Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg
13.05 – 06.07.2019
‘40 Years of Collecting: Celebrating the Standard Bank African Art Collection’ is an exhibition curated by Dr Same Mdluli to commemorate the 40-year anniversary of the Standard Bank African Art Collection and the bank’s partnership with Wits Art Museum. It’s a partnership that was initiated in 1979 by Ian MacKenzie and Professor Karl Tober. Since then, the collection has grown to include over 200 objects from across sub-Saharan Africa.
A collection of this kind, with the history it invokes, should demand a complicating gaze from any viewer. After all, this is not a simple feast of pretty pictures. This is why questions occasioned by John Berger’s Ways of Seeing have the potential to open the exhibition up in richer ways than a simple celebration of collected cultural objects of an Africa fast fading. This holds true even as it is necessary to celebrate the professed motivation for why the collection was created in the first place: to recover, and safeguard these rare objects lest they be bought and shipped off to be entombed in vaults of collectors in the wealthier global north.
Lessons of Berger’s book demand that we ask key questions of the collected hoarde as it hangs in the gallery’s cubic hold: What kind of world did these objects constitute in ‘the Africa’ that created them, and how did they form it? What values did they embody or create? How were they used and understood? Conversely, what world do these objects constitute for us now? How do we understand them today? Perhaps even the most basic of these questions too: were these works considered ‘Art’ or industry by their makers and how should we position them today?
Visitors entering the gallery foyer downstairs begin their encounter with Igbo figurines from Nigeria. These are undated. Then viewers have to make the choice to study a makeshift art restoration office in the northern side room, or to go into the opposite room where the first of two anthropological video projections is on show. These videos provide demonstrations of how some of the objects were used in the native settings. Upstairs, where the larger part of the collection is displayed, visitors are greeted by collection of Va-Venda and Tonga drums raised on a plinth in the center of the gallery’s inner hall. This is where the gallery’s architecture allows the show to break, briefly, with traditional cubic geometry of traditional museum displays. Viewers are liberated from following a liner processing through the exhibit.
However, in the main space, tradition successfully resists ambitions of reform, if ever they were entertained by the curator and exhibition designers. The show flirts more with display regimes of anthropological, or natural history museums than an art show in the ultra-modern age. Naturally, the exhibition designers were set up to duel with the pitfalls and dilemmas of display from the jump. They are implicated in a display regime that has historically worked to diminish the cultural vitality of these kinds of objects. The history of museum collections and the display of African objects is nothing short of troubled to be kind. It’s a heritage teeming with legacies of brutal colonial encounters and ideological violence and contest. At the heart of it is a particular legacy of erasure. Seen as they are, casketed in glass boxes, nailed and hung on the walls of the gallery, “these objects refuse to reveal their secrets,” as Simon Njami once wrote, “After all, what is a mask that refuses to dance apart from a pretty sculpture?”
For instance, we may consider a pair of cowhide drums from the Congo standing mute in the northern wing. Sculpted from whole tree trunks, the bodies of these man-sized drums are decorated with carvings of figurines, symbolic animals. Each drum is even given a sex. The father drum clearly identifiable by the protruding phallic male principle and the mother drum with its own vaginal organs. It is clear that within their communities of origin, these were understood through their use. Removed from the ceremonies in which they were meant to be beaten, they are dead. Drums are meant to be heard and felt, not merely seen.
The museum or gallery arrangement scheme that ties and mounts objects in an unindividuated format, flattens them into something resembling industry, not art. There is a collection of headrests encased in a wall mounted glassbox. In a kind of visual rhyme, they hang on a wall that stands at a right angle with one that hosts an assortment of ceremonial maces. Delicately decorated with colourful beats, and culled from various Nguni nationalities, their pristine condition is a credit to the collector’s care.
This display of ‘antique’ objects contains moments of revelation for contemporary sensibilities too though. The sophisticated use of symbolism and abstraction in their craftsmanship is as refreshing as any latest sculptural work. It’s in the way their makers carve a slit to stand in for mouth, a pyramidic formulation to symbolize a nose on the geometric experiment that invokes a mythical head in a mask. The expertly conveyed mood and facial expression of the wooden figurines can be enjoyed for their vitality, for the expert hand that shaped them. They carry their own aesthetic value. These qualities are available to the eye. Even if there’s little opportunity for viewers to learn, with authority, how their makers felt about them. However, it is safe to bet on those makers not thinking of them as “Art” in the way our contemporary imagination would position it.
As Berger writes, “when an image is presented as a work of art, the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions about art. Assumptions concerning: Beauty, Truth, Genius, Civilization, Form, Status, Taste, etc” These concerns are often suspended when such objects as make up this collection are concerned, partly because these objects belong to a past we barely have access to. The immovable veil of colonial erasure stands between us and the creatives whose blood, sweat and ingenuity is silently present in the exhibition. That said, Berger also argues: “the past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act,” what to do?