Transforming the 'White Giant Building'
by Gavin Anderson
This article has also appeared in the Natal Witness and Artsmart.co.za
Some weeks ago, I received an unexpected visit from two arts practitioners from one of the "previously disadvantaged" sectors of our community. They related various complaints concerning their dealings with the Tatham Art Gallery (TAG) over the past few years. Their objective was to hear what I thought of their complaints, and consider any advice offered by me - not to entreat me to write or act on their behalf. Therefore, at his express request, I include a letter written by Mr Hlatshwayo, who outlines his predicament in his own words, but in his second language. Chief among these complaints was the fate of a proposal by Mr Hlatshwayo to mount a solo exhibition in the Gallery's West Wing. The proposal was made in response to public calls from the TAG for such submissions from local artists. After a lengthy and animated discussion, my visitors departed, happy to have exchanged views.
This exchange has led me to thinking about the TAG and to consider how far it has come down the road of transformation in the last decade. I cite nine instances, which, I think, raise questions about whether the journey has even really begun.
In the first instance, there is the story that immediately prompted this article, that of the manner of Mr Hlatswayo being refused an exhibition. There is, secondly, the instance of an artwork by Education Officer Mr Xakaza that the TAG Director is reported to have forgotten to acquire; thirdly, I question the acquisition by the gallery of an artwork authored by the TAG Director; my fourth and fifth points relate to the development of "previously disadvantaged" staff (both discuss the situation of Mr Xakaza, Education Officer); sixth, I raise the issue of redress regarding the TAG collection; seventh, I argue for redress regarding the TAG's permanent display, and describe, using the example of an exhibition hosted by the TAG, the shared interests that prevent such redress; eighth, I indicate further the desired extent for redress; finally, ninth, I cite an example of the TAG's visible attitude toward transformation. I now provide further detail on each of these in turn.
1. Mr Hlatshwayo, of Imbali Township (43), is a remarkable man, of seemingly boundless energy, a polymath: teacher, illustrator, author of self-designed school text books, author of a visual representation of Nelson Mandela presented on behalf of Pmb-Msunduzi TLC to a "sister" American city, choral music composer, maker of poems and prints and paintings.
Mr Hlatshwayo was granted permission by the TAG to participate in a two-person exhibition in the TAG West Wing in December 1999, and yet is now refused. Mr Hlatshwayo is receiving conflicting messages from the TAG: allowed to exhibit on one occasion, disallowed the next - this requires attention.
My enquiries have revealed that an Exhibitions Committee, composed entirely of members of the "previously advantaged" sector of our society (with the exception of Mr Xakaza, who appears to be allowed to sit on the Committee without being granted the understanding that he has a formal right to vote), rejected the exhibition proposal on the grounds that the work was considered to be "illustration" rather than "art". Furthermore, Mr Hlatshwayo was told that it belonged more appropriately in an exhibition of OBE art teachers. This he experienced as a slight, and I agree, particularly as the TAG ostensibly regards art as equal in importance to craft, and has on occasion exhibited illustrative work - for example the 'Stidy' (Natal Witness cartoonist) exhibition and a number of works in the permanent collection.
It would be helpful to understand how the Committee differentiates between illustration and art, bearing in mind that the notion of "artistic quality" is very much a subjective, and, in our context, a culturally relative concept.
The insensitive and discouraging tenor of the response given to Mr Hlatshwayo is not what he deserves. Should the Committee decide to reject someone from a "previously disadvantaged" background, then counsel, real encouragement and advice must be offered. Meet. Talk. Take time. Care to explain. Develop. Instead, the letter implies that, next time around, Mr Hlatshwayo should submit "artwork" (has he been informed of what this is, in isiZulu?) rather than "illustration". I find this remarkable, as - I reiterate - from time to time there is "illustrative" work aplenty to be found in the TAG (eg the 'Stidy' exhibition).
Further, it is relevant that - some time ago - when Mr Hlatshwayo visited the TAG with schoolchildren from his community, who admire him greatly, he was asked, "But where is your artwork, Thisha, we expected to see it?" He was embarrassed, and "felt small", as the work by him owned by the Gallery was not on display, due to a routine rotation policy. To me, this is no good: the TAG know who Mr Hlatshwayo is; that he will, from time to time, visit with schoolchildren under his tutelage; and, in view of this, should make special provision that work by him owned by the Gallery is accessible somewhere on year-round display. Surely as a local art gallery, within the context of a period of transformation, special effort should be made to exhibit work with which the local community and its children can identify?
