Yale University Art Gallery
09.05.2014 – 14.09.2014
‘Contemporary Art/South Africa’ opened on May 9, 2014, at the Yale University Art Gallery. Yale’s first display of contemporary African art showcased over thirty works produced in South Africa or by South Africans, including objects owned by Yale, and a range of borrowed artworks. The exhibition was the result of a unique curatorial process involving a number of Yale University students who studied and worked under the skilled guidance of Kate Ezra, Nolen Curator of Education and Academic Affairs. The students dedicated three semesters of their time to researching South African history and the work of South African artists. Together with Ezra they engaged in discussions about the issues that the artists’ work conveys, and the defining qualities of contemporary art in South Africa. The group also visited local museums and galleries – such as the Newark Museum and the Museum of Modern Art – to liaise with curatorial staff and make loan selections and requests. The entire curatorial process was fully collaborative. Seeking consensus in all decisions, together they discussed and determined the criteria they would use to include works in the exhibit, and debated with each other about how the works might be installed in the gallery space. Ezra supervised the discussions and guided the group as they narrowed down their artwork selections based on the criteria they established.
Many of the works on the exhibition, predictably, addressed political issues as they overtly deal with the struggle against apartheid. Beyond this, the exhibition successfully connects current issues to those of the past. One example is the instability of identity, as it was experienced through the racial classification of apartheid (which is expressed in several works, such as those by Williamson and Jantjes), or as it is experienced today in terms of sexual or national identification (seen in works by Muholi, Nitegeka, and others). The exhibition then interrogates how these connections are expressed. This is partly achieved through a creative curatorial approach. The exhibition is not presented in a linear or chronological format, but rather is organized around three thematic sections: Personal/Social; Art/Politics; Here/There.
These three sections are meant to guide our thinking about the issues evoked by the visual material on display. The curatorial intent is not to impose categories, but to resist them, and the provided themes are meant to encourage and provoke flexible thinking. The slash separating the topics (note that it also appears in the exhibition title) indicates the intended fluidity of the themes. Likewise, the artworks placed in each separate section are meant to evoke ideas and connect with themes that are expressed in the other sections. For example, ‘Personal/Social’ includes a range of topics and personal stories related to life under apartheid and in the present day, featuring works such as Diane Victor’s Ash Man – Johnny (2012) and Senzeni Marasela’s Our Mother III (2006). ‘Here/There’ broadly interrogates issues related to space and place, as conveyed through works like Sue Williamson’s Better Lives II (2003), and Serge Alain Nitengeka’s Black Subjects (2012). ‘Art/Politics’ relates to the struggle against apartheid, as seen in Santu Mofokeng’s Charles Rex Maobi, Jakkalsfontein (1989), Sue Williamson’s For Thirty years Next to His Heart (1990), and other works that deal with politics in a broader sense. Two film projections, William Kentridge’s What Will Come (2007) and Mikhael Subotzky’s Moses and Griffiths (2012) are examples of the latter. While the thematic sections provide a framework to organize the visual material, they also open up space for viewers to consider how each work might be read through a different conceptual lens. I was impressed by how this goal was realized through the careful arrangement of artwork and how it was demonstrated consistently throughout the exhibition.
One of the strengths of this exhibition was the way in which newer artists (or new work by familiar artists) were introduced and exhibited alongside more established, influential artists who are known internationally. These juxtapositions allowed for the recognition of new artists, and encouraged viewers to consider the more familiar works from a different perspective. A case in point is the juxtaposition of Nandipha Mntambo’s Ukungenisa next to The General, a 1993 engraving and watercolor by William Kentridge. Kentridge’s General personifies the militaristic, patriarchal power of the state in the historical context of South African apartheid. Mntambo’s film – her first attempt at performance and video – subverts the power of The General and undermines its masculine authority. Like The General, the video engages with a violent history: its setting is the Parka de Touros bullfighting ring in Maputo that was formerly an arena where black Mozambicans fought bulls to entertain the colonial Portuguese. The video begins with Mntambo standing in that now-empty space, getting dressed into a corseted waistcoat made of cowhide (the material will likely remind audiences of her widely-exhibited sculptural work of molded cowhide).
Mntambo performs the – typically male – matador as a woman, embracing the role with confidence and vigor. She calls our attention to the performance of gender in the public sphere. And her powerful disruption of gender norms easily relates to other works in the exhibition – like the two photographic portraits from Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases series – which also interrupt and disrupt conventional expectations and assumptions about appearance and gender. Placing Ukungenisa directly next to The General is a provocative move. When considered together, Mntambo’s work might draw one’s attention to male violence, the gendering of power, and the performance of masculinity that is implied in The General – qualities that sustain its authority.
However, importantly, the exhibition did something more than curatorially reinvestigate and recontextualize. It taught the students who participated in its curation about other issues facing museum and gallery professionals: institutional agendas, budgetary constraints, and collections practices, for example. The result is a conceptually rich, intellectually coherent, and visually compelling installation that reflects the dedicated work done by Ezra and her students. I describe the curatorial process in detail because I consider it to be an example of ‘best practice’ as a pedagogical and intellectual approach to how one might teach exhibition planning and design. It is also a model to be followed for those who are committed to mentoring young scholars, and helping to professionalize students by introducing them to key issues and practices in the field.