Thursday, May 24, 2012

New Kid on the Block: Wits Art Museum

A group of men are struggling to get ‘‘god’s hand’’ in place. It’s a week before the opening of the new Wits Art Museum (WAM) and men balanced on scaffolding surrounding Jackson Hlungwani’s Hand of God are trying to lower the oversized wooden limb on to a bespoke base. Julia Charlton, the gallery’s senior curator, has to run upstairs to her office to consult a photograph to check the correct positioning of the sculpture before it’s set in place.

A year ago Charlton wouldn’t have been able to acquire a work |of this dimension; the Wits Art Gallery was a small basement room hidden below Senate House. In |this context, “gallery” was a bit of a misnomer, given its carpeted floors and limited dimensions. Signboards posted around the university’s environs might have advertised that a gallery existed there, but in truth it was an undersized storeroom; exhibitions could barely be staged there.
Charlton can’t wait to show me a 5m-long Dogon mask that is hanging against a wall at the back entrance of the gallery.
“No one has ever seen it before, because we simply couldn’t show it,” she marvels.
The inaugural exhibition, Seeing Stars, is simply an ode to the space. Works from the collection are chosen and hung to show off each room, the space, which is why you will find photographs by David Goldblatt located near portraits by Gerard Sekoto. Whatever dialogue occurs between the works will be incidental. “We picked artworks that suited each space,” confesses Charlton with a grin.

It’s a peculiar reversal; conventionally gallery interiors serve as a background for art. Charlton’s response is shaped by years of working in a dysfunctional space that simply couldn’t serve the collection or those interested in it. The new gallery has given her wings, room to breathe. But she hasn’t had time to think. When I ask her what effect the gallery |will have on the art world, the response is self-deprecating.
“Oh, I don’t know if we will do anything big like that.”

Newness has a distinct smell. It’s the wooden bases wrapped in plastic that have filled the air with this intangible aroma. The glass display cases that they will support are stacked against a wall in the main vaulted gallery. The walls are still a crisp white and the concrete and stone floors have yet to be scuffed or aged by the wear and tear that foot traffic will bring.

It’s hard not to be seduced by the gallery’s newness, to be present at its birth into Joburg’s burgeoning cultural scene. With the cash-strapped City of Joburg unable to maintain existing public art institutions, never mind initiate new repositories for cultural exchange, this isn’t an everyday occurrence. And it isn’t likely to become one any time soon.

Commercial galleries open (and close) with some frequency and while they are received with great interest – and perhaps scepticism – by the arts community at large, public/non-commerical institutions carry more importance. They generally have more permanence, but most importantly, in a context where the local art scene is dominated by commercial art entities, they present new territory for curators to make important statements about culture, the state of the nation or engage in art-related navel-gazing, unfettered by a commercial agenda. Artists, who haven’t found favour in commercial environments, also benefit greatly, as do the public, who are more likely to learn about art in an environment, particularly one attached to a university, geared towards education.

The novelty of the new gallery hasn’t quite worn off for Charlton, whose excitement has remained at a high pitch each time I come to view the gallery’s development. She evinces an almost childlike glee when she walks through the gallery. A sense of disbelief informs her awe, too.
Less than a decade ago she showed me the architectural plans in the former Wits Art Gallery. Raising R46.5 million to see it achieved seemed like an insurmountable task.

The time it took to raise the funds and get their plan off the ground was considerable. After a while the notion of this grand museum had somewhat turned into an urban legend, though it had begun to feed a dream to establish Braamfontein as the new locus of Joburg’s cultural life.

That idea started to become a reality around 2005 when the Trinity Session, a public art management institution headed by artists Marcus Neustetter and Stephen Hobbs, earmarked Braamfontein as the gateway to their “cultural arc”, a trail of public artworks that would orient the city’s inhabitants around key cultural attractions. Clive van den Berg’s imposing concrete Eland marks the entrance to this cultural trail. The trail didn’t quite manifest as Neustetter and Hobbs had planned, but its legacy left an imprint on the area. Within the past year, Braamfontein has indeed evolved into a cultural, if not fine arts, hub. The addition of the Stevenson Joburg gallery and Room/Urban Art projects, a sliver of a gallery run by Maria Fidel Regueros on Juta Street, and Afronova gallery’s new premises on De Beer Street has shifted the character of the suburb. WAM will be the last piece to fit into the puzzle, though, ironically, it was one of the catalysts.

Of course, WAM was never envisaged as an urban regeneration project. It was born from necessity; after the Gertrude Posel Gallery, the former incarnation of the Wits Art Gallery, closed at the end of 2002, a proper venue was required to showcase and store the collection, which includes up to 9 000 artworks. With this ambition in mind, Charlton and special projects curator Fiona Rankin-Smith transformed into aggressive fund-raisers, appealing to private and corporate funders who were interested in preserving and sharing the country’s artistic and cultural history. It wasn’t a completely selfless endeavour; as curators they were professionally invested in creating an establishment where they could flex their curatorial muscles, engendering new conversations about the art in the collection, which has been growing since the 1970s with the help of private donors. Curating involves rereading, repositioning of material. Charlton, Rankin-Smith and art historian Anitra Nettleton, who also has strong ties to the collection and institution, couldn’t even peruse the collection in the cramped basement location. 
“It’s like being reunited with old friends,” remarks Charlton as she opens the doors to the vast storage area in the basement of WAM.
The paintings are now kept |in rows on a railed storage system |for easy access and material |cultural objects are packed away in bespoke drawers.
“Just look,” marvels Charlton, opening a drawer containing a panoply of collectable African pipes. The generous storage space means that Charlton can contemplate acquiring large works – like Hlungwani’s God’s Hand. It will form part of Seeing Stars – the title refers to the “stars” in the collection and the unwavering vision that has been driving the establishment of this institution. It’s a sentimental gesture, but understandable given the long and arduous journey Charlton and Rankin-Smith have completed.

