Sunday, December 5, 2010

JAG: A 100 year old relic or pertinent art institution?

In my opinion JAG is neither. To tie in with the 100 year anniversary of JAG’s collection I wrote a feature on the institution in which I reflected on how its origins largely shaped its life span thus far (see below). Though major shifts in the 1980s accredited to Christopher Till’s  vision really set this public art institution on a new path, this gallery does not set the trends. Commercial galleries in this country determine what is ‘good’ art, and who the up-and-coming artists should be. With an emphasis on retrospectives, JAG comes to the party after the fact: after an artist has secured a reputation. The Nando’s Project Room did serve as a platform for young artists but the quality of the work wasn’t consistent, little was done to promote the exhibitions. Nando’s have pulled sponsorship so that space no longer exists.

I am not comfortable with commercial galleries leading the art scene  – as obviously a commercial agenda informs their choices and many of the gallerists don’t know much about art or even grasp the significance of the work they sell.  But the fact is the commercial galleries adapted to shifts in the country much quicker than JAG and more readily promoted local artists – they democratised art.  JAG has never really caught up and has since 1994 it’s curators have been preoccupied in reclaiming the history of the black artists that had been previously excluded/ignored. This is valuable work, though sometimes the glorification of these artists has left no room for critical engagement with the work and the narratives around these exhibitions tend to centre on the political aspect of the work or the difficulties in making the art rather than on the work itself.  

Antoinette Murdoch is keen to shift the power dynamics between the commercial and public art institutions but during my discussions with her, it seemed she had no clear vision or knew how to re-determine this status quo. Perhaps JAG’s role should be in rewriting history. The City of Joburg is now establishing a new public art space in Sandton near the Gautrain station in that area, according to Steven Sack. It will be a public/private endeavour - most likely this will be the new model for public institutions in this country. The advent of this new gallery is good news – the more public art spaces, the better this will be for artists (and critics) and the discourse on art in this country. But given that the City has been unable to suitably fund and support JAG and Africa Museum, it makes no sense to start up a new space. This new gallery could also perceivably render JAG’s position even more peripheral.

My feature: 
Art has a smell. It’s |a subtle aroma, suggests Antoinette Murdoch, the director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), as we stride along a narrow corridor passing large boxes containing artworks. |When we squeeze past the heavy door where the dated works are stored, I twitch my nose hoping to catch a whiff of the scent that the old masterworks might exude. With many dating from the early 18th century, it’s perceivable that they might give off an odour – time always leaves a trace.

It seems incongruent that all these valuable artworks – which include Irma Sterns, the Dutch Masters and a priceless selection of African headrests – have been consigned to the least noteworthy room at JAG. It’s a cold, barren basement and the noisy reverberation of an air conditioning system in the corner suggests that it is the engine room of this rather imposing ship that has been moored next to Joubert Park for nearly a century. Certainly its grand neoclassical exterior and allusions to high culture now seem out of place in its inner-city setting where bargain goods are displayed on cardboard boxes along the pavement.

Inside the gallery you can’t hear taxis hooting or the distorted music that plays out of the inexpensive speakers at the entrances of shops. The first painting I encounter in the historical vault is John Millais’s Fringe of the Moor (1874). It presents a tranquil rural British idyll. It looks naked without the external armour that a gallery interior engenders. It is propped up against a wall, waiting to be restored. A hundred years ago, when the British curator Hugh Lane bought this work for JAG – or the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art as it was known then – this painting was thought to epitomise the apotheosis of “modern” (not to be confused with modernist) British art. Thus it would aid in bringing the philistines that colonised early Joburg up to date with culture. Or so thought Florence Phillips, the Joburg socialite and philanthropist who first conceived of an art gallery for Joburg.

It is among faded documents, old photos and books that boast Phillips’s curlicue scrawl inside that I trace the history of this public institution and the personality who established it. The institution’s genesis is inseparable from Phillips, who is described by one writer as “opinionated, arrogant and self-important”. These might have been just the right characteristics to get an art institution off the ground, but they also seemed to have had a negative impact on the institution’s relevance and standing.

Some South African Recollections (1899), a book containing Phillips’s musings on life in Joburg, is proof not only of her sense of importance but also, regrettably, her prejudiced outlook. A chapter on “Kaffir miners” is cringeworthy reading – though it gives one a view into Joburg of yesteryear. It also explains the rather contradictory ideas driving the gallery: though Phillips wanted it to play a role in “nation building” – this phrase was not just exclusive to the post-apartheid era – her focus was on collecting and displaying almost exclusively European art, with an emphasis on British, French and Dutch expression. Undoubtedly her emphasis was in unifying a segmented white population largely consisting of French, British and Dutch origins, but it is telling that, aside from a few Anton van Wouw bronzes, no South African schools of painting were included.

