Obituary: Pam Warne

ArtThrob | Emma Bedford:


Pam Warne made a remarkable contribution to arts and culture in South Africa and more specifically to her chosen field of photography and new media. Over 36 years in the museum profession, she participated actively in the transformation of local museums.

Pam Warne

It was Pam who, in 1993, proposed the new name ‘Slave Lodge’ for the former South African Cultural History Museum where she had worked since 1978 until her appointment in 2003 as Curator of Photography and New Media in the Art Collections Department of Iziko Museums.

Pam Warne with Standard Bank Young Artist Nicholas HloboHer contribution was such that she was the 2013 winner of the Mbokodo Award in the category Women in New Media. The citation read: 

Pam Warne is the Curator of New Media and Photography at the Iziko National Gallery. She is a photographer who has exhibited widely and has been influential in shaping reflections on women’s photography in South Africa.

Pam Warne with Standard Bank Young Artist Nicholas Hlobo

She has said that from the mid-nineties onward her goal was not so much to record the world with her camera as she interacted with it, but to transform it through her psyche. ‘The images that I began to create were fundamentally more and more a result of being transformed through my imagination.’  See

Pam’s modesty meant that even those of us who knew her well were often not aware of her many achievements. According to David Goldblatt, ‘if Pam Warne was shy and unassuming in an exceptional degree, she was equally firm in her convictions and in the quiet but determined ways in which she followed them. Photography and its archive at the South African National Gallery has lost a passionate supporter and defender, and I, a colleague for whom I had a warm and high regard.’

It was with David Goldblatt, Paul Weinberg and Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa that Pam Warne curated ‘Umhlaba 1913-2013’, which opened at the South African National Gallery in March 2013 and toured to the Wits Art Museum in August of the same year. Commemorating the centenary of the Land Act and its impact on Southern Africans, the curators drew on vast archives to focus attention on the history of land dispossession and its legacies.

Pam Warne with David GoldblattYet Pam also had an interest in the celebratory aspects of life. Of her exhibition, ‘Jolling’, curated in 2009, Sean O’Toole says:

Pam and I were professional acquaintances rather than friends, which is not to mean that my respect and admiration for her was bounded by our encounters in the white cube. In 2009, after a long wait, Pam decided to put on ‘a modest little show’ devoted to a familiar subject: jolling.

Pam Warne with David Goldblatt

The show took shape around the National Gallery’s holding of Billy Monk’s nightclub photographs, which Pam first encountered in their fullness in 2003 when she joined the museum’s staff. ‘They took my breath away,’ she told me when I interviewed her for the Sunday Times. ‘They were so different from anything else in the collection, so direct, so devoid of an overt political or moral agenda although utterly transgressive, given the social and political climate of the time.’ Pam understood the time, Monk’s time. ‘I recognize those bouffant hairstyles and the Nefertiti eye decoration from when I was growing up,’ she enthused. ‘And of course I was a joller myself – long ago. In that mad society that was the 1970s and 80s, clubs were one of the few places where there was any sense of normalcy. In the 1980s PW Botha was busy trying to save us from “the end of civilisation as we know it,” and people were both paranoid and polarised. Even the last, lingering hippies had shorn off their beards and waist-length hair and white students, even at UCT, were suddenly sporting smooth little moustaches like overconfident little businessmen – first members of the ‘Me Generation’. On the other hand, clubs like Scratch and later The Base were incredibly vibrant and energizing and allowed people of every colour and creed to socialise as normal human beings, although everyone would be on the lookout for the Special Branch members – not difficult to identify since they looked like some of the men in Billy Monk’s photographs.’ I loved this digression. It revealed so much about why photographs matter, as descriptions of people, objects, situations. Pam was attentive to these particularities. But she also understood the invisible context that compels artists to portray the things they do, jolling for instance, which she translated as ‘revelry’. Time and circumstances caught up with Pam, as they do all of us. I have no doubt that Pam is seated in the reception of that other place in the big beyond, fag in hand, ready to check into what must be a perpetual jol.

Pam Warne with Minister of Arts and Culture, Paul Mashatile Pam Warne co-curated with Joe Dolby the exhibition, ‘George Hallet: A Nomad’s Harvest’ (2014), which is currently on view at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Pam’s engagement with museums began even in her student days when she participated in Sandra Eastwood’s Meaningful Access Projects in 1974 and later confessed to Sandra that ‘she felt enriched by the varied responses by visitors living with disabilities, to exhibitions she had curated.’