2. I believe that the TAG Director addressed Mr Xakaza, Education Officer, some time after the latter's MAFA exhibition a year ago, and apologised for "forgetting" to purchase one of his works for the gallery collection, and that, since then, he has done nothing further to secure a work from that exhibition. I would like to know why not. The opportunity to secure a work made by a local "previously disadvantaged" artist has gone begging it seems. Mr Xakaza, in response to my direct query, confirmed this alleged occurrence. The Deputy Director, in defence of Mr Bell, cites Mr Xakaza's omnipresence and easy availability as the likely or actual reason for the Director's marathon bout of apparently remembering to forget. Unfortunately, at the time of writing Mr Bell is in New York, so we must await his response.
3. The Acquisitions Committee recently approved the purchase of a work by the TAG Director, to supplement another example of his work it owns. This, of course, does not square very well with 2. above, especially since Bell sits on this Committee. Mr Bell, with respect, is not a full-time artist; is not from a "previously disadvantaged" sector of our community; and, to my knowledge, has not held a solo exhibition over the last 15 years. In addition, he is the Director. In view of this, I request the Committee publicly to justify the purchase of Bell's Avalon Springs in the light of the content of this article. (Were other "quality" SA art museums, for instance, competing to buy this or other recent work by Bell? Is Bell's work believed to be of such immediate relevance, to at least one "previously disadvantaged" sector of the community served by the TAG, that it supersedes the more immediate necessity for acquiring and recovering, over a set period of time, works predominantly by SA artists "of colour" in order to redress imbalances in the collection?) Is it true that the decision to purchase this work by Bell was opposed, for various reasons, by at least one member of the Committee? If so, what were her reasons?
4. The staff development policies of the TAG must also come into question. Is it true that, since his appointment - in June 1996 - the Gallery has done nothing to arrange or, as a matter of policy, state its intention to develop the management skills of TAG Education Officer Mr Mduduzi Xakaza, who holds an MAFA (effective from 18 January 2002), a qualification equivalent to that of the TAG Director? Mr Xakaza - who declared himself eager to follow such a course if offered the opportunity - has confirmed this failure to me, in response to my questioning.
5. When Mr Xakaza first approached his employers about further study, he received what he experienced as discouragement. That Mr Xakaza was at all able to register for an MAFA is apparently solely attributable to his own privately conducted efforts at motivating for and securing funding from the National Arts Council to help cover study costs. The TAG is held to have stepped in with further advice and support only later. Is this true? If it is, and when I questioned Mr Xakaza, he confirmed this, too, it is not acceptable.
6. Why has the TAG not sold a sizeable batch of works from the collection back to Europe, in order to finance the purchase of more relevant, immediate, powerful and interesting works to supplant them? Most of the works I have in mind, in comparison with those that could be purchased instead, are of dubious value and relevance, and often completely exotic. Such an exercise would constitute a potent act of redress, indeed - especially if supplanted by material mentioned in 7 below, or by securing (through a structured programme of buying, within a set time period) artwork by black and other South African artists from "previously disadvantaged" communities. I am, of course, thinking of some of the dreadful, boring and, broadly speaking, irrelevant historical headaches and hiccups that hang on permanent display in the central exhibition hall upstairs. I venture that, if this were done, most of these works would not be missed, even by advantaged members of our community, many of whom seem to visit the Gallery only in order to enjoy the ambience of the upstairs Coffee Shop (one rarely sees these individuals stopping to consider any artwork, either on the way in, or on the way out - are they counted as visitors?)
7. This point extends my contention that the TAG has not been sufficiently proactive in transforming its collection: why, when the Natal Provincial Museum Services Dept (NPMSD) has in its custody truly remarkable collections of thousands of interesting, valuable and relevant artefacts from Zulu material culture, many of which date from over a century ago, has the TAG not taken steps to put in place, centrally, a permanent and definitive exhibition of such artefacts? This, in my view, would provide tourist visitors to our city, especially, with an even more memorable and valuable experience - one quite different from the queer déjà vu of confronting, in the central exhibition hall upstairs, the bland mirrors of nostalgic colonial dreams: an "out of key" choir (with piano) of Euro flotsam and jetsam, the abundant like of which is found easily in most European cities, that practically drowns out and, through its privileged central positioning in the exhibition space hierarchy, supervenes over excellent work from the collection cluttered elsewhere on display (Hodgins, Mautloa, Bester, Koloane, Sibiya, Hlungwane, Makhoba). That an intervention of this nature has yet to be suggested and lobbied for by those who wish Pietermaritzburg-Msunduzi to retain its provincial capital status is remarkable to me.
When an engaging selection of items from the NPMSD collections was recently displayed at the TAG (during the 'Fokofo' exhibition) they were physically relegated to a position of secondary importance (Craft), distributed throughout the passageways surrounding the central hall - in opposition to the arresting, but opaque, computer print work (Fine Art), displayed quite separately as the primary hub of the exhibition in the central hall. The texts/photographs provided to explain cultural artefacts, while necessary, failed sufficiently to substitute for the co-participation or intervention of an artistic/curatorial "voice" indigenous to Zulu culture. Why did the exhibitors not invite the Zulu to do to them, and their culture, as they are doing to the Zulu, on such a grand scale? Containing this absence, the exhibition revealed a conservative - if not reactionary - politics, and demonstrated that the strategies of the historically dominant (colonial) culture were reinforced, not challenged. The Exhibitions Committee, having approved this particular proposal, effectively naturalised its ideology. I believe the TAG persists in sharing the 'Fokofo' treatment of Zulu culture through its continued failure to provide the Zulu "Other" with a living, natural and central "speaking voice".
8. There exist other important cultural communities in the city of Pietermaritzburg-Msunduzi and environs, whose artefacts, religious art, etc, similarly demand structured collection and focused rehabilitation from the TAG (eg Hindu/Tamil, Islamic, etc).
9. The provision by the TAG (through FOTAG) of written interpretations of various artworks by members of the public is, indeed, a welcome and original innovation. Why, however, are these provided solely in the English language, even when written by persons whose first language happens to be isiZulu? What does this tell us about the priorities of the TAG?
In view of the preceding, it seems reasonable to conclude that the news that the Director of the TAG presently is in New York, putting the "Tatham on the world map" by invitation from MoMA, and that he is confident "We would not have been recommended if we were not considered a quality institution" (The Natal Witness, 13 February 2002) could well be seen, by important sectors of the community served by the TAG, to be too confident, even self-congratulatory, and premature. Certainly this is the unanimous view of three articulate young black South Africans I chanced upon and engaged with while taking photographs of TAG exhibition spaces during the past few days.
It seems to me that the TAG has done too little over the last decade that is visible externally to make the majority of the work on display from its collection, the collection itself, and the various exhibitions that it hosts, more relevant and hospitable to the immediate life-world of the majority of our community, and to other important minorities within it.
It is my view that before claims to outright excellence, such as that of Bell's above, can be made with any real confidence, the performance of the TAG over the past decade will need careful, informed and independent, professional qualitative evaluation, of the sort that generates accurate and necessary data. This "once-off" evaluation should then develop into an (eventual) ongoing programme of critical self-evaluation - something akin to the iterative efforts that continue to be undertaken by most forward-thinking SA universities, in order to prepare for imminent audit by an independent body constituted for that purpose; that is, where the "quality" of their provision, and practical steps effected towards transformation, are required to be demonstrated - and where a rigorous examination of the concept of a "quality institution" itself forms the nexus of such evaluation.
I am well aware of the immense difficulties that face art museums in this country; it would be false and mean-spirited of me not to declare empathy for Mr Bell's difficult position, and not to congratulate the TAG for real achievements over the past decade. I have said nothing, for instance, concerning the TAG's Outreach Programme, as - sadly - there exists no independent evidence of its apparent excellence, or the scope of its effect - if this does exist, it was not brought to my attention.
Our society presently is in the grip of momentous forces, and we have to choose which of these to favour and which to discard. We are blessed - what a wonderful country! We are cursed - what a dreadful country! Living here, we are forced constantly to make moral decisions every single day. This wears us down, irritates us, and blunts us. This actual "total onslaught" presents the challenge, in an uneven socio-economic, multi-cultural environment, for us to invent the right decisions in every situation, every day, from within that situation. Impossible, of course, but that's the challenge: everything is heightened, thrown into stark relief, then blurred, and buried. The TAG faces moral choices, too, not aesthetic ones alone.
I urge all individuals with strong interests in visual art - artists, especially - to make public their views concerning the content of this article. There is no fence to sit on. Which side do you take? Silence will declare your choice, loudly, by default.
Gavin Anderson can be emailed at email@example.com
Here follows an exact transcript of Mr Hlatshwayo's letter to The Natal Witness - minus some of the typographical emphases deployed in the original.
