top of page

The Exhibition Match: Rivalry for Unity

The game itself hasn’t had much traction to my attention, but every now and then an aspect of it will reach me through a fashion collaboration or an artwork, and I’ll remember that I share this life with 3.5 billion fans of the most watched sport in the world.


Pictured are the participants of the third Exhibition Match wearing the uniform designed by Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi as well as the co-curators of the project Alexander Richards and Phokeng Setai. Image captured by Neo Mashigo.

To be clear, the last time I ‘played’ football, I had a Siemens A52 and I wouldn’t say that there was anything concrete about the rules for kids in primary school,  passing the time at aftercare. Way more my speed, obviously, but, it turns out that I would do almost anything to get my hands on something designed by Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi. Including taking a soccer ball to the stomach, as my luck (or, the winning team) would have it.

 

The 16th FNB Art Joburg gave the co-founders of the Exhibition Match, Phokeng Setai and Alexander Richards, their second opportunity in 2023 to expand on their ‘experimental, artistic project and social intervention’. When Alex had sent over an idea of what the Nkosi kit would look like, I couldn’t even resist asking if all the teams had filled up. “You wanna play?” Obviously, no, I did not want to be seen running after a ball that I didn’t know how to kick, but I could also get my birthday number on my jersey, so … fast-forward to me watching warily as a few of the players started warming up inside of what could also be considered a caged stage, but is, in fact, a small field, grumbling about their hangovers and who might be in the crowd that day. A trickle of apprehension threatened to fill me with regret as the feeling of being well beyond my comfort zone reminded me that I’m in fact corporeal, visible, and ready to be judged for something I’ve never done before. I take in the sight of my teammates Penina Chalumbira, Joseph Gaylard, Nolan Oswald Dennis, Chris Soal and Mikhael Subotzky and will my nerves away. Penina had won before, and only Joseph and I were green, so the odds weren’t exactly low.


“Okay team,” Mikhael Subotzky rallied us together after we watched Nolan Oswald Dennis take another hit to the face, fed up with being goalkeeper against James Sey and Maps and the rest of FC Portrait who were playing like real money was on the line, saying something like, “let’s just do our best and keep it clean.” I heard someone mutter something about WWE, but I didn’t think it was wise to waste my breath on anything other than following my team’s instructions, whom, in the long run, could actually turn me into something of an actual player, I’m sure. I give thanks to the kilometres I’ve run.


 

There’s the familiar feeling of being watched, multiplied by the culture of spectatorship that has its own presence in the game. The theatrics are essential. The commentary is seamless, and the energy is easy to rise up and react to. Coupled with the adrenaline, the dynamics of performance and physicality fall into place, but I still didn’t have any idea about what the actual rules of the game are other than don’t use your hands and fucking run.

 

So, we Relational Athleticslost to FC Portrait, but beat Super Easels, finishing third overall. I remember Super Easels scoring an own goal and Setai still having something to say about my admittedly shocking (lack of) technique. So, it was gratifying when we won that match, I will admit. While Setai, Subotzy and Richards referee the surrounding games, I get to enjoy being in the crowd for a while and the thrill doesn’t abate from the other side. There’s music, film cameras, and everyone from the founder of the Fair to Thenjiwe herself. Off-pitch there are choruses of well-dones, and great-job-babes. Everyone’s convinced I’ve fallen ill because my voice is a couple of notches lower than usual since the spectacularly dry air had made a show of wringing me out. I enjoy the show of the social climate amongst the arts professionals (and their overarching, designated institutions) that the project gathered to congregate around friendly competition.

 

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many of us together in the daytime outside of the white cube. I’d made more eye contact that afternoon than the last few show openings I’d attended in Cape Town combined. There is great value in play, and the injection of soccer into what can be a templated, or prescribed experience feels challenging and necessary now that I’m gauging an idea of a new variation of our usual experience. I see a window opening somewhere to something more comfortable, more communal than platitudes and passive conversation, and that alone is a breath of life.



“What I’ve learnt is that we have so much more to do,” Phokeng Setai reflects. “The project is much larger than we think it is. What comes to mind is that there is a necessity for projects that show a different facet to our art world. Which is a bubble. But [also], a really important social and cultural space, because it caters for people like ourselves. Like your artists, your curators, your creatives, your thinkers. Not many spaces out there accommodate people like us. Especially with the world turning more and more corporate. There is a need for spaces where the soft matter is respected, and appreciated by soft matter I mean aesthetics, I mean sensibilities, I mean play, notions such as play which are not just notional, but they are also practical, they are healing and therapeutic where there’s a sense of community.”

