Messages and Meaning at the Durban Art Gallery
By Carol Brown
After they stormed the Bastille some 300 odd years ago during the French Revolution, the people then took the princely collection, housed in what was the Palace of the Louvre, and transformed it into the world's first art museum. Before that collectors were mostly wealthy individuals who kept their art for their own private viewing. Today museum buildings are becoming so spectacular that the collections are sometimes eclipsed by the architecture and so we move to a new phase where new buildings often attract more funding than the artworks they house. It's no secret that in South Africa at the moment, art museums are battling with funding and most have very meager acquisition budgets.
The collecting role which was previously occupied by Royalty, and then by museums, has now been taken over by corporates. Some of South Africa's finest contemporary collections are no longer owned by museums but are in the hands of companies such as BHP Billiton, Absa, Nedbank, Sasol and many others. 'Messages and Meaning', currently on show at the Durban Art Gallery, is a perfect example of the strength of cellphone giant MTN's collection. The title alludes to the company's function of communication which has informed the type of artwork collected. This is the first time that a large exhibition drawn from the company's holdingshas been shown outside their impressive headquarters in Johannesburg.
A pivotal piece in the show is by Yinka Shonibare who, although born to Nigerian parents, now lives in London and is one of world's most prominent artists. The fact that his photograph - Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 14h00 hrs - is currently hanging in the Durban Art Gallery's circular Gallery is in a sense of ironic. This gallery was, for about 85 years pre-democracy, the permanent home of the Victorian art collection. I well remember one of the paintings called They had been Boys together which hung in that space. The painting was a large, gilt framed picture of a group of formally dressed Victorian gentlemen sitting around an imposing wooden desk in a heavily panelled and carpeted Victorian interior.
Shonibare's photograph is in the same overwhelming format as the painting and is framed with an old fashion heavy gilt frame obviously drawing parallels to its source. However something is out of place - the focal point standing and holding court is a black man! The Victorians would have been horrified and that's the point. It's a statement about the invisibility of the black population in the Victorian world and the black man's struggle to now break into those corridors of power. The artist has placed himself in the portrait and the picture is organised like a stage setting where history is being played out. Shonibare is now as wealthy a person as any of those early Victorian businessmen (and recently had an MBE conferred upon him!), and this he has achieved through his artistic talent, and hence the work alludes to economic and cultural capital as well as identity.
Shonibare's work is particularly interesting also in the context of the other portraits by black South Africans on show. The collection's curators made consistent and systematic strides to identify and purchase works by such artists who had largely been ignored by museums and other collections until the early 80s. There has recently been a renewal of interest in the portrait genre, coinciding with the increasing urbanisation of Africans. There had been the occasional ethnographic type portrait such as those by Barbara Tyrrell from the 50s which detailed clothing styles meticulously, but portraits of black people by black artists were not considered museum collectables. Works on show such as Daughter of the Shebeen Queen by George Pemba, Portrait of Dumile Feni by Ephraim Ngatane and images of icons such as Steve Biko in Tony Nkotsi's linocut Portrait of a Manare fascinating studies which need to be examined alongside the photographs taken in that period which have become extremely popular subjects for critical analysis. Such a comparative study could add significantly to the biographies which are also currently being written about such personalities.
Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 14h00 hrs's sardonic comment looks back to the origins of colonialism in the 19th century while Sue Williamson's Colouring-In continues the narrative of oppression by showing the incarceration of Afrikaner women and children in British concentration camps during the South African War (1899 - 1902), and the later forced removals of black people from their homes under apartheid. The Boer narrative is told using images derived from a child's drawing book Williamson found at the Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein, over which she superimposed ghostly photographs of emaciated children and camp privations. Punctuating this narrative are images from apartheid history - police dogs, two-way radios, batons, forced removals - suggesting the endless passage of suffering throughout the last century.
The creative curation of this show has arranged several sections thematically. The collection is a varied one with several works from other areas of the African continent which we do not often see in South Africa. The work by Ghanaian artist, Kwesi Owusu-Ankomah, Soft Gentle Depths, draws upon his home country's traditional ceremonial textile called Adinkra cloth which carries symbols as decoration. However, the insertion of the male figure is characteristic of this artist's work which is influenced by his studies of the Renaissance.
This is a large and fine exhibition whose thematic approach makes it accessible to a wide audience. It is arguably one of the most comprehensive public collections of contemporary African art in the country and also shows a consistent and conscious method of collecting previously marginalised South African art which fills in historical gaps. It is accompanied by a well illustrated and well researched publication which provides an invaluable resource on the subject. The show moves to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum on August 16 after which it travels to other venues.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue:
Messages and Meaning: The MTN Art Collection
David Krut Publishing cc, Johannesburg, South Africa and MTN Foundation Jhb
Opens: June 7
Closes: July 29
Durban Art Gallery
2nd Floor City Hall, Smith Street, Durban
Tel: (031) 311 2264
Fax: (031) 311 2273
Hours: Mon - Sat 8.30am - 4pm, Sun 11am - 4pm