"WHITE GIANT BUILDING"
I will be pleased if this letter can reach to many local artists rapidly. I have never thought of writing such a letter in my life time but due to blows we (artists) receive year after year - I said to myself, now is the time to let all community members of the Capital City of (Pietermaritzburg) to eat palatable food at their working stations.
I was very annoyed and crossed when I requested to do a solo exhibition in 1999 at TATHAM ART GALLERY (THE WHITE GIANT BUILDING) and at the end I ended up with a duet. I was not told officially that, the final decision by the Gallery authorities was to combine two local artists - (Zakhele M Hlatshwayo and Jabulani Mhlabini). Artists are not at all egocentric but if the proper plan was forwarded to the initiator of Exhibition, Zakhele, it would be much better. Even during exhibition period, people were busy preparing NGEZANDLA ZETHU exhibition. In WEST GALLERY there was no movement, one could even hear a fly singing Glory Hallellua for the whole December Holidays. It was horrible! Thanks to Jambo Art Centre for allowing us to exhibit. 1st week of March 2002 members of Msizakhele Art Project will exhibit. As an experienced graphic artist who started scribbling from (1969), Sculptor who tasted various medium - like Iron, Wood, Cement, Plaster of paris, Ceramic and Wire at tertiary institutions (Ndaleni Art School, 1978/9:1980). As an Embroiderer, Painter, Designer and an Author of several educational literary texts, Dramatist, Choral classical music composer & Poet have felt that Maritzburgers should see the work of more than three decades now. Secondly my aim was to motivate many former students whom I taught (Art) at various school levels. Many students are now giants in various sectors - the retrospective art exhibition which I intended to do, would have made an impact to the society.
As an internationally acclaimed artist, one of my work was purchased by TLC(PMB) in 1998 and donated overseas - the portrait of the former State President of South Africa - Dr Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela. Perhaps they want to collect our work when we are no longer alive and display them for public as they usually do - remember, late Fano Mkhize!!! Was known as Chickenman. What about the recent exhibition?
I would like to appreciate the SADTU by making it possible to expose talents of educators, especially those who are active and talented in various activities. This union made it possible for me to exhibit nationally with other visual artists. All provinces used to come together annually and share their expertees during festivals. I used to represent KZN graphically but due to the pressure I won't be able to do it this year (2002), many comrades were informed last year. I even requested those educators who have an insight of visual art to come forward so that I will assist them.
Last year I REQUESTED Tatham Art Gallery again to make it possible for me to exhibit at WEST GALLERY, as the invitation was extended to every local artist. I read this information from the Natal Witness but most unfortunately my application was turned down. Actually, this was my last attempt! I will never, never & NEVER again wish to exhibit my work of high standard at THE WHITE GIANT BUILDING!
The Tatham Exhibition Committee's response was too vivid. By looking at my portfolio, they undermined my drawings and concluded by saying - it would be suited to an educational display on an Outcomes-Based Education than a solo exhibition WOW! As a proof record, the letter below can verify some of my good points. One of the art work I submitted was the primitive building - titled "Colonial Building" Is this type of work equivalent to an educational display?
Khulumani badwebi, bagophi, zimbongi, baqambi bamaculo nani zingqapheli zemisebenzi yobuciko eMungungdlovu jikelele. Ningadinwa ngokungalusebenzisi ulwimi lwebele kule ngxoxo ethe ukushuba yase ijiya kakhulu, isizathu bengenzela bona ondlebe zikhany' ilanga. Ningadinwa nangomuso nina bengabadi yakithi kwaMthaniya enaba zingqangi ekuqopheni la kwelika-Godwane (Afrika). Nxa singathunga imilomo sibe sesagunyazwa ukuzithamundela, phela izinyanya sezingasikhwifa ngamathe sife imfa kabili okwedangabane! Zulu kaMalandela nina eningagcinanga ngokulandela-nje, kepha naze nadlondlobala kwashwabana izifika namthwalo, zajokola, zasincish' amahlo maqedane zanyenyeza laph' amajok' esem' ezimpondweni. Thula mfokaMhayise hleze abathuntubezekile kakhulukazi belubolekile lolu, babon 'ukuzigqaja nobunguphane wololo...!
Ngu Zakhele M Hlatshwayo
angathinteka la 083 5359 066 nxa kudingeka.
>> CLICK to read Tatham Art Gallery director Brendan Bell's response