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Written byRaelee Seymour-Brown

The Investec Cape Town Art Fair: Is Investec art washing genocide

The 11th edition of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair returned to the Mother City from the 16th – 18th February 2024. This year’s fair focused on various and multiplicitous iterations of the theme Unbound from 115 galleries from 24 countries, which exhibited a total of 400 artists from over 50 countries all over the world. Inherently, in line with its namesake, “Unbound” disregards constraints. It transcends any particular aesthetic or ideology, evoking a form of artistic expression that liberates thoughts entrenched within the subconscious, resonating not just with creators but also with observers. But what does it mean to be truly “Unbound”? And how can one of the most massive Art Shows in the country reconcile its seemingly disparate ideologies with its practices?

When a Pro-Palestine guerilla protest took place on the second day of the prestigious fair, unfortunately Investec’s True Colors began to seep through. “Is Investec Artwashing Genocide?” asked a series of posts posted by the African Artists Against Apartheid Instagram account (@africanartistsagainstapartheid) which included statistics sourced from TimesLive about Investec’s apparent involvement in Israeli propaganda trips targeting South African youth, and one of their largest shareholders, BlackRock Inc. having deep ties to various Israeli arms manufacturers.

But what does it mean to be truly “Unbound”? And how can one of the most massive Art Shows in the country reconcile its seemingly disparate ideologies with its practices?

On the 17th of February, the second and arguably busiest day of the fair weekend, a small gathering of the group then infiltrated the fair with large Pro-Palestinian banners and loud chanting of “Investec, Investec, What Do You Say? How Many Kids Have You Killed Today?” The protesters were met with vitriol from several patrons of the fair, and all in all, the demonstration lasted around 20 minutes before Metro Police arrived and escorted the group out. Among Cape Town’s stunning backdrop, some of the most celebrated artists in the continent, and art hanging on the walls of the ICC worth hundreds of thousands of rands while collectors and patrons walk around with champagne in hand – in contrast to the city’s forced removals, consistent displacement of houseless people, and the concurrent funding of a genocide with a rising daily death toll of 17,700 Palestinians (Reuters, 2023), the art fair seems less like a celebratory accomplishment and turns into an almost dystopian kind of nightmare. Because how can we even begin to take seriously the most influential art Fair in the country including hundreds of works by and for colonialised African artists that focus specifically on decolonial narratives when active colonialism is happening in front of our very eyes in this present moment?

Besides the main component of the Fair taking place at the ICC, organised into several thematic strands, including SOLO for solo artists, showcasing painting and curated by Sean O’Toole, and Tomorrows/Today, for emerging and newly established artists and curated by Mariella Franzoni, this rendition sees the city of Cape Town take on a notably heightened significance. With the Fair placing intentionally greater emphasis on showcasing activities and artists to both its local community and international audience of collectors and institutions, Fair director Laura Vincenti says, “The city’s geography is an integral part of Investec Cape Town Art Fair’s success. Cape Town is a vibrant cultural hub, with a supportive community. It is very attractive to international collectors, with the great combination of diverse, cutting-edge art and a favourable exchange rate.” 

It is ironic then, while Thania Petersen’s powerful performance piece was taking place in the nearby Bo-Kaap area illustrating decolonial histories of the coloured people of the area, that forced removals of these very same people would take place the week prior and after respectively. Bo-Kaap’s origins, formerly known as the Malay Quarter, date back to the 1760’s, when numerous “huurhuisjes”, which means, (rental houses) were built and leased to slaves by the Dutch Colonists (SA Bo-Kaap has since become a celebrated symbol of resilience and decolonial history with people coming from all over the world to view the colorful houses representing freedom from colonial struggle.

