What is ART and who decides?

The day started off well, there was a plan in place. We were to go to Hyde Park and meet with Emma Chen, a Taiwanese restaurant owner and art collector who moved to South Africa in the 1980s.

Emma spoke to our class a few weeks ago about her experiences in South Africa since the 1980s. She explained the manner in which she dealt with segregation and how, at the time, she thought Apartheid didn’t directly affect her because she was in SA to study. At the time, she believed she would only be around for a few years and head back home after her degree.

Forward 30 years later, not only is she still in South Africa, she is the owner of Red Chamber, a traditional Chinese restaurant opposite Khanyi Dlomo’s high-end Luminance store.

I was there to ask her about the consumption of Chinese art by South African Chinese and the  perceived “absence of Chinese art” in Johannesburg. She said South African Chinese were in the “fringes of society” and were not in a position to enjoy art. She mentioned that contemporary and traditional art was flourishing in China and was seen as a high-end investment.

Emma attributed the ascent of Chinese contemporary and traditional art to the people’s struggle against the Mao government. She mentioned Ai Weiwei and his controversial art against the Chinese government.

With regards to South African Chinese, Emma said most were still at the low levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have haven’t reached the stage of self-actualisation where creativity and spontaneity are nurtured and promoted.

“Art is not considered a profession. Parents want their children to be accountants and doctors.”

This is when I started to look around her restaurant and realised that maybe the West and Chinese’s idea of “consumption of art” is different. With the West, it is as external as buying a painting or producing a sculpture. This idea of art has transcended to mainland China with galleries opening all over the place and both traditional and contemporary art being sold and bought at exorbitant prices.

However, art as enjoyed by the Chinese is not a separation between self and art. There isn’t a separation between what we call Chinese traditional art and what they have in their homes.

At this point Emma pointed at the lines on her window panel and the chair designs.

“I have always been fascinated by how the Chinese draw their lines, they are never equal, they are never straight and they are all made of wood. This is not made for function but as a thing of beauty,” she said.

All I know is, the more information I find, the more people I interview and the more work I do on the consumption of Chinese art by the South African Chinese community, or the absence of Chinese art in Johannesburg – the more lost I become.

Back to mid-square-1.

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