Karin Maria Skawran (1937-2015)

Marilyn Martin & Eunice Basson:


We would like to pay tribute to the former Head of the Department of Art History, Visual Arts and Musicology at Unisa, the eminent academic and art historian, Karin Skawran, who lost her battle with cancer on July 5.

She started her academic career at Unisa under Professor Walter Battiss, where she retired in 1996. She was a well-known Byzantine scholar. After Professor Battiss’ retirement in the early seventies, Karin took over the reins and steadily built up an internationally acclaimed art and art history department. She also established one of the most important art collections featuring South African art. Whilst it was still financially possible during the 1970s, she acquired a superb collection of prints by David Hockney, Tom Wesselmann, Jim Dine, Andy Warhol and many others.

Owing to the ever increasing student registrations in the department, the need for a scholarly art journal was soon recognised and a pilot edition of de arte was launched as early as 1965 with Battiss as the first editor and Karin Skawran and a newly appointed colleague, Frieda Harmsen, as the advisory editors. Initially this journal served the broader arts and literary community of the university but under the editorial guidance of Karin the contents of the journal became more focussed on art and architectural history. Today this accredited journal is acknowledged as the foremost art historical journal in the country.

Karin wrote widely on aspects of South African art. In 1983 she published a book on Irmin Henkel in collaboration with his wife Margot Henkel and in 1985 she co-edited a book on Battiss. She edited or contributed to many catalogues on our foremost artists, among these Edoardo Villa, Battiss, Willem Strydom, Alan Crump, Neville Dubow, Jan Neethling and many more. She curated exhibitions, served on selection committees and was a much desired speaker at conferences and exhibition openings.

In addition to her academic career and many other activities, Karin occupied a significant position as a member of the South African National Gallery board of trustees over a long period of time. She was appointed to the board in 1990; she became chairperson four years later, and remained in that capacity until February 1999, when the last meeting of the national gallery as an autonomous body was held. Karin served on the acquisitions committee and earned the admiration and trust of all for her outstanding leadership, unfailing wisdom and inspiration during times of profound change in our country and our national art museum. Fortunately she was appointed by the new government to the council of what became Iziko Museums of South Africa; here she continued to promote and enforce the importance of collections, museological functions and the work of the Art Collections Department.

Apart from her interest in South African art, artists and museums, and her own practice as an artist and writer, Karin was deeply involved in the accreditation and examination processes of the Grade 12 art syllabus at Umalusi, where she played a pivotal role for many years. As a member of the International Soroptimists, Karin Skawran was also a founding member of the Mapula Embroidery Collective situated to the north of Pretoria. The creative work of this embroidery collective is today internationally renowned.

She will be sorely missed by her colleagues, the art community and many, many friends.