There is less of an echo in the cavernous interior of the gallery now that there are a few paintings hanging on the walls. A 1970s Walter Battiss work, Mantiss Man, is leaning against the wall where it will hang. Not everything will be so easy to put on display, particularly given that much of the WAM collection comprises African material culture, or African classical art. Standard Bank helped to establish that collection in an effort to keep such objects on the continent – Africans wishing to cash in on international interest, and fascination, for these objects has resulted in the decimation of this heritage.
Such objects do, however, occupy an ambiguous position in museums. Since European missionaries and anthropologists first began to document the cultural practices of black South Africans, their material culture was the preserve of the anthropological domain and was eventually housed in ethnographic institutions. Attitudes to this material only began to shift here in the early 1980s – Nettleton’s research was instrumental in this regard – and gathered steam in the 1990s when the apartheid regime fell and galleries and public institutions were reappraising their acquisition and exhibition policies to include forms of expression that had previously been excluded from art museums.

Displaying these objects in an art context wasn’t unproblematic. Exhibitions such as Ezakwantu: Beadwork from the Eastern Cape, which was held at the SA National Gallery in Cape Town in 1993, brought into sharp relief the contradiction involved in superimposing another set of Western values on African objects that were never intended for display. The debates that exhibition provoked are certain to be reignited at WAM, given that such a substantial body of the collection contains African material and/or African classical art objects. It will be interesting to observe what shape this discourse might take, given that it is now to some degree outdated, though unresolved, and has been eclipsed by the fact that black artists gaining attention are those working with the “contemporary” rubric.
Seeing Stars includes many African material cultural works, such as a collection of brightly beaded South Sotho initiation staffs that are presented alongside beaded Makarapa designed for |the 2010 World Cup.

This juxtaposition is part of an attempt to show that African traditional practices are constantly being reinvented to respond to current conditions. Charlton, Rankin-Smith and Nettleton have been at pains to make this point; it is detailed and substantiated in their 2003 book Engaging Modernities: Transformations of the commonplace.

Given Charlton and Rankin-Smith’s curatorial slant, it is interesting that WAM appears like a conventional gallery; the glass display cases are the only concessions to the material they have shown a preference for in much of their work, and as Charlton concedes, displaying African material culture inside glass cases comes with some baggage, too – it implies that the objects are part of a moribund culture and evokes anthropological display. Charlton and Rankin-Smith will have to navigate this minefield of display politics. For the Sotho staffs they have arrived at a good solution; the staffs appear to be invisibly suspended above the staircase where they are located.

Beyond the issues tied to display, as a public arts institution their value will almost certainly be assessed according to their relevancy to the public. This isn’t easy territory; the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) has battled to reconcile with the public on its doorstep and its audience in the northern suburbs. In a bid to resolve this long-standing issue and revitalise the institution, a workshop was held at JAG last year. Hobbs and Antoinette Murdoch, its director, initiated a discussion by advancing the idea that altering its architectural appearance would shift the physical and ideological barriers preventing locals from entering the gallery and participating in its events. Its imposing architectural character, a reminder of the colonial era, was seen as a large hindrance.

WAM’s design, the work of architects Nina Cohen, Fiona Garson and William Martinson, could not be more geared for public participation. Undoubtedly, located on the outskirts of Wits, the corner of Jan Smuts and Jorissen streets, it is intended as a public interface for the university. With a glass and steel exterior the design exploits the location and ethos driving the museum.

The glass walls are like shop windows; passers-by can see into the gallery and those in the gallery remain connected to life on the street. In this way the gallery should be viewed as being “accessible” – a blanket term to describe all kinds of social, intellectual and economic inequalities that haunt the politics of art institutions in this country.

Accessibility is further enhanced by a ramp that leads from the pavement into a court in front of the gallery where a coffee shop will be established.
“We need to try to make the museum a destination,” says Charlton, referring to the prospective coffee shop, which is also intended to line the gallery’s purse; they only have a small acquisitions budget and will have to drum up funding for initiatives and exhibitions. In other words, they will be in the same boat as other public art institutions in the country, which struggle to generate sexy, blockbuster (well, large, in a local context) shows and retrospectives without private and corporate donations. Renting out the gallery for dinners and other events is something they are trying out, too, in an effort to explore ways of generating an income, while bringing people into the museum who might not ordinarily have an interest in art.
Now that it is here, this gallery needs to survive, and hopefully thrive. Perhaps the 10-year journey that it took to establish the museum will prove to be only the first, and less-complicated period of its existence. - published in The Sunday Independent, May 13, 2012.

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