“1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective,”
Friday and Saturday the 1st and 2nd October respectively were very important days in South Africa. The reason being that the Iziko South Africa gallery in Cape Town organized an artist panel discussion to mark the grand finale of “1910-2010 From Pierneef to Gugulective,” an exhibition hung on 15 April 2010 to mark 100 years of South African Art.
As I sat inside the Iziko discussion hall chatting with Thembinkosi Goniwe, a South African artist and art historian, I reflected the importance of this date, 1st October, not just for South African art but also for my country Nigeria. This same day Nigeria was celebrating her 50 years of independence from Britain on 1st October 1960. The importance of 1st October cannot be overemphasized: not only that Riason Naidoo, the first black director of South African National Gallery upturned the face of Iziko gallery which up till now suffered from a colonial legacy, a bomb blast near the venue of Nigeria’s independence day celebration reminded Nigeria that it needed to indeed upturn a military legacy of corruption and looting that have made a once promising African giant to falter endlessly like a drunken monster. Determined not to allow the sadness of the independence bomb blast – which claimed 12 lives and injured many – to mar my day, my thoughts quickly switched back to the exhibition and conference. Unlike the Nigerian bomb blast, I see the Iziko exhibition as a boon blast to South Africa’s art.
The theme of the exhibition, “1910-2010 From Pierneef to Gugulective,” is indeed a conceptual one that speaks a practical language also. It is a theme that draws on selective genealogy to convey a purposeful and readable treatise. The curator, Naidoo, who incidentally is the National Gallery director, might have been accused of selective amnesia or subversive genealogy but he was out to disengage history from lopsided perpetuation. By juxtaposing the works of the younger generation like Gugulective with the old masters like J. H. Pierneef, he achieved an exhibitionary egalitarianism that has eluded the gallery over the past 100 years. By allowing younger voices to speak inside the spaces hitherto filled with old colonial voices, the whole Iziko display spaces now sing an emancipatory epoch-making song. This song could be heard from Mary Sibande’s “Conversation with Madam C.J. Walker,” Zen Marie’s “Embassy: the Republic of Us,” Gugulective’s “Amanzi Amdaka” George Hallett’s “Jean Turner with Eugene de Kock,” Andrew Verster’s “Holy Fire,” Lindelani Ngwenya’s “Escape from material desires,” and then from J.H. Pierneef’s landscapes, Jane Alexander’s “The Butcher Boys,” George Pemba’s “The Audience,” Jan Volschenk “Morning Light in Glen Leith Riversdale,” 1911, Anton van Wouw’s “The Hammer Worker,” 1911, Gerard Sekoto’s 1939 “Street Scene,” Gerard Bhengu’s undated “Young Zulu woman,” Omar Badsha’s 1958 “Artist in the Landscape,” Gavin Jantje’s 1975 “ID,” Andries Botha’s 1991 “Alleenpraak in Paradys”, among many others. More voices echoed from the Rorke’s Drift and DRUM magazine legends in the fifties, Ernest Cole, Santu Mofokeng, David Goldblatt, Pieter Hugo, Mikhael Subotzky, Penny Siopis, Sue Williamson, William Kentridge and from Ndebele art. And from many more others the voices echoed loudest. Needless to mention that the materials range from the traditional mediums of oil, wood, metal, bronze, to more conceptual installations and new media. In this exhibition a muse with psychedelic thematic peculiarities was as strong as a conversation with radical stylistic experimentalism. There was a meeting, as well as a melting point, of unusual materials, mind-bending formalism, conceptual depth and postmodernist texts.
The discussion panel which started on October 1 with the session titled “Curatorship: New Ways of Seeing,” was chaired by Andrew Lamprecht. The panellists which include Gabi Nqcobo, Hayden Proud, Ricky Burnett, David Koloane and Steven Sack – all of whom are established curators in their own right – injected new readings into the curatorial text especially as it concerns the new South Africa. The second session titled “Audiences: All Aboard?” interrogated the museum audiences and their impact in the evolving transition of the new museum. Chaired by Zayd Minty, speakers were Vuyile Voyiya, Ayesha Price, Robert Mulders, Annette Loubser and Musha Neluheni. Both the panellists and their audiences struggled to identify the museum audiences in the face of the new rainbow nation. The third session was chaired by Ciraj Rassool under the theme, “Art Museums: Aspirations and Fragmented Realities.” The meanings of the art museum were interrogated. In the face of expansive intellectual erudition that was beginning to creep into concepts of museumization, what is then the fate of South African art museums in the articulation of a sense of purpose and direction? The panellists included Gordon Metz, Irwin Langeveld, Marilyn Martin, Jenny Stretton and Omar Badsha.
The day was brought to a stop with Albie Sachs’ “Spring is still Rebellious,” being a sage’s narrative of a holistic history of creativity in South Africa. Sachs’ memoir sounded like high life music of the old, as the audience became enthralled by his mellifluous voice tinged and loaded with memorable historical facts.
The second day, 2 October started with the theme, “ Art Criticism and the Media: Sticks and Stones...?” And in keeping faith with the theme panellists saw themselves throwing sticks and stones to everyone as they critically engaged South African art criticism over the years. The audiences hauled back the sticks and stones in response to the almost fisticuff-like engagement of the nature of South African art criticism. Chaired by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, panellists were Gerhard Schoeman, Alex Dodd, Thembinkosi Goniwe, Melvyn Minnaar, Ashraf Jamal, Lloyd Pollak. The second session came with the theme, “Art Education: Status Quo or State of Emergency?” Under this session the future of South African art education was questioned. Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa, Pippa Skotnes, John Roome, Lionel Davis and Zen Marie were the panellists chaired by Jo-Anne Duggan.
The final session was chaired by Riason Naidoo and had panellists Patricia Hayes, Premesh Lalu, Ruth Simbao, Colin Richards, Emile Maurice. This session under the theme, “The Last Word” offered the last but not the least words to the two day panel discussion. These last words were conclusively articulated as a form of communiqué even though they were not intended as such. As I listened to Professor Premsh Lalu mentioned art and history my mind deduced the final message of their last words: that this panel discussion has challenged us to re-think the interstitial spaces between art, politics and history, that this panel discussion opened up new directions in formulating notions of nationhood using art and history as points of departure, that the discussion urgently offers the need to challenge canons and calls for a radical transformation. In the end it was obvious that both the exhibition and the panel discussion tried to break away from colonialism and articulate a sense of national modernism. It urged for a re-interpretation of clichéd legacies. Above all they called for a final full stop to the system of reification and replication that recycled oldies and negated change.
Okechukwu Nwafor, a lecturer at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka is presently a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Humanities Research of the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa.