Curator of Historical Paintings and Sculpture at Iziko South African National Gallery Andrew Lamprecht takes ArtThrob on a walkabout of Breaking Down the Walls, a retrospective of 150 years of collecting at the National Gallery.
I was told that the first exhibition was going to be the 150 year exhibition. It was going to be a bit smaller than this, as it happens. The first thing I said was that it can’t be a celebration. It must be an anniversary show. As I point out in the exhibition, the first seventy-odd years, they had no South African artists. It took them almost a century to get a Black South African artist in the permanent collection. There’s a lot of colonial heritage, baggage and history that comes with the institutions. Although, there have been attempts to change it in recent decades.
I didn’t want to hide the colonial past. It would be easy to go into the storeroom and find everything that was acquired in the last twenty years and say, look how sanitised and wonderful everything is. But I thought that it’s important to put the colonial work up. It creates a dialogue between what’s come after. In the room where you enter, you have this spectacular overflow of art. I wanted it to be completely overwhelming. Then you go into the room on the left hand side, which is completely empty. That’s in honour of the many people who are not in the collection. That includes whose artworks weren’t collected, whose names were forgotten going back centuries, as well as the people who aren’t included in the collection even now. This is a moment to pause, a moment of sobriety. After that dazzle, I wanted there to be this quiet.
And then, there is this room called “Aesthetics and Prejudices.” The first thing I wanted to show was the first work by a South African artist acquired. That was in 1926. In 1964, they acquired the first work by a Black South Africa. The collection was founded in 1872, so almost exactly a century. Those two works are quite important. I wanted to show them on their own. But the rest of the exhibition is jam-packed.
It’s quite exciting, because it’s not just drawing from the National Gallery’s collection. It’s Iziko as an organisation. That means we have access to a national collection that includes natural history to fossils to anthropological items. These items were often seen in an anthropological, ethnological way. Even now, rock art is exhibited in the South African Museum – which everybody assumes is the Natural History Museum, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Ha Baroana Rock Art Reproduction, for example, is an enormous reproduction of a piece of rock art that’s now not actually visible; it’s faded over time. This was traced by three women: Agnes Schulz, Maria Weyersberg and Elisabeth Mannsfeld. We’ve got other things similar to this rock art tracing. These have never been on display. They’ve just been sitting in storerooms. We had a huge discussion about if we could show them. They’re quite fragile. It was quite a complicated installation job to get the conservators here. It was weeks of work: we had to leave it out to acclimatise; it’s been hung very carefully so as not to damage it. But I think it’s quite spectacular.
I wanted to give some due credence to rock art. It’s an art form that’s been practiced in South Africa for thousands of years. You might have heard of the Blombos ochre, which is a famous piece of ochre that was carved into 80,000 years ago. These engraved ochre works discovered at Klein Kliphuis are between 48,000-78,000 years old. They’ve never been on display. They also show deliberate mark making. That, for me, is the beginning of art making on the continent, or in South Africa anyway. They’re possibly the oldest artworks that exist in the world. And those are the originals.
So, I got interested in histories of mark making. I’ve got a Babylonian tablet where people are making marks. Also, some Egyptian art, which I think is important because it links us to the continent. These things have been sitting in Social History’s collections and storerooms for ages. I don’t know when these things were last displayed, quite frankly. Probably forty years ago.
A lot of this stuff from the exhibition has been taken out of the basement in many cases. They’ve certainly not been seen in juxtaposition with other things. A Kente cloth over there, regalia from a Yoruba king, mixed up with these petty walking sticks and things like that. I’ve also got some Greek pottery in this room. Some people might see this as Eurocentric, but I think we should start to see the links with other stuff. You’ve got figures in movement here, by the San, figures in movement there by the ancient Greeks.
Why I called this room “Aesthetics and Prejudice” is because I wanted to ask, what was considered art in the past? What is questioned as art now? Usha Seerjam’s Sequence City (2002), an embroidery of a sari with these little tags you get on loaves of bread. That speaks, to some extent of “women’s work” in embroidery. It speaks of matrilineal traditions. I’m also incorporating Islamic art. This is pottery from the Renaissance actually. People think about the Renaissance as Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, not this stuff. This is pottery that was made in Turkey at that time. Various things like that, do we think of them as art?
We have sketches that are not normally seen. We usually see the finished product of the work of art. Jan De Bray’s Winter (1662) is also interesting. This is one of the rare examples of a person of colour being portrayed in Dutch 17th century art, which there’s a lot of in the collection. This one I had to drag away from Groot Constantia where it was on display for decades.
