when he relocated, Froud started a stokvel gallery (a stokvel is like a credit union or an informal savings scheme). It uses the merry-go-round principle where member artists contribute fees on a shared basis and the benefits rotate. Notably, Froud’s innovation derives from the social fabric, from a solidarity economy logic of the stokvel in South Africa and its equivalent in other cities of the South, as a way to pool resources for common good. This logic is also reflected in forthcoming curatorial strategies by artistic collectives such as ruangrupa, from Indonesia, which in 2022 centers documenta 15 around a resource governance model called lumbung or rice barn. It refers to a collective pot or accumulation system where crops are stored as a future shared common resource. The exhibition looks at the city and its systems including alternative education, regenerative economy models, and art in social practice.
Such patterns repeat in independent art spaces in five fast-urbanizing African cities where I recently conducted research in a project called Platform/Plotform. They, too, for different reasons were operating in contexts of flux. The working principles of these independent art spaces also redeploy everyday solutions commonplace in urban social life (principles like horizontality, second chance and elasticity). And, like ruangrupa, they believe in institution building as an artistic form.
For instance, standing outside the ANO Institute of Art and Knowledge in Accra, Ghana is a mobile museum. It looks just like a regular ubiquitous trading kiosk, which might house a hairdressing salon or a hardware store. But its walls have wire strands instead of sheeting and it’s collapsible so it can pick up and go. This mobile museum, designed by architect Latifah Iddriss, represents an ongoing project developed by ANO founder Nana Oforiatta Ayim on the concept of a future museum, challenging the white-cube art space model to create more fluid structures that better reflect the imbrication of art and daily life. The project includes traveling around the 10 regions of Ghana, asking people—fishermen, kente sellers, priests, traditional healers, poets, traders, and more—what art and culture means to them, and how they would like to see it represented.
Existing innovations using everyday urban logics are easy to overlook. But as Clapperton Muvhanga writes about science and technology in Africa, it’s the ordinary innovations borne out of quotidian realities that are notable, and these are heightened during moments of stress or crisis. Such hacks are what Kenyans might call a panya route—a back route to an official route, a self-invented commons. Artists are particularly adept at such re-routing and path making. As we seek new forms and strategies to remake the social contract, public institutions, and a more equitable global commons following force majeure, when the usual rules no longer hold, we might find inspiration in the collectivities and working principles of artists. We might think of such practices, following Simon Njami, when he curated the 2018 Off-Biennale in Cairo, Something Else, and described independent art spaces as offering a parenthesis and some “breathing space.” At a time of a viral pandemic attacking the lungs, nothing could be more vital.