guest curator dr zoe whitley
The research curator at the Tate Modern in London, Dr Zoe Whitley is guest curator of special projects for the 2017 FNB JoburgArtFair. Here she explains some of the thinking behind her project Truth, or some other abstraction
how did you come to be the guest curator of special projects at the FNB JoburgArtFair 2017? I accepted an invitation from [the Fair’s director] Mandla Sibeko, having been involved in the talks programme for the past few years. I’ve also co-curated a season of South African artists’ films at Tate Modern and led a talk at Venice 2015 for The Johannesburg Pavilion. I contributed an essay on Candice Breitz for the South African Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale.
The idea for this project took shape in Penny Siopis’ studio at Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town. We talked about how history amplifies some voices while silencing others. Agreeing to take on this project means acknowledging the sources of what I’ve learnt and recognising just a handful of artists for whom I have tremendous respect. What makes the Fair different from others around the world? Joburg has a wonderful creative energy and is home to so many compelling artists who live and work here, as well as being welcoming to artists who live elsewhere. The Fair taps into the crosssection of the local and global community of artists and is unafraid to give space to them, as it does this year with Robin Rhode. You mention that you’re ‘interested in providing a moment of reflection where the focus is on South African artists as truthtellers and historians’. Which artists will you be highlighting? Every project I undertake professionally starts with artists. Truth, or some other abstraction, the title of my FNB JoburgArtFair project, comes from Doris Lessing, who wrote in a passage of The Grass is Singing, ‘it is terrible to destroy a person’s picture of himself in the interests of truth or some other abstraction’.
Art history has largely been told about those who
had critical and commercial success. This project focuses on artists who were active before the end of apartheid. We cannot ignore its distorting and destructive impact, which is still reverberating. Black and coloured artists and their white allies challenged the dominant system of oppression. What artists did altered the fabric of society. They did it not as social scientists or historians, but through their beautiful, unique points of view.
I’ve selected works from artists’ studios and from FNB’s corporate art collection. I’m also hoping to draw fairgoers’ attention to wonderful public collections, such as Wits Art Museum (WAM) and the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG). What are some of your must-see cultural institutions in Joburg? Bailey’s African History Archives for Drum magazine at Arts on Main, the Centre for the Less Good Idea in Maboneng, WAM in Braamfontein and JAG in Joubert Park. And in London? The National Art Library, Liberty department store and Ritzy Cinema. What draws you to specific works of art? Not understanding them completely. If a work makes me ask questions and lingers in my mind, I’m hooked. What pieces of art do you have in your own home? Not very many. I have a beautiful print by the late graphic designer Paul Peter Piech, which his family gave me after I wrote a book on his life and work. The first published text I ever wrote was about US artist Jina Valentine, and she gave me a work on paper called ‘Sang Froid’. But mostly, my home is full of art books. Who is your all-time favourite artist? I’m often asked this – and I always say my daughter. And artwork? My daughter, at three years old, drew a picture of a little girl inside one half of an old pastry box. In the other half, she scribbled a rainbow of colours. The two halves live on our kitchen wall and bring me joy every single day. zoewhitley.com
Dr Zoe Whitley, research curator at Tate Modern and special projects guest curator of the FNB JoburgArtFair 2017.
Paul Peter Piech’s ‘Soweto 76’; Sam Nhlengethwa’s MzansiLegends’ ‘Miriam Makeba’; and Penny Siopis’ ‘Weep’. Works by all three artists will be on show at the FNB JoburgArtFair 2017. CLOCKWISE, F ROM FA R LEFT