Although he is only 29 years old, Stephen Hobbs already has a full career behind him. From 1994 to 2000, he was Manager of the Rembrandt van Rijn Gallery, situated behind Johannesburg’s main theatre, the Market Theatre. In his six years there he organised around 100 exhibitions. From this ideal observation point he began watching the changing shape of Jozi, South Africa’s constantly evolving capital city. Last year he set up the Trinity Session collective with two other (white) artists, Catherine Smith and Marcus Neustetter. The collective’s objective is to work together to obtain funding and remain independent. Stephen Hobbs is at once a consultant, curator and producer and already has a such long list of projects on the go that at night he foregoes sleep to work on his own projects, which consists of urban video and photographic portraits of Johannesburg. He is currently putting the final touches to an interactive video enabling the viewer to visit the city in his fluorescent yellow Golf City car. He has called the work « A user’s guide to a dysfunctional city ». Another recent video, « If you can make it here » alternates poetic shots of Jo’burg with images from the original version of « King Kong » and archive footage of a boxing match featuring Mohammed Ali. The images are backed by soft music inspired by the soundtrack from « King Kong », creating a kind of « love letter » to Johannesburg.
Does your view of Johannesburg concord with white opinions on the town centre’s « disastrous » Africanisation?
For me, surviving in the city is part and parcel of my work. What interests me are the dysfunctional aspects of the city. My videos interpret the architecture. In one of them, the camera looks at the huge circular Ponte City tower from the viewpoint of one of the many people who have thrown themselves off the top and committed suicide – I dropped the camera down the middle of the circular tower. Two years ago I was given permission to remove all road signs along 100 metres of a city street in fact it was as if the entire system for generating order had been removed! Another video takes a look at urban camouflage, with reflections of buildings in buildings.
In your role as curator of the Market Theatre gallery, have you been confronted with the anger of black artists?
Certain black artists get more opportunities than White artists in fact. Zwelethu Mthethwa, Pat Mautloa, Kay Hassan and Sandile Zulu have just as many opportunities as Whites, if not more. So-called « township artists » have to struggle every day because of a lack of training. They are given informal training in community centres and they lack experience because it’s very hard for them to live from art. It’s very frustrating.
Can the government be blamed for not providing enough support?
No. There are a lot of programmes for developing the crafts but the system that international contemporary artists benefit from is not available in the townships. A lot of them see Zwelethu Mthethwa driving a BMW and wonder how he can afford to, but there’s a huge gap and no one is really doing anything about it
Do you feel that you have a personal obligation to try and lessen the gap?
I have spent nine years teaching and participating in workshops in various schools There’s a kind of general apathy out there. No one in the art world is ready to fight as a group – it’s each to their own. If you’re a White in a position of power, there’s a good chance that the black artists will see you as a life saver. At the end of the day, even though you explain to them that you can’t guarantee their success and that it’s hard for white artists as well, you’re always accused of not having done anything to help. The real issue for us is whether Western criteria are applicable in Africa. The religious identity and the social role that art plays are completely different. Ever since the Renaissance the Western world has built everything around power structures, from the Vatican to the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York. There is a dominant system in which artists create and produce – it’s almost a science. This is all quite different in other parts of the world.
Does apartheid still taint things today?
As artists, we have to go on working and stop worrying about all that. If someone calls me racist, I’ll call them a racist. That happened with Sandile Zulu, in my office. With that kind of attitude we’ll never build anything.
///Article N° : 5511