'Finding UCT: Narratives New and Old in the UCT Permanent Collection' at the UCT Centre for African Studies'
by Anna Tietze
One of the central insights to have emerged from the post-modernist discourse of recent years is that our understanding and appreciation of art depends hugely upon some framing context. Certainly we all have had the experience of stumbling upon a work which, quite isolated, nevertheless seems replete with significance and emotive force, but far more often our experience of works is mediated and enriched by a multitude of extraneous aids, some of which we are scarcely aware of: title, explanatory label, juxtaposition with another work, positioning in a room, and so on. Despite the modernists' claims that art speaks unaided, experience teaches that it often speaks far more richly with extraneous interventions.
This is perhaps the most fundamental benefit of the recent exhibition of works from UCT's art collection 'Finding UCT: Narratives New and Old in the UCT Permanent Collection', curated by Clare Butcher and Linda Stupart. For this collection, the curators sourced works from all over the university and gathered them together in one exhibition space in the Centre for African Studies. The space is not large, and the exhibition is reasonably modest in size, but it has the invaluable effect of bringing a focus to bear on the selected works and thus giving them a significance of a kind that they would be much harder placed to offer in their home exhibition venues.
As the labels remind us, these are works that are usually scattered throughout the campus buildings, public and private. Some, such as Bunu's etching Samson and Delilah (housed in Glenara) will only normally be seen by guests of the Vice-Chancellor; while others require some chance luck or prior knowledge of arcane areas of campus in order to be found (Terence McCaw's Snow Scene in the office of the Registrar's secretary, or Brangwyn's 14th Station of the Cross in the Rare Books Department). A third group will not normally be viewable at all, since they are in store, or until now have been unaccounted for (Schreuder's Hero, Gratrix's Girl Masturbating in a Forest, and Uppington 26s, Ark of Hope by Pollsmoor prisoners, discovered by the curators in its original packing crate in a storage room in the Centre for African Studies). So bringing these works together, at the very simplest level, is something of a triumph.
The curators' aim, however, has been to do much more than to give exposure to under-exposed parts of the collection. In selecting the works they do, and then arranging them as they do, they successfully lend the works new dimensions of meaning. We are given an approach route to unfamiliar works, but a new angle, too, on familiar ones: Hipper's Good Girls (Porer loan) is perhaps one of the most familiar works in the UCT collection, given its striking imagery and prominent permanent position in the main library entrance area - and yet here, rehung on a wall with surrounding images of femininity and religious pathos (Nowers' Jy Loer Nog, Bunu's Samson and Delilah, Brangwyn's 14th Station of the Cross and a reproduction on glass after Reynolds' Duchess of Devonshire), it has a fresh significance. Likewise Gabriel Clarke-Brown's Saun James with Agent, a township scene with distant UCT on the slopes of the mountainside, is lent a new poetry by its proximity to Tammy Anne Clark's domestic interior (Untitled) and Nhlengethwa's Still Life with Couch.
The curators have approached the task of hanging works by dividing the available wall space implicitly into thematic niches. The images in these virtual niches work interactively as a group while setting up relationships with the images in other parts of the room; thus an interior study on one side of the exhibition space is understood in relation to its partner, while, surveying the space more broadly, we notice that it speaks to related works across the room. With interactions like these, meanings extend far beyond what the works individually contain, and a kind of web of signs arises.
Meanwhile, at a general level there seem to be two broad readings to emerge from the exhibition as a whole and this probably reflects the two different kinds of motivations behind choices of works. One one hand, one senses, the curators made spontaneous choices driven by personal passion, while on the other hand they bore in mind the specific project embodied in the exhibition's title. At one level, these are works that reveal a curatorial taste for nostalgia, tenderness, femininity. O'Meara's Pero Take Care, Don't Let Him Fall, a delicate lithograph reminiscent of the Commedia del' Arte characters familiar from Watteau's art, Tammy Anne Clark's gently witty retro interior, or Irma Stern's elegant Mrs Einhorn all exhibit this quality, as does Aggenbach's haunting Port, or Terence McCaw's Snow Scene. These works, and many others in the show, give to the whole an atmosphere of poignancy which is very personal to these curators. But then there is the other level, whereby the exhibition says something about how the art acquisitions policy of the university has changed over the years. And this is a very different curatorial concern.
What seems to emerge is an early acquisition policy driven by the desire to reinforce notions of civilised behaviour, worthy conduct and ideal Nature, giving way to a recent policy of buying work that challenges hierarchies of value, about people and place as well as artistic method. It is unlikely that the university's acquisitions body would nowadays acquire a print - or a print after a print - of a Reynolds portrait, such as the one here of the Duchess of Devonshire, donated in 1938; they�re more likely to invest in a combative kind of conceptual art like Josephny's 88.5% of Full Professors at UCT are Men, or something witty and ironic like Schreuders' Hero. Having said that, one notices the (ironic) inclusion in the exhibition of the Ryall portrait Mrs Taylor, a thoroughly conventional 'portrait of a worthy' (in this case an ex-warden of Fuller Hall Residence), purchased as late as 1993 and now hung in Fuller's dining hall. So one needs to be careful of generalisations about the history of this collection.
In fact, it would have been interesting if the acquisition date of each piece had been included in the label information, so that the historian's interest in tracing a time-line might have been satisfied. As it stands, the exhibition is perhaps ultimately torn between the two different views of what it is about: a means of opening up suggestive parallels between disparate works (from a range of media and a fairly broad chronological period), or an attempt to show how taste, and UCT taste in particular, has changed over the past 70 or so years. If the latter project had been pursued further, it would have been important to register two collecting moments that hardly feature in the exhibition as it stands: the taste for radically abstract work, whose importance was virtually unquestioned in the 1960s and 70s, and the activist art of the late 70s and 80s - figurative, angry images of local topical issues.
Minor quibbles aside, however, this exhibition serves the important function of bringing together a range of works in one space and under the controlling direction of a (joint) guiding eye. Its impact reminds us that there's no beating a curated show for giving artwork a rich life and afterlife. And yet at present there is no dedicated gallery space on the main UCT campus for more shows of this kind. The university's large and ever-growing collection is scattered about the various campuses, where it occupies working areas, some frequented by students, others largely used by staff. It's a system that has great merits, but also the disadvantage that much can be taken for granted, misunderstood, or simply not seen when a collection is scattered too widely (or parts of it exhibited in staff-only areas). One hopes that, sometime very soon, UCT will put the gallery space on a permanent footing, and a curator/administrator to go with it.
Anna Tietze is a Lecturer in Art History and Visual Studies at UCT.
Opens: September 19
Closes: October 10
UCT Centre for African Studies Gallery
Harry Oppenheimer Building, Upper Campus, University of Cape Town
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