Michaelis Galleries, Cape Town
September 15, 2016 looked like any other event in the milieu of the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. The usual ingredients which make up opening protocol were firmly in place – students and staff gathered with their friends to drink free wine on a Thursday evening.
Those who were familiar with the underlying politics of the space could appreciate why it was exceptional to witness a solo exhibition of Mmakgabo Mmapula Mmankgato Helen Sebidi at the belly of the South African art system, exceptional because Sebidi couldn’t study at Michaelis even if she wanted to. Even if she hadn’t left school after Grade 8 to work, she couldn’t enrol because she lived under apartheid for the first fifty years of her life; exceptional because despite being awarded the Presidential Order and exhibiting overseas, she is still not acknowledged by institutions such as Michaelis in their curriculums and exhibitions.
It took a special effort from Michaelis Galleries curator Nkule Mabaso to make the show happen. Against the above mentioned odds, against the doubts of her colleagues, against the budget restraints, against the fact that the artist and her gallerist postponed the exhibition dates (twice), Mabaso could celebrate a professional victory that Thursday evening. She could celebrate a small step towards rewriting the local art history, honouring a 73 year old female artist who ‘made it’ in an environment that systematically overlooks her. Little did Mabaso know that it would be the first and last day that the exhibition she worked so hard for would see the light of day.
The following morning, Friday September 16, the wind of protest knocked on the gates of the campus as an extension of the students’ decolonisation movement under the hashtag FeesMustFall. From that day onwards, in line with the national sentiment, the campus was shut down. Staff and students could not use their studios and lectures were cancelled. Together with it, the Sebidi exhibition was closed.
Under the name Umhlangano (‘Gathering’ in Zulu), the students formed a permanent intervention on the campus grounds, facilitating mass meetings to voice various grievances with the institution. It resulted in an 18 pages long document of demands, highlighting the urgent need for more Afro-centric content in the curriculum. During six weeks the collective served as the self-appointed gatekeepers of the campus, regulating who entered the premises and renaming the buildings. Signs were erased with black tape or renamed: Hiddingh campus became Umhlangano arts campus, Arena Theatre was given the name of Winston Ntshona, and Michaelis was renamed as the Helen Sebidi School of Fine Art.
One will have to speculate whether the new name of the country’s ‘leading’ art school was inspired by the exhibition which was up in the shutdown gallery of the campus at that time. Ironically the students were honouring Sebidi while preventing her work from being shown.Those seemingly contradicting actions can serve as a bridge to dissecting the logic behind the protests, getting down to what the students want and how they want it.
From first sight this might come across as a missed opportunity: While yearning for more knowledge about black artists, there was a lack of engagement with the exhibition of a living legend of South Africa’s black art – a woman who is four times their age and still creating new and exciting works.
One could see it as a poetic tragedy that Mabaso had to call Sebidi and cancel her planned visit to the exhibition. Disappointed, Sebidi repeatedly said how much she would have liked to talk to the students. It is easy to spot the irony in occasions when pan-African progressive activities were cancelled in the name of solidarity with a greater nation-wide movement. Sebidi is not alone – Lefifi Tladi’s talk about the art museum in Ga-Rankuwa was cancelled, and same with the fate of Ilze Wolff’s course on multiple narratives in local architecture.
Two months into the shutdown, the protest made room for the bureaucracy of negotiations. Staff and students came and went from the campus, with expectations, assumptions, tensions and exhaustion. During all this time, Sebidi’s artworks hang in the dark empty gallery, carrying stories and emotions for no one to see or feel. Mabaso tried to extend the duration of the exhibition, but Everard Read, Sebidi’s gallery, wanted the works back. And so the exhibition was uninstalled without anyone actually seeing it.
The exhibition, which portrays black beings as proud and soft human experience could have fed into the students’ concerns with narrow stereotypical representations of blackness. It was a black exhibition, and for a change, not only because the artist or the subjects were black. The stories were black. Inspiration hungry students could see a body of work that steps outside of the contemporary fashion of self objectification.
Sebidi could remind them about the artist’s traditional role as a community story-teller, not self-focused maker. They could also talk critically about her bio being framed in popular discourse as an apartheid Cinderella story – highlighting her past as a domestic worker who was inspired by her grandmother and discovered by her German employer. She could have shared her experience as painter, printmaker and sculptor who navigated her way in the racist dynamics of access to the local art world.
On second thought, beyond the instant judgment, one can appreciate the complexity of the students’ logic instead of dismissing it. Maybe what they were saying is that they see the gallery with its white walls as part of the institution even when it finally appoints a black curator and brings black content. Or maybe the timing was premature: was it too early to have those conversations? Do they first need to vent their anger with it all, and only later with time and reflection engage with living examples of local decolonisers that act under their noses, by coming to work every day in the system and changing it slowly from within, creating small revolutions.
As the painting The Grandmother is the Guide to the Family suggests, Sebidi speaks highly of the importance of going back to the roots as a channel of liberation, connecting with the elders in the community to capture the spirit of their philosophy. Elders are not necessarily old people, there was also the potential of students engaging with the 28 year old Mabaso, about her journey from being a frustrated student like them not so long ago to being the curator of the gallery, bringing the content she never received into the school.
And maybe what looks like an inter-generational conversation that was missed, is actually a conversation that was held – in which the elders offered help, and the students said ‘no thank you, we’ve seen what you’ve done and it’s not good enough’.
In the painting Destroyed People are Trying to Face the World Sebidi provides a possible visualisation to this logic. Three persons are merged into an image of one, playing a musical instrument, one has a pair of eyes in different colours – they could be the various faces of one soul, our inner contradicting voices, and they could be three different people merged into the same situation. Sebidi’s motif of duality as inherent in all living creatures provides a compassionate explanation to the complexity behind the ironic story of the exhibition that missed its audience.
Valeria Geselev is an independent curator who graduated from Michaelis with Honours in Curatorship in 2013. She was a resident at Michaelis Galleries during 2016, and co-curated ‘Uyaphi’, a participatory project imagining the decolonised school.