Most of those faces milling around the art exhibition room are more interested in the food than on the wall painting and sculptors ÔÇô Writes BASHI LETSIDIDI
Opening night at an art exhibition. Gallery visitors stand in little knots exchanging the latest political gossip and discussing ideas for CEDA projects as they leisurely chew on meatballs, sandwiches, samoosas and an assortment of other foreign food.
Scant attention, if any, is paid to the art in the gallery. Afterwards, virtually all of them will disappear into the night, only a few will visit again to appreciate the art.
At the time that he was Coordinator of Thapong Visual Arts Centre, Reginald Bakwena saw that happen one too many times and he was not amused. Bakwena says that allowing everyone into the gallery on opening night may not be such a good idea.
“A large number of people who would be invited to the official opening ceremony take no interest in art. I’m sorry to say but most would just be there for the food. To them an art show is just entertainment, another opportunity to mingle and not necessarily appreciate the art. Some of those attending would have tagged along with friends for an evening out,” he says.
The eating-when you should-be-viewing-art problem is not just confined to Gaborone. Power Kawina, curator at the Kgosi Sechele I Museum in Molepolole also says that high attendance that drops drastically the following day may have something to do with “snacks” offered on opening night.
“After the official opening, gallery visitors only trickle in,” Kawina says.
Bakwena suggests that reducing the amount of refreshments on offer may discourage attendance by people who have no real business attending art exhibitions. On the other hand, Kawina says that making such provision helps inspire the interest of some visitors.
“The idea of offering snacks is to keep visitors occupied. Some obviously don’t have interest in art and the hope is that using the snacks to keep them in the gallery would cause them at some point to view the art as they chew on something,” he offers.
That approach, however, can only yield limited results. Beyond the finger snack plate, Kawina has noticed that marketing as well as the profile of the artist also influence post-opening night attendance.
“Attendance tends to be low when the artist is just trying to establish himself or herself. For well-known artists, the curiosity level about what the artists are offering is high and for that reason, attendance tends to be high. Exhibitions by white artists tend to draw many visitors beyond opening night. I suppose it has to do with their level of art appreciation,” Kawina says.
Bakwena has also come across the same experience but adds that the challenge is for local artists to produce art that appeals to fellow citizens. For the most part, the average art consumer limits his/her tastes to realist work and finds no appeal in other styles like cubism and abstract expressionism. Too often, “What the hell is this?” is the shocked reaction that meets pieces rendered in the latter style from the less discerning.
In explaining how that little problem can be solved, Bakwena, himself an artist, tells a story of a visit to Thapong by Nkoloi Nkoloi, President Festus Mogae’s private secretary. The year was 2004 and South African president, Thabo Mbeki was making his first state visit to Botswana.
The Office of the President was shopping around for locally produced art to give to Mbeki as presents and that search brought Nkoloi to Thapong. None of what he saw on his first visit immediately impressed him and so he commissioned a particular piece to be done to specifications, came back a few days later to collect it.
“The point I’m making here is, we should be able to give customers whatever they want. Interest in art will certainly go up if we give Batswana the sort of art they like and can relate to,” Bakwena says.
Hopefully, that art would attract them to the museum days after the beer has stopped flowing and the finger snack plates have been licked clean.