Above: Some of the international 'contemporary' works that were bought during the 1960s. Here on display during Kellner's last curated exhibition at JAG entitled The Dematerialisation of the Object

This would have far-reaching consequences for the gallery, which remained locked within a Eurocentric curatorial approach for decades. Even in 1966, when Nel Erasmus became director, a focused policy to collect international artworks was initiated, according to Jillian Carmen, formerly a curator at the gallery and the author of Uplifting the Colonial Philistine: Florence Phillips and the Making of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (2006). This scheme paved the way for the purchase of sculptures by Henry Moore and a Picasso drawing of a harlequin, which Carmen suggests “caused a huge controversy and was the best public relations exercise the gallery could have hoped for”.
Phillips and Lane believed the Eurocentric collection would have educational value that would extend beyond encouraging young artists to mimic European art. And in fairness, there might have been some truth to this notion. Even Clive Kellner, who embraced a distinctly pan-African curatorial outlook when he took over the gallery in 2004, declared that it “is a very valuable experience for a schoolchild to come here and see a Warhol or an Impressionist painting in their own country, as it is to see a William Kentridge”. During his stewardship of the gallery, a Rembrandt van Rijn exhibition featured. So perhaps it should always have been about striking a balance between local and international art.

Phillips wasn’t sensitive to that balance and her dogmatic reverence for European art might have contributed to an inferiority complex that has characterised how local artists once perceived themselves in relation to those in the Western metropoles, and the public’s continued preference for European art – the Picasso in Africa exhibition at the Standard Bank gallery and Iziko South African National Gallery in 2006 drew record numbers of viewers. For many this was the first time they had visited a public gallery.

The origin and history of JAG is inextricably linked to South Africa’s connection to the Empire. Philips sought the ultimate seal of approval by securing the Duke and Duchess of Connaught for the opening of the collection at the Transvaal University College – the collection was assembled and celebrated before the Edwin Lutyens building had been completed. A black-and-white photograph of the opening shows crowds outside the college jostling to catch a glimpse of the royal pair. The art was almost a secondary attraction. Phillips had ambitions to entice the king and queen of England to attend the opening of the gallery itself after 1915 – but this was a fantasy tied to her illusions of grandeur.

The gallery wasn’t just engineered to foster cultural connections with Britain and Europe but rather, interestingly, was designed to shift perceptions of Joburg as a locus of crass materialism. In a preface to the 1910 catalogue, Lane opines that an art gallery would forever remove “the stigma that its (Joburg’s) citizens are concerned with naught else than the amassing of fortunes”. Given that Joburg remains a magnet for fortune seekers, one has to wonder whether Phillips’s gallery had much impact in this respect and whether in fact an art institution can cause a shift in society or the way it is perceived.

Over the past 100 years Europe’s cultural hold has loosened as white domination has been overturned. Thus, much of the debate around JAG, particularly since the early 1980s, has centred on whether it has evolved to serve a racially diverse public. Certainly black artists struggled to gain a foothold in this institution.
“Black artists were virtually ignored, with the exception of Gerard Sekoto, who had one Western-style painting acquired in 1940, the only item by a black artist held by JAG during those first 50 years,” says Carmen.
Christopher Till, who was appointed as the director in 1983 was appalled by this – he had just guided Zimbabwe’s national gallery through a transitional period and was sensitve to exclusionary policies.  
“People didn’t even know that black artists existed, they hadn’t been acknowledged whatsoever,”he recalls. Till set out to change this culture with the landmark exhibition The Neglected Tradition, which was eventually curated by Steven Sack in 1988. The show aimed to reclaim the history of black artists working in the Western tradition. Till  was also adamant about collecting traditional South African art. This was a complete about-turn for the gallery.
As Carmen observes, the traditional collection “contests the very criteria that Lane used to select items for JAG’s foundation collection: the aesthetic judgement that conformed to the grand narrative of Western art history in deciding what is good art, and what is not”.

Of course, this was not an unproblematic shift. Some detractors such as art historian Patricia Davison were critical of the fact that the self-same authority that rejected these objects still held the power to reinvest them with meanings that continued to be framed by Western taste.

