The shifting cur­rents of art in SA

A big re-think about its fu­ture is at the core of an im­por­tant and com­pre­hen­sive his­tory of the coun­try’s pre-eminent art mu­seum, the Iziko South African Na­tional Gallery, writes MICHAEL MOR­RIS

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mu­seum’s col­lec­tion, vir­tual ex­hi­bi­tions and in­ter­ac­tive dis­plays of­fer an an­swer to the short­age of physical space.”

In ad­di­tion, the “dig­i­tal world is the new route to ed­u­ca­tional em­pow­er­ment and demo­cratic ac­cess, en­abling per­sonal ex­per­i­ment. It is a great lev­eller too, of­fer­ing the po­ten­tial for a sig­nif­i­cant check on the dom­i­nant voice of the mu­seum ex­pert and an en­hanced pub­lic in­ter­ven­tion in the way in which works are un­der­stood and re­lated to each other”.

Stored col­lec­tions of paint­ings and arte­facts could “be the sub­ject of on­line ex­hi­bi­tions which ex­plore new ex­hi­bi­tionary tech­niques not pos­si­ble in the physical space of the ex­ist­ing build­ing”.

Be­yond this, Ti­etze ar­gues, ex­hi­bi­tions could be con­ceived in wholly dif­fer­ent ways, in­te­grat­ing wider Iziko hold­ings en­com­pass­ing art and so­cial his­tory col­lec­tions.

“To this end, it is also worth re­think­ing mod­els of ex­hi­bi­tionary space, even en­com­pass­ing pro­to­types from the domestic or com­mer­cial world.

“The sub­di­vi­sion of large gallery rooms into small in­ti­mate spa­ces, the in­clu­sion of com­fort­able seat­ing with books for read­ing, the en­cour­age­ment of the pub­lic to re­main at leisure within ex­hi­bi­tion spa­ces – all these would al­ter the mes­sage con­veyed by a gallery and, more ef­fec­tively than peo­ple-cen­tred ed­u­ca­tional ac­tiv­i­ties, sig­nal that the in­sti­tu­tion is a place for pub­lic use.

“Too of­ten at present, the rules gov­ern­ing the art gallery sap the vi­tal­ity of ex­hib­ited works and that of the visi­tors too.”

There could be ex­hi­bi­tions “which de­mys­tify and re­veal a world be­hind the scenes, that in ef­fect of­fer an an­thro­po­log­i­cal view of cre­ative tra­di­tions… (or) ex­hi­bi­tions of how works are con­served and re­stored and forg­eries de­tected; stud­ies of the oper­a­tions of the art mar­ket and the means by which pub­lic col­lec­tions ac­quire and se­lect their ac­qui­si­tions; in­quiries into how tech­no­log­i­cal and ma­te­rial de­vel­op­ments af­fect cre­ative prac­tice; stud­ies of the the­ory and prac­tice of art ed­u­ca­tion; in­ter­ro­ga­tions into ques­tions of qual­ity and aes­thetic judge­ment; and his­to­ries of the no­tion of bad art”.

“There might be recre­ations, in pe­riod rooms, of works from the col­lec­tion show­ing how they func­tioned in their pre-gallery lives; re­con­struc­tions of the cu­rios­ity cabi­net; stud­ies of the his­tory of ex­hi­bi­tion dis­play.”

Other ex­hi­bi­tions “might dy­nam­i­cally ex­plore a broad realm of cre­ative ex­pres­sion across cul­tures: cos­tume and modes of body adorn­ment; the art of the gar­den; prac­tices of book de­sign and illustration (fic­tional, med­i­cal, botan­i­cal, philatelic); in­te­rior de­sign and the so­cial uses of fur­ni­ture and in­door space; the de­sign, pro­duc­tion meth­ods and use of in­dus­trial goods and ‘street fur­ni­ture’; the so­ci­ol­ogy of mass or pop­u­lar arts; the art of so­cial rit­u­als”.

These would doubt­less “erode some of the dom­i­nant clas­si­fi­ca­tory bound­aries that con­strain an art gallery’s iden­tity and use”, but would fall within a “broad un­der­stand­ing of art (that) re­con­nects the con­cept with its orig­i­nal mean­ing, that of a hu­man skill”.

Ti­etze con­cludes: “The time has come to ex­pand the con­cept of a gallery for wider pur­poses, to make it a fo­rum for ex­hi­bi­tionary dis­cus­sion of some of the over­looked but im­por­tant be­hav­iours of daily life. And this ap­plies to a na­tional gallery, too.

“This study of the gallery’s life over nearly 150 years has re­vealed a his­tory of bound­ary-polic­ing which con­tin­ues to this day, con­cern­ing not only what be­longs but also who. Ques­tions of na­tion­hood and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, of in­ter­na­tion­al­ism and high cul­ture, past or present, fine art and the mas­ter­piece ver­sus crafts and the func­tional ob­ject, these have dom­i­nated de­bate and have served to ex­clude.

“In an ex­panded no­tion of the art mu­seum, and with the ex­tra di­men­sion of the dig­i­tal, there might be a place for them all, and plenty more.”

A His­tory of the Iziko South African Na­tional Gallery: Re­flec­tions on art and na­tional iden­tity is pub­lished by UCT Press, an im­print of Juta and Com­pany.


Abra­ham Cooper’s The Day Fam­ily, of 1838.


The Story of the Money Pig from around 1899, by Thomas Gotch.


Street Scene, by Ger­ard Sekoto, painted in 1945.

Mary Sibande’s ex­hi­bi­tion. The Reign,


Nde­bele bead­work, pur­chased by the gallery in 1991.

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