Heritage Day: UCT’s art curators aim for representative, researchable collection

At the center of the cultural heritage of the University of Cape Town (UCT) is an art collection with 1,400 works by over 700 artists, which has been accumulated over decades. Some works have been donated, some acquired and others inherited. But there are glaring gaps in the collection that need to be addressed, said Works of Art Collection (WOAC) committee chair Associate Professor Nomusa Makhubu.

The goal is to create a collection of modern and contemporary art that is more African-focused and gender-biased, which will attract international researchers, Associate Professor Makhubu said. Second, a long journey towards the dream of a permanent on-campus exhibition space is about to begin. And it takes more than a little magic to do that, she said.

Assoc Prof. Nomusa Makhubu, Committee Chair of the UCT Works of Art Collection.

The extensive collection includes mostly contemporary art and some classical and modern art: paintings, photographs, drawings, fiber and textile art, prints, statues, sculptures – and now live performance art. Some works are in storage, but most are spread across 70 buildings around the UCT campus.

“It’s not just about seeing the works, but that they become resources for us to generate research.”

“The collection has not always been very focused on its collection approaches and needs some curatorial coherence with an inclusive linkage of acquisition and heritage,” said Makhubu, an award-winning artist and art history professor at UCT Art’s Michaelis School of Fine.

The vision is a researchable repository that will attract the world’s art scholars.

“It’s not just about seeing the works, but that they become resources for us to generate research,” Makhubu said.

Inclusive visual culture

The importance of a representative, inclusive visual culture at UCT was clearly emphasized during the Must Fall movements of 2015-2017. Driven by these protests, the Artworks Task Team revised their task in 2018. They undertook to examine the collection and fill in the gaps, particularly the representation of black artists – particularly from South Africa and other African countries.

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Photographic work by Thania Petersen titled “I Am Royal”.

In response to the When rain clouds come up Exhibition at the Norval Foundation Gallery, curated by Nontobeko Ntombela and Dr. Portia Malatjie, Makhubu argued that she is significant in that she refutes the claim that there were not a few black women artists in the 20th century. There is a complex history associated with black female artists, Makhubu said. This is due to the porous border between what is considered art and what is considered craft.

“Black women [creatives] were not always considered artists. Art history focused on art production in Europe while looking at African art ethnographically. For example, it took a long time for artists like Esther Mahlangu, who painted Ndebele murals, is considered an artist.

exhibitions such as When rain clouds come up and previous Nkule Mabaso exhibitions, which have focused on artists such as Helen Sebidi (2015) and abstract art by black women artists, have helped transform the way the committee is tackling the gaps in its collection, Makhubu said.

“Although we have some amazing collections, like the work of black photographer George Hallett, we don’t have work by black women photographers like Ruth Motau.”

Collecting black modern art is difficult because the works are either expensive or do not circulate on the art market. An example of this is the work of Sophie Peters.

“In recent years we have collected contemporary African female artists such as Aida Muluneh (Ethiopia) and mainly South African artists such as Faatimah Mohamed-Luke and Turiya Magadlela,” said Makhubu.

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“And then our challenge is to look at what’s happening in the rest of the country and on the continent so we can balance the collection and make it internationally relevant.”

live art performances

In recent years, the committee has also focused on multimedia acquisitions, one of the gaps in the collection.

Live Art is a new category introduction. The committee recently commissioned five new live art performances and these have been named The fire this time, based on input from independent curator Pamella Dlungwana, who was the project leader at the time. These were installed and filmed earlier this year in the Sarah Baartman precinct on the upper campus.

Qondiswa James, from her commissioned live art performance for The Fire This Time.

The fire this time is a collaborative project with the Institute for Creative Arts of UCT at the Faculty of Humanities. The films were recently presented to a wider audience in the Sarah Baartman district, which has been a focal point of protest for decades. The artists featured are Qondiswa James, Grant Jurius, Lukhanyiso Skosana and the collaboration of Lesiba Mabitsela and Lorin Sookool.

“And in commissioning live performances, we tried to think about accepting temporality and impermanence.”

“Often we think of heritage in terms of permanence. And with the commissioning of live performances, we went into an acceptance of temporality and impermanence…accepting dynamic time as a central aspect of heritage,” explained Makhubu.

gender, sexuality and race

Gender, sexuality and race are also considered as themes in the collection. Local artists such as Lady Skollie explore gender and sexuality, and Senzeni Marasela’s work focuses on depictions of Sarah Baartman and Black women’s bodies in general.

“And there are many who engage with a much more philosophical understanding of black life and the black experience.”

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It’s a different way to think about heritage considering how spaces are created. “As a committee, we try to be open-minded about heritage,” Makhubu said.

Aida Muluneh’s photographic work entitled “Denkinesh”.

presence on campus

Part of the committee’s mission is to provide an inspirational and transformative intellectual repository for cultural, educational, scientific, and artistic research grants. This is shared by academics, students, staff and cultural communities in and around UCT. The Committee’s long-cherished dream is to have its own on-campus arts center to permanently display and share this evolving legacy.

“It’s about investing in the academic project and using the collection as a research and teaching resource. there [must be] a place on campus where we can go, find the artworks, research them, and teach students about them—and where the general public can visit, too.

“It’s not just about seeing the art, but that the collection becomes a resource for us to generate research.”

“The ideal would be a space that researchers can come in and say, ‘I’m studying this artist. I would like to see this work in your collection”. We do not have that.”

A world-class center will be an investment in UCT’s intellectual enterprise, which is part of the academic project.

“It would be a resource center that keeps, conserves and continuously researches the artworks. So it’s not just about seeing the art, but that the collection becomes a resource for us to generate research.”

In terms of heritage and the visual experience of the campus, the committee looks beyond art to statues, plaques, and memorials.

“It’s often an area that we don’t do much engagement in,” Makhubu said, “but it’s particularly important because of the hidden history of this campus.”

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