There’s Persian art, and Chinese art and so on and so forth. Fatima February’s District Six, Where We Lived is an example of some lappies work that is done in the Bo-Kaap. I’m bringing that in. Yoruba crowns that are made of leaves. Are these art? I was trying to ask questions like that.
This room is called “Friends and (Art) Lovers.” It’s basically a tribute to people who have given art to the collection. A lot of material in the collection is donated by often very powerful, wealthy individuals. They are noted here. If you look at the labels, a lot of these things are donated bySir Edmund & Lady Davis, Lady Phillips, etc. Many of these people – not all of them, but many – made their money in mining in South Africa. Where does that money come from ultimately? Here we have Johannes Phokela’s painting Boomstonetown Sabbath. These are all mining magnates. It’s based on a photograph of mining magnates sitting around being very proud of themselves. Then, you’ve got this Black miner in the background. He’s naked and is holding his mittens, which they were required to wear. When they were digging for diamonds, they had to go naked and wear gloves which prevented them from stealing anything. It’s a kind of poignant reminder of, ultimately, where this collection comes from.
But, there are also happier moments. This is a work by the very first person, Francine Scialom Greenblatt, to have a residency at the National Gallery. She’s an amazing artist, still very active in London. She’s currently doing a show in Arles at the Frank Gehry Museum. This work is about the Cape Town City Hall, this kind of luscious female figure, but also bringing in things like wine and fish and stuff that would be traded on the Grand Parade. She’s very much into the eroticisation of spaces.
And just briefly, here are some artists who have contributed to the collection. This is a painting by Irma Stern of Lippy Lipshitz, who was incredibly influential in bringing work by Black artists into the collection. He was a trustee, and a sculptor in his own right. He really was one of the first people to say, “The acquisitions policy is rubbish. It’s a big problem.” I thought it was important to put his picture there. There are some works donated by other artists as well and former directors.
As I said, works are donated by various people, sometimes quite modest things, like only one work. These three paintings are my favourites. They’re not very impressive. You can barely see what they are. But they were actually donated by a man named Joachim Nikolaus von Dessin. In the 1700s, he donated a series of paintings from his collection to the people of the City of Cape Town. In some ways, this is where the public collection starts. I think he donated something like 40 paintings, but only 3 through the vicissitudes of time have survived. He first gave them to the Dutch Reformed Church, then they were on loan to the South African Association of Art. So, we’ve got 3 that we know of here.
I Hid my Face in Shame… Naz’izitha Zidlala Ngathu (1992) is a work by Vuyile Voyiya. He’s the person who gave Iziko the name Iziko. It was his suggestion. So I thought it was quite nice to show his work.
Another thing that happened in the late 80s, early 90s were these really important art education projects called the Tupelo Workshop, which encouraged Black artists to enter the domain of abstraction. Up until then, they had been encouraged to do linocuts and things. So this is work by Jill Trappler, who was very involved with that work. I chose one of her works to put on exhibition as well. Cedric, Wyson, Jamie, Zimbabwe – Rhodesia (1979) is a triptych by Hayden Proud, who was the incumbent to my post. So I thought it was nice to have that kind of link as well.
“This Is Your Art” is one of my little pet projects. I’m sure somebody else has done it, but I’ve never come across it. It’s an exhibition hung at kids’ height. We plan to have quite a few events in this room for kids. I chose them as pictures that might be interesting to younger people. But we’re not dumbing it down: there’s a Picasso, Miró, Irma Stern, Peter Clarke. It’s not just funny little kiddie pictures. I think people think that if you’re hanging for kids, you should show them cartoons and stuff. These are things that I thought kids and other people would be able to look at for a while and find something interesting.
Moving on to the next room, we are greeted by these works that are part of the Bailey collection. It was bequeathed by Alfred Bailey. He donated this huge collection, 80% of which are horse paintings. There’s a requirement in the donation that 5% of them must be on display at any given time. The curators usually tuck them away in a separate room. But I thought, let’s get out of this trend and take a whole lot of them out, but with Mary Sibande’s The Reign shooting forth from these very colonial paintings.
