Tracy Murinik in conversation with the curators of the exhibition, Melissa Goba and Johan Myburg
TM:I’d like to start with the title of the exhibition, ‘Shifting Conversations’, which seems to presuppose a previous or ongoing set of concerns ‘in conversation’ that have been in place, and that are in flux to something else – perhaps a different perspective or way of looking, thinking, questioning? Could you frame the exhibition in terms of the title, and also comment on the nature of that shift?
MG:In terms of understanding what the exhibition is, it’s about the material that results from conversations that might have been had. There are two dynamics that we bring together – the pendulum, if you will – that we are looking at. The one is an academic institution, in this case UJ [University of Johannesburg], that is made up of several previous institutions that have acquired art over the years without any sort of collecting strategy or policy in place to define exactly what it is they are collecting, how they go about collecting it, and how this actually defines or reflects the development of that institution and how they’re seeing the world. And the other is the MTN SA Foundation, which is a not for profit organisation, that sits within the bigger MTN group. MTN started collecting in 1997, and again there wasn’t necessarily any specific structure there – collecting happened on the basis of what was thought to be interesting at the time, and becomes a reflection of that organisation. The only driving impetus and mandate that they had was that it must be about communication. Also the kinds of programmes that they’ve supported over the years, for example the MTN New Contemporaries, have sought to reflect the contemporary moment in art, and what is in shift at a particular time. But there isn’t necessarily a consistency with how things were reflected [in the collection], which could be a result, again, of not having a set strategy in place, or at least an understanding of how cultural remnants sit in a corporate structure. So there’s a jostle between capitalism, if you will, and the CSI side of things that sit in that space.
Whether or not those conversations are shifting as much as they are jostling is what Johan and I discussed. And I think this presented us with an opportunity to try and reflect on ‘what is this thing’, these collections, that we’re looking at? Why is it that there are so many prints from Japanese artists in the UJ collection? Why are there still Paul Kruger sculptures? Why is it that there is a Greek sculpture, for example, versus a Credo Mutwa in the MTN Collection, or the Pierneefs in both collections – these remnants of previous structures and the apartheid era? How is it possible that there isn’t any mindfulness of what the significance of collecting such pieces actually means, aside from their asset and monetary value? There’s something else that’s happening in these collections that is not really being articulated. That, at least for me, should be what we’re looking at when we’re looking at ‘shifting conversations’.
JM: I think Melissa has summed up what we think regarding the current conversation. In terms of the UJ Collection, I don’t think there was as much a notion of collecting [artwork] over many years, but of acquiring. That’s my understanding, and that might be the difference between these two collections – that you had work bequeathed or donated [to the UJ Collection], or there was an exhibition and an artist would donate a work. I don’t think that what we want to do is to create a ‘versus’ between the two collections. There is a versus. But I don’t think that’s exactly where we want to position the exhibition. If you take the UJ Collection and bring in the MTN Collection, it changes the UJ Collection completely, and vice versa. And that’s where [a shift happens]. I don’t think our intention is necessarily to create shift, but rather the exhibition is a reflection on continual shifts.
TM: How did you decide to look at these two particular collections side by side?
MG: The two collections were presented to us as curators to work with from the beginning. Through the MTN New Contemporaries [competition and exhibition], [and other collaborations], MTN had already developed a relationship with UJ for some time, and several other academic institutions – something that put them in the forefront in terms of the arts, as per their CSI mandate, and has placed them in a certain position within the corporate culture where they have also had to rethink a strategy of how to engage academically.
Unknown artist, Baule Bush spirit mask, (early to mid-20th Century), Carved wood and raffia fibre, 65 cm x 40 cm x 46 cm, MTN Art Collection
TM: So you’ve been presented with these two institutional bodies of work from which you as curators are posing questions, about the relationships of these works to one another, setting up conversations. Historically and in terms of their cultural heritage, these works come from all over the place – the bulk of them being South African; there seems to be a category of landscape that both refers to colonial landscape, such as the Frederic I’Ons and national era references – obvious ones that you’ve spoken about, such as Pierneef, and the Kruger bronze, that infer a series of historically and ideologically loaded conversations, to numerous examples of modern and contemporary works from the collections that again are very diverse. I’m interested in the proliferation of landscape within your selection, but then also the portraiture. It seems that you’re setting up tensions between these two collections, but you’re also setting up tensions between the nature of landscape and portraiture and how these have constantly, as you’ve said, jostled against one another to reflect on one another’s histories.
JM: I think we distinguish between outer landscapes and inner landscapes, and a portrait being an inner landscape. The Kruger [sculpture], for example, had been sculpted within a specific landscape – an outer landscape – and it’s a reflection of an inner landscape. So thinking more and more of it, I think we’re dealing with so many landscapes in this exhibition: present landscapes, absent landscapes, inner landscapes.
