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1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective

Various Artists at Iziko South African National Gallery

By Sue Williamson
15 April - 15 September. 0 Comment(s)
‘1910-2010 From Pierneef to Gugulective’

‘1910-2010 From Pierneef to Gugulective’, 15 April 2010. Reopening of Iziko National Gallery .

In May 2009, Riason Naidoo took over as Director of Art Collections at Iziko South African National Gallery, after the decades-long tenure of Marilyn Martin. A movement away from the all white curatorial team at the SANG had long been seen as a necessary part of  the post-apartheid transformation of the museum, and Naidoo came to the SANG with a diverse background in lecturing, curating and writing. His most recent accomplishment before taking up the post was a five year stint of working on the historic Timbuktu papers archives, which culminated in the ceremonial opening of the Ahmed Baba Library in January 2009.

The current exhibition, ‘1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective’, can be seen, then, as Naidoo’s curatorial premiere at the SANG, his first sally into presenting a major exhibition at the country’s flagship art institution – timed, of course, to tie in with the increased visitors expected to be brought in by the FIFA World Cup. The gallery was closed for some six weeks earlier this year in order to strip the walls of all the existing hangings, some of which had been in place for a very long time, making room for the new show.

Expressing his intentions metaphorically, Naidoo used this Mahatma Gandhi quote in his curatorial statement: ‘I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any’.

In presenting this overview of 100 years of South African art, Naidoo used as a primary resource the extensive collection of the SANG, but also travelled the country, borrowing key works from other collections. (His requests were not always successful: an attempt to loan Penny Siopis’ Patience on a Monument:a History Painting (1988) from the William Humphreys Art Gallery in Kimberley was met with a refusal: the gallery felt the work was too popular not to be always on display).

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The result is a big, sprawling exhibition hung salon style which does indeed give an overview of the history of South African art, from three landscapes by JH Pierneef, the master of the empty, stylized landscape on which no human being dare intrude, to a group ‘portrait’ by Gugulective, the artists’ collaborative group from Gugulethu  – six zinc washtubs of the type ubiquitous in smaller homes, with concealed recordings providing viewers with an audio experience.

The important achievement of this mega-exhibition is the opportunity given to viewers to step back, view what artists were producing over the decades, think about the context of those times, and thus trace the threads which led us to where we are today.

An airbrushed photograph of a couple from the Bobson Studio in Durban which looks as if it was made around the middle of the last century is dated, surprisingly, 1996, which seems a very late date for this technique. But Bobby Bobson (Sukdeo Bobson Mohanlall) operated his studio for more than forty years, from 1961 until it closed following his death in 2003, and this must have been a later work. In earlier days, a photographer was often called upon to take separate images of family members, who might not be able to get to the studio together (apartheid could make even simple excursions difficult), then marry the images together, using airbrushing to smooth it all out and add colour.  

Photography is well represented on the show, dating from the once-banned images of Ernest Cole, through a fine representation of the action-filled black and white images of the Drum photographers from the fifties, which have so strongly influenced our impression of what South Africa was like in those days, to portrait images from the new generation – Lolo Veleko, Mikhael Subotzky and Pieter Hugo.

Context has played a large part in the grouping of work on the show – Jo Ractliffe’s extended film strip of the nondescript road on which Vlakplaas was located, site of the germination of extermination plans by the security police, is next to George Hallett’s portrait of Eugene de Kok and Jann Turner. De Kok was the commander of Vlakplaas, and Turner’s activist father Rick was assassinated in front of her by still unidentified security policemen. In Hallett’s portrait, Turner stands behind the seated De Kok, gazing down at him with a strangely inscrutable smile.

Many of the key video works from the canon are here. Minnette Vári’s early experiment with morphing her own naked body into news footage, Alien; Churchill Madikida’s Struggles of the Heart, (2004) in which the artist endlessly ingests great handfuls of stodgy pap; William Kentridge’s brilliant animations, Mine (1995) and Monument (1990); My Lovely Day, Penny Siopis’ engaging tale of her family’s move to South Africa from Greece, using old home movie footage and subtitles which reflect her grandmother’s voice,;and Steven Cohen’s powerful Chandelier (2002). In this performance the artist, clad in a glass chandelier, sashays into a squatter camp where the residents are having their possessions removed by municipal officials. Cohen’s outlandish appearance and passivity throughout the event creates an almost martyr-like aura around his presence as he accepts abuse and scorn as well as gestures of friendship without changing expression.

Long-accepted icons of art like Jane Alexander’s ghoulish Butcher Boys (1985/86) are juxtaposed with works which one might see as the new icons, like Mary Sibande’s 2009 work Conversations with Madam C.J. Walker. In this tableau, Sibande evokes the domestic servitude of the women of her family, rendering the blue and white servant’s uniform into a costume for a heroine, of voluminous ballgown proportions. The C.J. Walker of the title was the employer, a woman who pioneered the introduction of black wigs into South Africa. Sibande has rendered a portrait of Walker in black artificial hair, using more tresses of the hair to link the sculpture to the portrait on the wall.

The final room of the gallery is a continuation of the exhibition, but a show inside the show, as it were, entitled ‘US’ and curated by Simon Njami and Bettina Malcolmess, with fine work by younger artists like Gugulective, Dan Halter and Zen Marie. A problem throughout the exhibition – and here, with the more conceptual work, one feels it particularly - is a lack of information about the work. Wall texts sometimes give a certain background, like the one above the DRUM photographs, but often the texts are quotes which may be evocative but which have little relation to the actual work.

Funds may well have precluded the printing of a full catalogue, but an online catalogue with a few monitors available for consultation, or even the printing of text on A4 sized laminated sheets which would have been available for viewers to read in each room would have been enormously helpful, especially for foreign visitors.

To provide notes on every work might have been too great a task, but a selection of the strongest works in each room could have been chosen for discussion. This kind of dissemination of information is considered essential in the modern museum world, and the National Gallery needs to up its game massively in this regard.

Nonetheless, the decision to mount this show at this time was sound, and there is a great deal to engage every viewer. It is seldom – if ever – that such a wide-ranging selection of work in every media has been put up on a single exhibition. From the staid landscapes of the beginning of the twentieth century, through the expressionistic portraits of Irma Stern (today pulling down huge prices at auction), from the anguished drawings of Dumile Feni and the unattributed tribal beadwork laid out in vitrines to the conceptual work of today, feel it. It’s here.