This room is about “Comparisons & Contrasts.” I won’t go through all of them. But you’ve got here, for example, some landscapes. Millet’s Le Depart Pour Le Travail (c. 1863) is very famous, in every textbook, next to Moses Tladi’s Farm Cottafe Driefontein, JHB (1939), who was the first Black South African artist to be exhibited at the National Gallery in the 1930s. Then we have another South African artist, Wolf Kibel, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany who came here. There’s Helmut Starcke next to good old Pierneef, who you can’t get away from. He was a near contemporary of George Pemba, who’s also talking about the landscape.
When you get to abstraction, you’ve got Ernest Mancoba, Durant Sihlali, Sonia Delaunay who’s a Ukrainian artist. Next to Louis Maqubela, you suddenly see incredible similarities. And here’s another piece of rock art that I really love. Again, it’s rarely been seen; it’s been in storerooms. This is an example of Entoptic art, in which the shaman goes into a trance state – you know when you get a migraine and you get those little flashes on the side of your eyes – that’s what they’re recording in here.
This Durant Sihlali, Fragments of the Ancient Wall (1991) is one of my favourites. This is his later work. He was doing this work when he was working at the Bag Factory. On his way there everyday – when he was about in his 80s – he would look at the graffiti. He started recording the lines of the graffiti. I’m a big fan of Sihlali; I think he’s so hip and contemporary. I had the fortunate experience of meeting him in his old age, and he seemed like such a hip guy. Dealing with graffiti, you know? These are the marks that he saw on the street, and he was marking them in a different way. In the kid’s room, there’s another Sihlali which is a more traditional watercolour.
And then a shameless piece of taking advantage of the moment: Margaret Williams’ The Young Princesses (1937), one of the first examples of a depiction of the Queen and her sister Margaret. It probably wouldn’t have been on if it weren’t for the moment, but it becomes quite interesting when you put it next to Thania Petersen’s I Am Royal (c. 2015), which talks about the fact that many people who came here as slaves were actually from royal descent. Then Josef Israels’ The Death of William the Silent, again another old Dutch painting that is talking about how power is vested. This room is all about the comparisons we can draw between colonial acquisitions and more modern works.
This is all to say that I didn’t want to hide them away. I sometimes find them very interesting. They do carry a lot of colonial baggage. But by juxtaposing them against things that were made in the present day, or by South Africans, it becomes quite interesting.
This room is called “Genders and Agendas,” which deals with, well, gender. Again, I’m interested in what’s considered to be art, and what’s considered to be “women’s work.” So we have beaded necklaces and fertility dolls and things like that. I want to give them the dignity of being seen in the context of oil painting. There’s a woman adorned in her finery; next to it, we have some actual finery. On this wall, we have something which is really exciting. We’ve got some other kinds of adornment. These are about a hundred years old. That’s over a thousand years old. It’s on its original guts. In fact, if you very gingerly move it, you can actually see how it must have moved on the body.
Daniel Maclise’s painting is one that I couldn’t resist. It’s a painting of the three witches from Macbeth, but portrayed as men. I think that’s quite an interesting statement. This pastel painting/drawing was, for many years, in the Slave Lodge. It could be seen hanging for many years in the corner on a little string. I was always fascinated by it, because it’s James Berry. She was the first surgeon to perform a successful C-section in which both mother and child survived. She lived her entire life as a man in order to study, and also became revered in the army. This is one of the only authentic portraits we have of Berry.
These works by Ian Berry are called Cape Moffie Drag, which I think are also quite interesting. These are archival things we have in our collection that talk about a history that is often not spoken about. So I juxtaposed these with Tracey Rose’s Lolita (2001). I was thinking of not putting The Kiss and only having this work, but sometimes I think you have to show the favourites.
“Nation and Resistance” is about nation and how we construct the idea of nation. A lot of the works have political overtones, but not exclusively. Take this as an example of a work that could be easily overlooked. Sipho Hlati made these versions of postage stamps. Postage stamps are always portraying the best in the country; they glorify our achievements. These are postage stamps that depict things that are not going well in our society. Stock exchange (1974-75) by Gavin Jantjies talks about mining. This relates to the prices of gold stock next to British colonial coins. This work is right next to Sethembile Msezane’s performance at the toppling of Rhodes. Again, the curious position we are in is how to deal with these existing structures. How does one deal with them? Khaya Witbooi literally turns it on its head in Common Ground II (opposites attract) (2014).
These works relate to war. This is The Death of Shaka (Triptych) (1971) by Cecil Skotnes. A work that’s called Fields of Battle (1989) by Thami Jali, who is not very well known, but a pioneering Black abstract artist.