On the shifting conversations, we’ve indicated that we’d like to group certain works. I’d like to also mention the reference to diaspora as a landscape: we’ve got the Greek statue, and the Gutai work in the UJ Collection, and in the MTN Collection we have a Yinka Shonibare. So we sit with what we’ve been presented with – to some extent that’s how history works – and what we do is we pose and juxtapose; we mix, and in the end we end up with a lot of gaps. At one stage we were thinking of having an open space on the wall as an indication that something must fit in here, and we don’t have it and we don’t know what it is. So the gaps I think are far more important than what we have on the wall.
TM: And yet in grouping them into smaller compartments you’re also creating and forming intimate conversations between these works. And those contradictions you refer to are so implicit in how you could group these. Some of the contradictions are immense, yet there is something that brings them together. As you’ve mentioned, the conversations are about inner landscapes, and outer landscapes, but how these are all ultimately ideologically positioned within the context of South Africa – even the diasporic works, like Yinka Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy. They reflect positions on the nature of being; of conforming, or self-identifying, or of not being consumed or subsumed into another ideological framework. An interesting concept for me is how that ideological landscape, internally in terms of referencing the nature of being, is constantly echoed by the landscape as a context and place – both an ideological place as well as a physically lived in space, or even a fantasised space.
JM: On the level of landscape, how do you read the Kruger? How do you read the Pierneef? We’ve got two works included that might get the viewer so far as to reassess their way of seeing. We’ve got [Willem Boshoff’s] Blind Alphabet, and also Peet Pienaar’s work with the peeping device. If we can get viewers to question themselves – ‘What I’m seeing, is it what it is?’ – then I think you can talk about a conversation getting shifted.
MG: The other thing I’m finding interesting is the overarching structure – the political within the surface. For example, Christo Coetzee travelling on an exchange and doing a residency in Japan, then almost impulsively coming back with this collection of Gutai prints as his ‘evidence’ of that experience, and then placing it in what was then Rand Afrikaanse Uniwersiteit (RAU), for me says something quite interesting about the influence of the apartheid structure and its impact on how people travelled – the mindset or the vision that they had – and the perspective that they had when they were travelling; and if you place that in relation to what you’ve mentioned about [Shonibare’s] Victorian dandy, and how it is that someone who’s got his MBE status is reflecting on the dandy – he’s talking about the British empire and he’s making a folly of it, but they [the Empire] don’t mind.
And then what does that mean to his relationship with Nigeria? What does that mean to his relationship with the African continent? It says a lot about our understanding of the diaspora, but in relation to the notion of the refugee. Because for me there’s something much more contemporary about our understanding of refugeeism and how we engage with the African continent –
JM: And that’s where the gap on the wall comes in.
TM: While in this exhibition you’re engaging these two collections, this is also an exhibition that is happening at a particular time, which is marked, for instance, by the activism of Fees Must Fall and other calls for paradigm shift. Could you contextualise how your engagement here is also an engagement not only with the historical structures of the respective institutions, but also with the promise of imminent shift. How do you see this exhibition engaging both deliberately and evocatively with the current ideological landscape and its faultlines?
MG: For me the exhibition has the possibility of impacting the street credibility of UJ as an institution in relation to the current conversations and happenings about Fees Must Fall. The exhibition raises other possibilities of how to place artworks in a space, with a sense of ‘okay, this is what you can do with artworks’, versus collapsing the Cecil John Rhodes sculpture, for example. This is how you can actually try and engage with those very uncomfortable and complex histories, which haven’t actually been addressed by the current political structures that are too busy trying to build or be seen to be pushing everything forward versus actually looking at what they carry with them as they go forward.
So it is about saying, this is what you have in your collection as an academic institution. You may not necessarily have works from Vista [one of the institutions that amalgamated to form UJ] in Soweto, for example, because they didn’t have the economic status to be collecting at that particular point in time, but how then do you use what you’ve got at least to try and engage? How do you actually start that dynamic conversation with other academic structures?
JM: We want to open up a conversation on how one might consider the remnants of the past; that you don’t need to deacquisition or sell off [all of these artworks] – that you cannot obliterate history. What you have to do is negotiate where we are. And I think that’s what we want to do. When we were invited to get involved in this project, the whole notion was that we had to come up with an exhibition from the two collections, speaking of post-colonialism. The brief was quite specific, bringing it into where we are now within the post-colony. And I thought, but the collection doesn’t speak about that – the individual works might be open to be read within a conversation, but let’s not tie it down to ‘this is what it’s supposed to be’.
TM: What I see you both doing here is not rationalising the content of these collections to reposition them in a more favourable light, but as you say, posing and juxtaposing.
JM: I didn’t intend any ventriloquism. We’d rather leave it open-ended.
TM: But positioning these things also in relation to one another, which is something that as curators you direct and guide.
JM: We’ve mentioned ideology as a focus in the exhibition, but there is also class and race that become evident, and also gender and sexual orientation – all those manifestations of belief systems of ideology I hope come into play too. It’s sort of a snapshot of where we think conversations are shifting and where they might be shifting. Curatorially this is the inner conversation that Melissa and I are having.
MG: But our respective subjectivities [as the curators] will also be telling of our own personal histories, and that I think will create an interesting dynamic about our relationship – we’re also conversation shifting.