Pam Warne with Minister of Arts and Culture, Paul Mashatile 

Pam was a very thoughtful person. As Rooksana Omar, CEO of Iziko Museums, disclosed at Pam’s memorial, ‘her colleagues have referred to her as someone who sought quality, as a person who left a great legacy for Iziko, and as someone that set the benchmark in her field at Iziko. She did what was right and fair and stood up for her convictions and she was always there, even at her own cost, to make the lives of her friends and colleagues better.’

Pam Warne had an amazing array of skills and talents of which many of us were unaware: she was a gifted jeweller and had a brown belt in karate. A friend shared a story of how a thief stuck his head into her little blue Beetle demanding her camera and, much to everyone’s amazement, Pam’s leg shot out of the car window at an improbable angle with lightning speed.

Pam had a great sense of humour and we shared a predilection for subversion. In 1993 during the production of ‘Ezakwantu: Beadwork from the Eastern Cape’, we found ourselves without a co-operative photographer. Pam, who was still employed by the SA Cultural History Museum and was not allowed to moonlight, agreed to help out under a pseudonym, Pumla Rewan!

Her intellectual rigour and academic excellence were acknowledged through the MacIver scholarship awarded in 1975 while completing her Bachelor of Fine Art at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, where in 2004 she was to achieve a distinction for Discourse in Art. In 2009, in the course of her Master degree, she won the King George V Award. The award enabled her to travel to the UK to further her research into photographer Anne Fischer.

While Pam’s superb photographic skills may sometimes have been overlooked, they are evident in the iconic image which Tracey Rose produced during her Fresh residency in 2001, The Kiss. The work was later selected for the cover of A Decade of Democracy and is also currently on view at the National Gallery.

The KissTracey Rose
The Kiss

As part of the steering committee, Pam participated in every Month of Photography with energy and commitment and it is there in 1999 that she showed her extraordinary essay, simply entitled Mum. Her accompanying text read:

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in her mid-60s although my sister and I had noticed increasing memory loss, confusion and anxious distress some time before that. She consistently denied ‘there was anything the matter’ and the word ‘Alzheimer’s’ remained unspoken to her, even by my mother’s doctors and even after the diagnosis. Years later I found my mother’s diaries. In the year prior to being diagnosed there are virtually no entries.  The final entry, in small writing at the bottom of a blank page, says ‘Alzheimer’s Disease’.

My mother is now 74. She lives in England with my sister who cares for her in every way necessary to someone who cannot eat, bath or move by herself, who cannot speak and who recognises no-one. My mother was a proud and independent woman. She is now completely dependent and separate, if not alone. One of the few ways I have found that I can connect with her and her world is by taking photographs of her. I want to show you a small part of this world and know that you will treat it with respect.

By June 2013 Pam was seriously ill with kidney failure but nevertheless continued working throughout her dialysis treatment. Always humane and caring to the end, she initiated a project from her hospital bed whereby nursing staff and patients taught one another English, Afrikaans and Xhosa and as soon as she could, Pam took this up with Iziko’s CEO.

It was with profound sadness that we heard that Pam had passed away on 15 March due to a rare autoimmune disorder. She leaves a deep vacuum in her professional sphere and will be sorely missed by all who knew her.

Our condolences to Pam’s father, her sister, Margi and their families.

My thanks to those who shared information and thoughts on Pam. All photographs, other than Mum by Pam Warne, are by Carina Beyer, Iziko Museums of South Africa.


From Marlene Dumas

Pammi she was for me when she came to Michaelis in 1972, so frail and delicate. A special beauty. I always especially liked the way she spoke, the accent and tone of her voice and I loved the way she smoked. But most of all it was her intensity for speaking the truth. You never felt she was saying something she did not mean. And yet she was not mean, just sharp with an unsentimental humor. It kept you on your toes and was so refreshing. I drink a toast to you, dear Pammi.

Marlene xxx

From Michelle Sank:

I first met Pam at UCT in the 70’s where we studied photography together at Michaelis School of Fine Art. Pam became one of my closest friends – a friendship that endured till her recent passing. Over the years it was with great admiration that I saw Pam grow in strength both personally and within her work, showing great courage in both arenas. Her doggedness enabled her to leave an incredible legacy at Iziko and her humanity impacted on so many lives. I will miss her very deeply both as a friend and colleague. RIP Pammie

Michelle Sank


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