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A New model for an African museum

Installation view including Wangechi Mutu, Water Woman (2017); Nandipha Mntambo, Europa (2008); Bharti Kher, Self portrait (2007); and Nandipha Mntambo, Sengifikile (2009). Photo Graham De Lacy

An innovative approach to museum programming and even its role, status in society, and delivery of the content has never been more needed. Museums and non-profit art foundations were in a state of crisis before the dreaded Covid-19 turned the art world virtual. Decolonization agendas, non-existent acquisition or exhibition budgets, outdated collections that don’t promote contemporary values, has put these art temples in a sticky place.

Perhaps the long gestation period preceding the opening of the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF) (caused by red tape and building delays) gave its director, Clive Kellner, time to plot how a non-profit art exhibition space could be different. Perhaps during his tenure as director of the Joburg Art Gallery (from 2004 to 2009) he had toyed with alternative ideas.

Certainly, the JCAF flies in the face of museum conventions. It doesn’t house a collection (it draws from one housed elsewhere). The end goal of exhibitions are journals, relaying research and dialogues prompted by the exhibitions. Whereas most non-profit public oriented foundations measure their relevancy via foot traffic, Kellner isn’t interested in attracting swarms of people. For him, the value of this establishment is gauged via the quality of the experience for each visitor.

The modest dimensions of the Saxonwold building – an old-tram repair station sensitively transformed by architect Pierre Swannepoel of Studiomas – perhaps predetermined this approach. Fortunately, they don’t depend on entry fees to keep going – the institution is privately funded by art collectors Gordon Schachat and Adi Enthoven.

Relying on wide public appeal can limit the content of exhibitions, though being ‘relevant’ can shift museum culture. Think of Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art’s (Mocaa) recently opened exhibition, Home is where the Art Is. In this exhibition this private/public institution have done an about turn on the hard gatekeeping established when they opened, through a focus on internationally validated artists. Any artist or Sunday painter has art on their walls now. This was part of an effort to endure themselves to locals – the only visitors they can rely on presently.

JCAF don’t need to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Long before Covid-19 and small gatherings became the norm, Kellner declared that visitors needed to book in advance to attend exhibitions as only small numbers (no more than 5 people) were permitted to peruse an exhibition at one time. This may sound like a way of promoting exclusivity, but Kellner asserts that it is motivated by a desire to promote the act of looking. In his opinion, while hoards may traipse through (famous European, US) museums, and take selfies next to their favourites, they rarely spend time luxuriating in the artworks.

Continuing in this vein, the act of looking at JCAF is cultivated via the presentation and exhibition mode he has adopted. Only a few artworks are shown. Take their opening exhibition, Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South. Despite its all-encompassing title, which may suggest a grand survey show, it only includes artworks produced by five artists – Bhati Kher (India), Nadipha Mntambo and Berni Searle from South Africa, Wangechi Mutu, the Kenyan-born US-based artist and Shirin Neshat, the Iranian artist who is also based in the US. There are only 11 artworks to see.

Kellner maintains this will innately increase the quality of the time spent gazing at them. To ensure that there are few distractions, no visible texts, introducing the exhibition or indicating the titles, artists names are part of presentation. An App supported by beacon location technology delivers information about the artists and works to your phone, or one of the tablets available for your use.

Visiting a JCAF exhibition demands something of the viewer and the curator. If you only show 11 art-works they need to be pretty amazing. This is hard to achieve in such a capacious industrial setting. Mutu’s Water Woman (2017) – a bronze mermaid sculpture – probably drowns a little in the huge gallery.

Kellner’s focus is on creating a rich subtext between the works. As such this less as more approach turns the screws on the act of curating – each decision is more weighted and more open to scrutiny, or contemplation.

The first barrier to this curatorial endeavor for Kellner, was tackling black female identity as a white male curator and viewers perception of how this may or may not impact on the dialogue. Kellner says he doesn’t believe his racial and gender identity should prove a hurdle, given our society is trying to transcend these limits. He was deeply aware of each artist’s practice and they were supportive of him curating this exhibition, he says.

The exhibition is divided into three (small) discrete themes, which are reflected spatially and in the arrangement of the artworks. The Fall – said to be “a realm where the human and natural worlds meet” is vocalized through Mutu’s A Dragon Kiss Always Ends in Ashes (2007). A collaged female figure is pictured entangled with a serpent or the titular dragon.

The emphasis in the exhibition is perhaps less about ‘defining’ female identity and more about identifying how these artists, from such different contexts, share common ideas, themes or aesthetic responses driven by their gender or in relationship to it. Some of these overlaps feel awkward. How could they not be; is it possible for all four artists to have produced works that would coincide across three thematic strands. In places Kellner’s curating may be too tight – and more about visual than conceptual links. - first published in the Mail & Guardian, 2020



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