First Published in
Big-and-small, buy-and-sell, clean-and-dirty, give-and-take, heal-and-hurt, here-and-there, in-and-out, laugh-and-cry, life-and-death, light-and-dark, love-and-hate, more-and-less, pull-and-push, reason-and-madness, rich-and-poor, saint-and-sinner, sickness-and-health, smart-and-stupid, up-and-down, weak-and-strong…
Early in 2009 Noel Pretorius and I discussed the notion of a project where European and African artists might collaborate and make a little time in their busy lives to connect, share ideas and perhaps see through some of the preconceptions they might have. Noel is a former Durbanite who now lives and works in Stockholm. He and I had collaborated long distance before and enjoyed the process. We both became very excited about the prospect of European and African artists working together with the internet as the meeting place. We imagined a project where we might directly confront the illusions of “first” and “third” world and throw into relief – in some small way – the fact that really we’re all the same.
A year later and 40 of Africa and Europe’s brightest creative lights have indeed connected, collaborated, learned and shared. The fruit of their labour is aptly called Them-and-Us – a collection of 20 double-sided posters (each the product of an African and European pairing) and a booklet written by UK design writer Adrian Shaughnessy.
In seeking artists, designers, photographers and illustrators to participate, our aim was to arrive at a truly diverse selection of the best talent each continent had to offer. In an African context this meant moving beyond the predictable list of middle-class, white, South African graphic designers – a task that proved to be a bigger challenge than we’d imagined. Most of the well-known African talents are represented by galleries that are at best cagey with contact details. And the lesser-known talents? Well, who are they and how does one get in touch? Emails flew around the continent and Google was put through its paces, until slowly we began to connect with and enlist artists from across the continent. Somewhat sadly though, the list of African contributors remains predominantly South African, partly due to deadline pressures and partly due to simply not connecting with the right talents.
Still, the list of contributors is impressive, with names like Roger Ballen, Doung Anwar Jahangeer, Garth Walker, Peet Pienaar and Avant Car Guard among the African line-up, and Will Sweeney, Rachel Thomas, Noma Bar, Anthony Burrill and Lesley Moore among the Europeans.
Before even confirming all the participants though, Them-and-Us began in earnest as a web forum in late 2009. We came up with a list of 20 sub-themes that contributors could choose from. Once chosen, they would automatically be paired with whoever had chosen the same sub-theme from across the Mediterranean. The idea was to encourage artists to explore the idea of “them-and-us” and, more broadly, the notion of tolerance through sub-themes such as “heal-and-hurt”, “weak-and-strong” and “more-and-less”. Through the online forum, pairings have variously swapped Sunday newspaper headlines; discussed politics and philosophy; discovered shared passion for Milton; exchanged poetry, herbal remedies and obscure song lyrics; and even discussed shooting each other.
And if the topics of discussion have been unexpected, so too have the submissions. Many European works – all printed in blue and yellow – explore wild and primal veins rather than the restrained minimalism we might expect. KK+TF’s suggestive submission for “up-and-down” looks like some sort of strange alien pornography, while Sac Magique’s take on “weak-and-strong”, with its fantastical creatures devouring each other, is as primitive as anything one might supposedly expect from deepest Africa. By contrast, African contributor Jordan Metcalf’s interpretation of the same theme is a meticulously constructed pyramid that is more Dark Side of the Moon than “dark continent”. As unexpected as some of the European submissions might be, many of the African works – all printed in red and green – betray a sophistication that might well surprise European eyes.
As I write this, we are still waiting on all the finished submissions but already Them-and-Us seems to prove that ideas are not bound to location, that the exception is in fact the rule and that thankfully there really is no “us and them”.