But Bo-Kaap has unfortunately also taken on the representation of decolonial messaging, a sanitization used by predominately white institutions (like galleries) that point to all the ‘amazing’ and ‘progressive’ work the city has done, all while ignoring the persevering presence of present-day colonialism – as houseless people were evicted from both Commercial Street as well as ‘Tent City’ in Greenpoint less than 8 kilometers away from Bo-Kaap itself in the following days. Daily Maverick reports that on the 22nd of February, a man with a megaphone, accompanied by law enforcement and police officers, said: “All of them out… We will demolish all these structures.” Amid the ensuing chaos a woman’s bag was stolen outside the site by a passerby. Another woman was dragged from the camp by law enforcement officers. Some tents caught fire. We cannot ignore the obvious similarities between the harrowing scenes and that which was described, in some of these very artworks, the displacement of people under the apartheid state.

This same dissonance between acute representations of decolonialism by elite institutions and the real and pervasive presence of active colonialism culminated in the Palestine Protest at the Art Fair, bringing these contradictions into cutting focus. Specifically, one of the most anticipated booths at the Fair – Inhabiting the Wild, Tomorrows/ Today “brings together 12 solo projects by emerging and underrepresented artists around the urgent quest for a new political ecology that deconstructs binary categories, concepts and beliefs inherited from a shared colonial modern thinking” (Investec, 2024).

And while the work presented by these artists was truly breathtaking as they reimagined tropes pertaining to exploitation of natural and human resources, along with the erasure, from the narrative of history, of dispossessed peoples and non-normative and female bodies, we are reminded again of the harsh, contrasting reality to these work that exists just beyond the walls of the ICC. For artists, especially emerging/early-career, the opportunity to have their work featured at the Fair with oh so many eyeballs appreciating and resonating with it is one many only dream of. And although there often lies an incongruity between the spaces these artists are given to platform their work and the work itself, artists have to eat too. Meaning, the artists themselves often have zero control over how these institutions are run, their ethical practices or moral standings.

Therefore, it is important to note that while institutions might treat decolonial themes as a trend to bolster their progressive agenda rather than an honest practice for the undertaking, for the artists creating the work it remains very real, authentic, and intimate to their experience demanding from viewers to still find space to honour and celebrate it. This often means holding space for the artists and their work to still be recognised while simultaneously critiquing the systems of the establishments that currently hold the dominant power to be seen in the first place. Artists and their subsequent exposure should not suffer at the hands of systems they ultimately have no say in. 

Because unfortunately, the Art Fair once again illuminates the fact that the power to decide who gets to be seen and by virtue, heard, is too often left in the hands of these elitist institutions. Despite their “progressive” marketing and curatorial concepts, the reality is that they (the institution) gets to decide what art is ‘worthy enough’ and by omission, what is not. This fact brings up an entire new set of issues related to class, privilege, history and capitalism, but the core of it all was actually summarised pretty succinctly by one of the leaders/protesters. 

After the protest started to gain attention, in the recorded video of the scene (still available on the @africansartistsagainstapartheid Instagram Page) you can see a numerous times where a patron of the Fair comes up to one of the participants either to hurl verbal insults or actually try to physically touch them in some way or another, prompting one of members to eventually speak out: “We are artists doing a performance, this is a peaceful performance, we are artists doing a peaceful performance, you cannot remove us, don’t touch us…we are African Artists Against Apartheid doing a peaceful demonstration, if you do not like it, go away.” This once again not only prompts us to think about art in relation to the realities of ongoing colonialism in the world and in Cape Town itself, but also why this format, which can fully be considered protest art, is suddenly less important than the hundreds of ‘legitimised’ artworks hanging up around them. The only difference between the performance art of the activists versus the other art in the very same room is that someone or a group of someone’s with a lot more power and symbolic capital has decided that one is valuable and the other is not.

Despite its downfalls, the Investec Art Fair is sure to return next year, and the year after that, along with a myriad of other establishments, galleries, facilities that operate within a system that pushes capital above everything, even artists. Therefore it becomes imperative as an engaged South African art audience we remain critical of these spaces while still remembering the invaluable contribution of our artists within this landscape. Art is for everyone, and should be used by anyone who wants to engage with it to express themselves, whether that be in protest or in an oil painting. In a country that knows the burden of colonialism, we cannot let these primary institutions talk to us and convince us of decolonial strategies when they themselves are either still upholding colonial ideologies or simply ignoring these ideologies at work in the present. Ceasefire now, and as the father of our nation cautioned us, “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

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