 

It seems obvious, in listening to him, that the issues I’d felt isolated by within our industry were also isolating him, and others. This softness, truly, was the last thing I expected to find in the middle of a conversation about football. It is clarifying. This is the beauty of play, with its freedom to stitch notions, people and concepts together for the sake of the possibility of doing so. What becomes juxtaposed in proximity, or harmonious, or clear in its function against the fold of another? What becomes precious and worth emphasising? What springs up, new and daring? What do we discover, what do we learn? How quickly can we adapt? Through doing so, can we win? And what does that mean outside of what we already know?

 

“[We’re] bringing people together in an industry which creates and feeds on these modes of exclusion to produce access elsewhere. Access which materialises or manifests financially, usually, to the exclusion of others. So, it’s creating communities in ways that see the individual beyond what they’re able to produce aesthetically, which then becomes a commodity. I think that there’s huge potential in what The Exhibition Match could contribute to that conversation alone … and play is important, to be seen playing is important,” Setai adds.


The Exhibition Match booth at the 16th FNB Art Joburg became the grounds for a revival of Kendell Geers’ 2002 presentation, “Masked Ball”, inviting visitors to play inside a space ‘more suitably’ designed for collector’s appraisal or well-lit selfies for proof-of-attendance. “I prefer to activate the exhibition space, to make it fun and dangerous, a place to contest rather than a place to consume. I wanted people to kick [the] balls and laugh or scream, to run about and do something that feels more like being alive than the living dead gentry of art for art’s ache … There is a football inside each of the latex masks and the viewer gets to kick the presidents in the face. It’s a very liberating experience being able to kick a politician in the face like an ancient Mayan ritual,” Geers said in an interview with the co-founders.


Pictured is the Masked Ball installation by Kendell Geers. Image Courtesy of Kendell Geers, Goodman Gallery.

“The idea of the match was very much in the spirit of Nicolas Bourriaud’s theory of ‘Relational Aesthetics’,” Kendall Geers replied, when asked by the curators if some of the 1995 match’s participating artists had been involved in similar, performance-based projects before, “[Our game] was laughed at and not taken seriously as a work of art. I was known at the time as the ‘enfant terrible’ of art and everything I made was mocked and ridiculed.” Geers added that “the [preemptive] conversation [with the eventual players] evolved around football and art, about foreigners and locals, about the Biennale and the name badges that said they were all South African. Suddenly we all loved the idea of organising a football match!”


“I want to go back to that notion of play and community,” Setai says, “I want to emphasise that I’m not saying community is something we should take lightly because when you put community and play next to each other, you could think that, yey, community is a playful thing. But, when we bring these things to each other and think about what they mean when we work in a world where play is so important play and process in the production of the things that make our work relevant. It makes me think about how community, as the thing that is the object of The Exhibition Match, is important. Especially how we create this community, and I think that play is a modality that is key for us, in the kind of community we will create. So, I think [that] there’s a necessity for more community, which lies outside of just the art world, and the people in the art world. I think we can broaden the scope of this project to include people who are just interested in art, in culture and just create a space for everyone.”


“Initially we didn’t set out to build a community,” Alex adds. “[Our community] grew from being a byproduct of having fun and exploring the two things that we both love. What this project has taught me is that great things can develop outside of your areas of focus. I think we’re constantly learning. Every iteration seems easier, but at the same time, we push [our] limits, trying to be non-repetitive or novel. My favourite thing is how each iteration varies, and [how] the results [of] each form of evidence or takeaway is different from the previous one. Whether it’s a video, a written article, or a personal experience that is relayed to us.”

 

In reaction to an environment that is oftentimes intensely competitive and limiting, the project quickly turned into a vessel for more than a point of convergence between sport and visual artpurposefully and playfully amorphous, is the perfect holding space for the new perspectives of a community of people building their own culture despite. Perhaps the idea of learning from my competition was a little more obvious than an epiphany, but it’s a metaphor for past experiences of mine that rings true, too. I’ve never been interested in competing with my industry colleagues, (being far more invested in what they could teach me, or, what we could achieve together) until now.


Pictured are the participants of the third Exhibition Match wearing the uniform designed by Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi as well as the co-curators of the project Alexander Richards and Phokeng Setai. Image captured by Neo Mashigo.

Curated by Alexander Richards and Phokeng Setai, 2023’s Exhibition Match for arts workers took place at Discovery Soccer Park in Sandton. A special shout-out to my teammates for making third place feel like first: Penina Chalumbira, Joseph Gaylard, Nolan Oswald Dennis, Chris Soal, and Mikhael Subotzky.

Comments


bottom of page