Archive: Issue No. 63, November 2002

Go to the current edition for SA art News, Reviews & Listings.

Kendell Geers discusses events at the JAG with Artthrob
by Sean O'Toole

Kendell Geers may have earned a reputation as the enfant terrible of the South African art world, but his passionate commentary on recent events at the Johannesburg Art Gallery has struck a chord with many Johannesburg residents. ArtThrob approached the artist, asking Geers to elaborate on, and clarify some of the points raised in his recent correspondence. As the artist's candid response suggests, neither time nor exile have tempered his forthright opinions.

Artthrob: The overall tenor of your letter seems to imply specific ineptitude (over and above an unwillingness to take responsibility) on the part of those entrusted with the management of the JAG collection. Am I correct in this respect?

Kendell Geers (KG): Yes you are indeed correct. I don't understand why we should accept inferior standards in South African institutions. For me it is inconceivable that a museum in South Africa should be any different in its professionalism than in New York. Of course there are differences in budget, but that's not an excuse because a director with a vision can work with any budget. Moreover, everywhere in the world the role of the museum director is to fundraise so that the curators can get on with curating exhibitions. The current director, Rochelle Keene, has not to my knowledge curated an exhibition in the past decade (I stand to be corrected), nor does she even have any art history qualifications, nor does she manage to fundraise enough to even maintain decent security. So I ask, what does she do? I believe that she is completely unqualified for that position, and for as long as she remains in that position she prevents somebody else from turning the museum around.

My fear is that as time passes the situation will get worse and worse until finally the collection itself has been lost or damaged. It has been said that I am making a personal attach against Rochelle Keene - I will not deny that. Yes I am making a personal attack against the director of the museum as the highest authority in the museum. Who else should accept responsibility for what goes on there?

Artthrob: Possibly repetitive, although slightly different in ambit: From your letter, you seem to imply that both the current gallery directorate as well as local government directorate are incapable of the task? Is this a correct reading?

KG: Yes, although I think that I answered this in the previous answer. I would add that the city council, in allowing Rochelle Keene to remain, should be held accountable for that decision. In a democracy, as I understand it, those people elected to political positions of power are then answerable to the public. I do insist that the director is responsible for what goes on in the museum, whereas the politicians are responsible for selecting the director.

Artthrob: Do you seriously believe that relocating "to a more hospitable environment" would solve some of the issues this recent series of events highlights? Do you think the JAG should follow the lead of the JSE and relocate to Sandton?

KG: When the museum was built, it [the Joubert Park precincts] was a very affluent area not unlike Sandton. Things change, and then change again. In time the city centre will once again become a place that is not feared by the upper classes. I think that to move the museum to Sandton is certainly an option that would guarantee more visitors, visitors who are now afraid of the city centre. But that is not the point. I for one am not afraid of the city centre, but I rarely visit the Johannesburg Art Gallery because there are hardly ever any exhibitions there that I would like to see. Once again I think that the issue is one of vision - good exhibitions will always attract an audience even if there were in the heart of Soweto. Once again Rochelle Keene uses the area as an excuse for not doing anything.

Artthrob: What do you think the recent events imply of projects such as last year's Joubert Park initiative, which involved a number of prominent local artists?

KG: I am not familiar with these events since I have not been living in South Africa for a few years now. I have, however, received the emails. I would say that the fact that these exhibitions have taken place and drawn an audience vindicates my points that if the museum had a qualified director with a vision, and fundraising abilities, just imagine the possibilities. I know for a fact that there is not an artist in the world - from David Hockney to Robert Rauschenburg to the estate of Andy Warhol to Damian Hirst - who would turn down an invitation to show in South Africa. Or even donate works to a collection with a visionary director. I have asked many artists this question, and they have all confirmed that all they are waiting for is an invitation.

Artthrob: You state: "Unfortunately the directors of many of our museums have not changed and now we are witnessing the dissolution of a system that translates into the decimation and decay of our cultural heritage. What is needed are not more victims shifting the blame and refusing to accept responsibility but world class leaders to do for art and culture." Are you implying that this is problem endemic to most of the public galleries in South Africa, not just the JAG? What leads you to make this sweeping statement?

KG: I cannot live in South Africa and survive as an artist. The system there is rife with paranoia and parochial prejudices. During apartheid, the art museums all lived off the fat of the land and were funded by the government, local and national. The collections are to a large extent xenophobic, as were the policies. Now that apartheid has been over every attempt to introduce something international, whether it is the Johannesburg Biennial or smaller exhibitions, have been met with suspicion and contempt.

Even those South African artists who can be considered 'international', like William Kentridge, enjoy less support at home than abroad. Why is it that the Kentridge retrospective will visit South Africa last when all the works originated in Houghton [a suburb of Johannesburg]. The irony is that if the retrospective had been organised and curated five years ago, by a South African museum, then all the huge fees and royalties for the show would have been paid into a South African museum rather than the other way around.

Artthrob: Looking beyond the issues of gallery security, do you think what happened (the intentional damaging of your work) was intended as a personal attack on you as Kendell Geers?

KG: I have never taken the issue personally. The work is an edition and there are copies of it in other good collections so it does not really make a difference to me personally. I fear not for my own works of art, but for all the works in the collection. I know that I have many enemies in the art system in South Africa on account of my being outspoken and always taking up issues that I feel strongly about. This issue is, however, bigger than me and involves every artist in the collection, from Picasso and Rembrandt to Sekoto and Siopis.

What will you tell your grandchildren when it is finally revealed that the museum has been decimated? What will you say when you are asked what you did to protect our cultural heritage? My conscience is clear and I am doing what I can, in my own way, to try to change things. I think that for me the point is that this did not begin this year or even last year. This problem has been around ever since Rochelle Keene took over as director.

Did you know that a few years ago a member of the public photographed a security guard in the museum asleep on the piano and then published the letter in The Star newspaper? Do you know that an important work by Willem Boshoff was water damaged beyond repair in the storeroom? Do you know that many of the museum's former members of staff left because they could not work at the gallery due to Keene's lack of vision and bad inter-personal attitudes? I have personally written many articles on the matter in the past, drawing public attention to the problems before something tragic happens and works are destroyed or stolen. It was ironic that, in the end, it was my own works that was stolen and vandalised.

Artthrob: In all honesty, what impact did the vandalising of your work have on you personally?

KG: It had no impact really. In fact I find it flattering, since the person was obviously very moved by the piece.