Phillips’s legacy was finally reversed when, in 1994, JAG issued a policy document that terminated the acquisition of international art and cemented a commitment to consolidate South African collections: both so-called traditional items and contemporary works. The emphasis on local art was also determined by the fact that the gallery’s acquisitions budget was too small to purchase international art, suggests Till. Though during his tenure he promoted local art he believes “that it is important for South Africans to have a tactile introduction to international art.”

The policy shift may have benefited  local artists but it didn’t necessarily translate into the gallery attracting hordes of punters. The degeneration of Joburg’s inner city, which, ironically, began to take hold as the gallery was transforming in the late 1980s, is largely attributed to the public’s reticence to visit. And while a few directors have asserted that their focus isn’t on white suburbanites with an overdeveloped paranoia about the inner city, they have also battled to draw crowds from the environs – despite all kinds of initiatives over the years.
Its current head, Murdoch, |attributes this to ignorance.
“A lot of people around here think the gallery is a police station because they see so many metro cop cars parked here,” she says. Murdoch had appealed to the metro cops to park their vehicles in the gallery’s parking lot to ensure that the traffic along the taxi ranks ran smoothly and to create the impression that the gallery was a “safe place”. Thus, in trying to appease the fears of one audience, she might have alienated another.

Meanwhile, Murdoch is trying to woo suburbanites back to the gallery by showing off some of its most prized works in small exhibitions in suburban locations. A month ago JAG presented an exhibition titled National Treasures at Villa Arcadia in Parktown. Next year JAG will show off some of its Impressionist works at the Circa Gallery in Rosebank.
“We are trying to market the gallery to the lost audience… assuring them that it isn’t any more unsafe to come to the inner city than the northern suburbs – it’s an ongoing battle.”
Visiting museums on weekends is not part of South African culture – both black and white, she proposes.
As I step out of the world Phillips created and into a bustling African city, it seems apparent that Phillips’s colonial creation is at odds with this world. But renegotiating our relationship to the colonial past is also a characteristic of life on the continent. The gallery may appear like an island but the shifts that have taken place in the last 100 years are proof that it hasn’t  existed in a vacuum. - published in The Sunday Independent, 28 November, 2010


Vusi Vuma said...

Great article. I recently took my son to The JAG, primarily to see the Ernest Cole exhibition. I was struck by the disconnect between the environs and the JAG. I was also slightly taken aback by presence of Police Kaspirs (or Impalas?) on the grounds of the JAG, which I felt was probably unavoidable but certainly not the most welcoming scene. Generally I found the curation a bit staid compared to commercial galleries and perhaps opening a space for young artist @JAG may start bring more people in as this particular demographic has no issues with going into the inner city.

Anonymous said...

In the past four to five years I have visited JAG four or five times. Of these few visits, three are pertinent to what you have written about the venue:
1. I rocked up one saturday morning to meet a bunch of people for an art happening. The event was led by Christian Nerf. We all got dressed in Polite Force kit and went out and about the environs of the gallery looking just like a bunch of police officials and we endeavoured to be polite to people as we walked through the surroundings.
2. I took my teenage kids and a group of their friends to a show where there was a booth by Nathaniel Stern. Inside, the kids could jump around and boogie as the computerised sensors picked up their movements and translated them into cool sound and images of the kids on a screen in front of them.
3. A friend and I went to a wierd glitzy glamour event one rainy summer evening by Rolien Brink aka William Kentridge. USA made in China I think it was called.

Anonymous said...

I was at the centenary celebration and listened with interest to Steven Sacks speech. He was talking about the history of Johannesburg and the importance of public institutions in a democracy. After all of this he said that he often noticed Antoinette Murdoch use the phrase 'looking forward' in meetings with her. Just when I expected some kind of reminder that the museum's (gallery?) function is to preserve history and let history speak to the present, but rather than doing this he simply congratulated the director and said that this 'forward looking vision' is just what the gallery needs now. I would argue that what JAG has over the so-called commercial galleries is its ability to look both forward and backward at the same time! Anthea Buy's Times Arrows and other interventions have done that. What the JAG does about engaging its immediate constituency (Hillbrow, JHB CBD) is a real tough question. The gallery should be aiming to make the consumption and enjoyment of visual arts central to the everyday life of all South Africans. Is it achieving this or does it just serve the interests of the visual arts sector and groups of high school kids who are routinely sent there just to pass their exams?