Project of Interest
An African art commission at Burning Man
with Nana Sao + Usha Seejarim
A festival for some, a crusade, cultural gathering or pilgrimage for others, Burning Man is an annual city-scale occurrence established to celebrate surrealist counterculture and self-expression as a means of community building. Taking place in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, Burning Man is governed by 10 principles: inclusion, gifting, decommodification, self-reliance, self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, immediacy (urgency), participation and leaving no trace. With Project Aikido recently taking contemporary African art to Burning Man, we spotlight it in this week’s Of Interest.
While established in a Western context by white men (John Law, Larry Harvey and Jerry James) Burning Man’s inclusive, community centred principles hint towards a precolonial Africa. Considering this, Nana Sao recalls his first time at Burning Man. “As I cycled across the playa one thing stood out. As a minority less than two percent of the population were African.”
The founder of Project Aikido, a platform dedicated to the development of contemporary African culture, the encounter presented Sao with an opportunity. “Taking in the breathtaking and meaningful art installations I was triggered by the notion that very few, if any, of the installations and art on the playa came from my continent, Africa, or from artists of colour.”
With an audience in excess of 90 thousand people, the Burning Man Arts Programme seemed to offer a concrete pathway to grow African artists’ global communities in a way that does not centre their commercial aptitude. This is because the arts programme looks to change art’s paradigm from object commodification to an interactive
Representing South Africa and the continent at large, Usha Seejarim’s The Resurrection of the Clothes Peg was the first to head Burning Man under Project Aikido. Augmenting a rudimentary domestic object to epic proportions, The Resurrection of the Clothes Peg is an attempt at visualising the value of domestic and social work.Seeking to support the paradigm change of art from object commodification to an interactive, participatory shared experience of expression, The Resurrection of the Clothes Peg was a living organism that people could witness or take refuge in.
Still recovering from Project Aikido’s first Burning Man, FNB Art Joburg spoke to Sao and Seejarim. Describing her experience of Burning Man’s art installations, one of Seejarim’s key takeaways was the opportunity to expand our collective idea of what makes art. “The convention is for work to be presented at art fairs, biennales, commercial galleries or at private and public museums. When people were inquiring about me showing my work at Burning Man I realised how fixed and commodified our idea of art is,” explains Seejarim. “There’s so much room to grow it.”