Stellenbosch University Museum
Two things confront me entering ‘From the Vault’: the strong red of the walls and the legacy of South African modernism. The exhibition brings together collections from Stellenbosch and Fort Hare Universities. It ambitiously teases out themes dormant in both collections and curates the work in such a way as to encourage a cross-reading of the archive, instead of setting them up within the framework of opposing ideological and political worlds.
While the Fort Hare University collection was exhibited in ‘A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African Artists (1970-1990)’ in the Standard Bank gallery last year, the context in which the works are now hung is quite different. A short curatorial statement explains one of the intentions of the exhibition is to ‘work with memory as a future possibility’. I am interested in how the curators Mike Tigere Mavura and Gcotyelwa Mashiqa use these archives to speak not to the past but to the future and in the course of this review will test their statement and see if, and how, it is possible to use the exhibition as a ‘futuring’ tool
Given the constraints of working within an existing university museum, the exhibition makes use of wall colour to draw the viewer in and arguably to disrupt traditional associations with museums as places of the past divorced from the reality outside. A prominent Cecil Skotnes wood panel entitled Kop is immediately visible on the ground floor and pays homage to the modernist vision of using art as a way to affirm new identities and worlds as promoted by the Polly Street Art Centre where Skotnes played an active role. Despite this work’s prominence, the exhibition notably deflects attention away from individual artists by grouping the paintings together according to theme or aesthetics and this approach to hanging encourages the viewer to seek out the links between the works. The groupings include different artists from the two collections and by refusing a straight up comparative approach the exhibition forces the viewer to engage more critically with the work and to evaluate the individual paintings through the lens of the new grouping. Each grouping serves as a kind of stepping stone through a past that we know to be troubled and painful. However, the way in which the exhibition engages with oppression is not straightforward and disrupts the categories usually imposed on paintings from the past such as ‘resistance art’ and ‘township art’.
A grouping hung on the first floor sees four diverse works including two incised and painted wooden panels by Lucky Sibiya and Issac Nkoana, a lithograph and an oil by George Pemba. All the works make reference to dance, however the forms and meanings of these dances are quite different. From the titles, one references ritual dance, another harvesting, a third appears celebratory and Pemba’s work depicts people dancing in the streets of New Brighton township. In this way traditional ways of being are positioned as concurrent to urban township street life. The different stylistic approaches and subject matter emphasise the duality of tradition and so-called modernity and demand that we assess this relationship in the present moment. The various forms that dance can take also suggests a complexity in lived experience and suggests that there is no correct way to dance. We can extend this to our reading of the past more generally. There is no single narrative.
It is clear that a disruption of past categories is demanded. While the crisis of Dumile Feni’s Father teach me how to pray (1967) is seen and felt, alongside it is Tommy Motswai’s bustling street scene entitled The OK is Everything (1988). Feni’s work speaks directly to the anguish experienced by black South Africans under apartheid rule. In contrast Motswai makes no overt reference to suffering or even the politics of the moment. This juxtapostion rejects a single narrative or memory of the past. This is not to suggest a denial of past wrongs but rather demonstrates the complexity of multiple truths or lived realities.
A similar interweaving of the sculptural work also holds alternative expressions simultaneously. In this way, everyday life lies alongside the wrongs of apartheid; the personal and the public are seen in conversation with scenes inside kitchens, on the streets, in a brothel and on graduation day. Abstraction and realism also hang side-by-side but dominant throughout is the human figure – celebrating, dancing, harvesting, protesting, walking and ultimately confronting us with our multiplicities. Throughout the exhibition the grouping of works encourages two readings. It either emphasises multiple and simultaneous ways of being, or the focus is on commonalities of subject matter or style found within the two collections and explored across medium, race or institution.
The exhibition takes its inspiration from the work of Selby Mvusi, a brilliant academic, thinker and artist who was South African-born but taught and travelled widely both on the continent and in the United States. Mvusi questioned the relevance of the past in addressing the concerns of the present within the context of newly independent African countries in the 1960s and ‘70s. In addition to the curatorial statement, a decal stuck to a wall of the exhibition quotes Mvusi as he argues ‘The past does not matter in a practice where the problem to be resolved, the commitment to be recognized and the question to be answered is: What is Our Time?’. In a country that increasingly has come to acknowledge that it has not adequately redressed the past, but is also held captive by its history, we need to find new ways of narrating and understanding what this past means for us now. In its rejection of a simplified and divided past, the exhibition suggests that we need to find new ways of engaging with our realities and only then can we address the future we want to build. Ultimately, the breaking of past categories is a speculative act, but it does enable us to imagine a different future. Now more than ever, we need to reject simplistic separations or juxtapositions and need to find alternative ways of being in dialogue and bringing together opposing and uncomfortable realities in order to find a way to navigate the future.