ARTS: Showcase at greatly anticipated Wits Art Museum
THE Wits Art Museum opens officially on Thursday night, showcasing about 350 of the best pieces in the University of the Witwatersrand's 9000-strong collection of African art. The first large museum in South Africa solely dedicated to African art, it will be open to the public from May 19.
"Do you think this is too much?" asks special projects curator Fiona Rankin-Smith, a few days before the opening. She is leaning back looking at a brightly beaded Tsonga "nceka" (a square piece of material worn by women, tied around the shoulder) that a masters student is holding up against one of the gallery walls.
"I like those bright pom-poms," I say. "They're actually stars," says senior curator Julia Charlton, who has just told me the launch collection is titled Seeing Stars.
Charlton explains the thinking behind Seeing Stars: "It's the stars of the collection on display, the really great or interesting pieces . but also, it's 'seeing stars', like being hit on the head. We are very starry-eyed about getting here."
It's easy to see why. The opening of the R42m museum brings to an end a decade of work and campaigning. For Charlton and Rankin-Smith it's the realisation of a dream.
The museum incorporates a public gallery, lecture halls, classrooms and climate-controlled storerooms, where most of its work will take place, with the behind-the-scenes spaces making up 60% of the total space. The 40-60 split between display and research space is in accordance with international standards.
There is also a reference library that features Willem Boshoff's intriguing Druid's Table, a usable piece of furniture made using wood Boshoff gave to artists Christian Nerf and Douglas Gimberg, who made small objects out of it before giving them back to Boshoff. He tossed them on a sandy table top as a sangoma tosses bones.
Just the construction work on architects Nina Cohen and Fiona Garson's redesign of three separate buildings into one took three years.
"It was really a leap of faith on the part of the university, the sponsors, everyone . and it's integration into Braamfontein is a key part of it. There has been a huge swell of public interest," says Charlton.
The exhibitions will always be partly visible from the street, and pedestrians have already been pressing against the glass. "We've discovered people like to see a project in process."
On the Bertha Street side is a coffee shop with Wi-Fi that will feature artworks robust enough to withstand the wafting in of Johannesburg's summer heat and moisture, and its car fumes.
From Jorissen Street is an incredible view, at least for the near future: Jackson Hlungwani's Women's Altar to God, a huge, astounding, installation of rock, metal and wooden sculpture so dominant it needs to be shown alone. It is.
"Hlungwani has to be one of South Africa's all-time greats. Not only was he an artist, he was a prophet, he had his own church.. The Johannesburg Art Gallery has Men's Altar to God. This (Women's Altar to God) is an amazing piece. There's Cain, and Jonah's fish, a map for God and Christ, and there's Christ at the back, with his thumb up going, 'Shoe shine'. Hlungwani had a funny, poetical way of speaking. If you asked him how he was, he'd do this and say, 'Shoe shine'," says Charlton, extending a thumb in the "sharp" position.
Public visitors to the museum will, while Seeing Stars is on, have to choose either to head downstairs towards a selection of gaudy Sotho initiation sticks, or up a ramp past a series of African masks that will at first be at eye level.
The initiation sticks are a quirky delight. Traditionally these items would be plain wood, but these modern renditions are decorated in clashing colours and items such as baby rattles and mirrors. Above them are two red, traditional Zulu married women's hats, decorated just as cheerfully in celebration of the 2010 Soccer World Cup's having come to South Africa.
The theme, Seeing Stars, was chosen because "we felt strongly that we needed to showcase our collection. It has been unavailable for 10 years and we have been buying throughout those 10 years. Some of these pieces have never been seen," says Charlton.
One of the most famous is Sam Nhlengethwa's collage It Left Him Cold - The Death of Steve Biko, but Charlton, who never really considered studying anything other than art, lists others as her favourites: Tito Zungu's envelopes and letters - "They will go in one of those skinny, flat (display) cases" - and some of 400 screen prints Robert Hodgins donated to Wits, with his notes on them.
"We are showing five of these, and we also have his notes. They are important, why he chose this or that colour. That's part of what a university entity should be doing; research. From an art collection perspective, sometimes the prints the artist didn't choose to edition (reprint for sale) can be important, and interesting from a research perspective," says Charlton.
Charlton, who has a master's degree in fine arts, has been a curator since 1987. She started this line of work at the University of South Africa gallery, where she "rediscovered working in (physical) structures. It's about the interface between the artist's meaning and the public's reception of the art work. At a university there's also the teaching side of it, and that's important.
"I don't know whether I have got to the Malcolm Gladwell 'tipping point' yet, the 10000 hours (of practice that Gladwell posits is the key to success in any field)," but Charlton feels the Wits Art Gallery is a "huge achievement" that fulfils an abiding interest in, and appreciation of, African art.
"It's still so much part of people's lives. Traditional forms are present in modern life and that's really exciting. Take that nceka you were looking at. It's a traditional form (of clothing), but if you drive up to Gazankulu you will see people still wearing it. Exhibitions can be a powerful form of presenting research.
"It's not just about putting things together that look nice, it's about making statements. For example, along the back wall of the central exhibition space are a series of works by contemporary South African artists, from the 1970s through to 2008 or 2009, a 40-year span. They are all figurative to some degree, and they are an interesting and, I think, powerful statement about South Africa's cultural and social history," she says.
The works depict subjects from tribal initiation practices and urbanites' rebellion against them, and deaths in detention to land-claim conflicts.
"Art remains for me an incredibly strong and convincing and evocative way of exploring subjects such as these. Art was something I always wanted to do. We did a course at school about advertising. I was intrigued by the way colours and shapes can manipulate people. I think it's brave to decide to be an artist. There is lots you can do without starting off starving in a garret. Art is fascinating. It makes me happy each time I go into the gallery."
. The WAM! Seeing Stars Exhibition is open to the public from May 19 to August 19.
. The Wits collection houses fine art collected from the 1950s, with pieces by Irma Stern, William Kentridge, Maggie Laubser, Gerard Sekoto, Sydney Kumalo and Robert Hodgins.
More in this section
- Disillusioned SA will learn to walk like Egyptians
- Chaskalson transcended his bias and loyalties
- EDITORIAL: The problem with ANC branches
- People were central to Chaskalson’s endeavours
- THICK END OF THE WEDGE: Zuma’s Get Out of Jail Free card
- NEWS ANALYSIS: ANC’s winner in Mangaung may still lack legitimacy
- Licensing bill to be redrafted after avalanche of disapproval
- Saxonwold ANC ‘to act against Atul Gupta’
- Gupta brothers are merely a symptom, not the problem
- Burger King fires up its grill in Cape Town
- Health insurance plan, price regulation soon, says minister
- Courts reel in SARS ‘fishing expeditions’ against taxpayers