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
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.