I love this corner. We’ve got a couple of things happening here. As you go from pictures of struggle and burning passbooks and stuff like that, to pictures of Nelson Mandela as a boxer, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mandela’s birthday celebration after the election. Ronald Harrison’s The Black Christ (1961-62) is a really important painting, which was smuggled out of South African and used as a rallying cry for the anti-apartheid movement. The artist was tortured. It came back to South Africa in the 90s when it was found in the basement of Government House. We’ve got The Butcher Boys in the front, but for me – as I said to Jane Alexander – Portrait of a man with landscape and procession (Bantu Stephen Biko 1946–1977) is almost a more important work in my opinion. If you look across the room, those are The Interrogators, a painting by Paul Stepforth that depicts the three men who tortured and murdered Biko. That painting was acquired in the late 70s by the director at the time in a great moment of bravery. He had to hide it away from authorities when they came. The idea of Biko confronting his interrogators is quite a nice moment. Or, that was my intention.
And here we have “Jan van Riebeeck.” We’ve got this painting which is the famous one reprinted on the bank notes, stamps and what have you. I put it on the ground as if it’s about to be taken away. I was going to hang it upside down, but I thought this was more effective. I had to get a lot of conservation agreement for that. They were not happy about the idea of a painting on the ground.
This room is called “Lost and Found.” It’s basically artworks from the collection that haven’t been seen for a long time. Like this artist, Andrew Motjuoadi, who was kind of a contemporary of Gerard Sekoto. He died very young of a stroke, when he was in his thirties. Again, his works have rarely been seen, because he’s not one of the big names. Other examples include this lost painting, Daphne Taylor’s The Brazen Serpent. It was sold by an awful ex-director Edward Roworth in the 1940s. In fact, during the Second World War, he was saying that Hitler had the right ideas about art. We need good, solid art, not this modernist crap. He sold off this painting, amongst many others, without any permission from the board. It was recovered in the late 80s by somebody who spotted it in an antique shop in Kalk Bay. They said, “I’m sure this is one of the paintings that was sold.” It was reacquired.
Other things: these are from Bobby Bobson’s archive. He would do these hand-coloured photographs that families never came and collected. We don’t know who the people are; they’re kind of lost and found.
Then you go back to these classical, triggering works. This portrait from the School of Rembrandt for example. But we X-rayed it, and we discovered that there’s Hebrew writing in it. We’ve had a professor of Hebrew come in and take a look, and she’s identified a few words, like life. There’s still a project underway, because this was done on a common X-ray machine, and we want to do more work on that with better equipment. What lies beneath is quite interesting.
Next to that, we’ve got a forgery of a Rembrandt by this weird captain William Baillie who found the plates of Rembrandt’s most famous etching – The Hundred Guillermo Print – and he basically reworked them, because he thought he was an artist, and passed them off as the real thing. This is another fake. This was donated in the 20s as a genuine Alfred Sisley. In the 80s, it was discovered to be a forgery. This is a little print of a little view of Dieppe, The Old Royal Hotel by Walter Sickert. We had the original painting, and the painting was stolen.
This room is called “Science and Art.” A lot of Iziko is made up of people in the sciences. I thought, a lot of them take photographs, and they look at things that are actually quite beautiful under the microscope. So I thought I should take the opportunity to celebrate some of the stuff that they’re doing. Breaking these boundaries – the whole thing’s about breaking barriers, breaking boundaries. What is art? What is not art?
Finally, this is “Looking to the Future.” What I’ve done here is put in recent acquisitions to show perhaps how the collection is changing, or not changing, depending on how people may feel. I think you do discover different types of media, different types of display, different materials used. This is Zyma Amien’s The Toilers (Series 2) (2018): a beautiful work made of pins and thread. We move from that to these ceramics made by Hylton Nel’s trainee Nico Masemola, right up to the present with Mapula Cloth by Kelelo M, Anna Radebe and Elizabeth Mofamaoi, which I think is the most recent acquisition, from 2021. It’s a tapestry that talks about Black Lives Matter and Covid. I think that’s a fitting way to realize that we’re connecting to the moment as well.
And a bit of a personal thing. The last thing on the exhibition, if you go through the route I’ve taken you. This is a recent acquisition. The Iziko controls the Michaelis collection which holds all the old Dutch Masters’ works. Those are housed in the Old Town House. This is a painting by Robert Gwelo Goodman of the Old Town House done in the 1950s. That’s the next project, is to reimagine that building. That’s my next project. So, watch this space. Hopefully something new and refreshing will come.