South Africa: Heritage Day – ‘I Want to Call Out Their Names One By One’

“I want to mention their names one by one so we don’t forget them,” said art curator Nontobeko Ntombela of the 45 black women artists on display at the Norval Foundation gallery. Ntombela and Dr. Portia Malatjie’s co-curated exhibition is a milestone in a largely marginalized legacy. Some have never been exhibited, their stories never told, never written.

It’s a unique legacy, Ntombela said of the showcase of 200 works in the year-long exhibition, entitled When Rain Clouds Gather: Black South African Women Artists, 1940-2000.

“They left that to us as a legacy.”

While the co-curators are reluctant to claim firsts, the exhibition is unique in its breadth and creative horizons, and as a reflection of South African creative black women.

“We’ve both been involved in art historical practices in parallel for over a decade,” Ntombela said. “And then it became important to make that happen together, because it’s also valuable to have multiple voices at the forefront when it comes to curating and telling these stories.”

Johannesburg-based curator Ntombela is a Lecturer in the Department of Art History at the University of the Witwatersrand’s (Wits) School of Art. She is also a PhD student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) pursuing a PhD in Art History.

dr Malatjie is Senior Lecturer in Visual Cultures at UCT Michaelis School of Fine Art and Co-Curator of the UCT Works of Art Collection. She is Associate Curator for Africa and African Diaspora at Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational at Tate Modern (London).

Underestimated Heritage

The exhibition reflects a rich but underappreciated heritage; an exceptional collection of intergenerational work spanning six decades – from the advent of early modernism to the present. It includes paintings, drawings, etchings, prints, photography, sculptures, ceramics, installations and textiles.

Black women are the country’s most marginalized artists, and their early work and contributions are particularly blurred by cultural, social, and gendered notions of arts and crafts. “Women’s labor” associated with the manufacture of pottery, textiles and beadwork, Ntombela said.

“The lack of access to certain artists is because most of their works remain in the hands of private owners.”

But putting everything together took three years.

“The lack of access to certain artists is because most of their works remain in the hands of private owners, whose contact details are not easily traceable – or in public collections that do not have appropriate mechanisms in place to make these works easily accessible. ‘ said Ntombela.

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Some artists like Esther Mahlangu are well known, others like Desiree Kok and Bongi Kasiki are not.

It’s a legacy and a political milestone that needs to be celebrated, Ntombela said.

“There has never been a moment when we have seen such a collection of works together. In addition, the exhibition does something; it gives you an ensemble of works, a conglomeration of works of art coming together in one great cluster. And suddenly you have an encyclopedia, a book that has never been written about black women artists.

“It certainly came as a surprise to us that there are so many black female artists, even though we saw the names in our research. And when the exhibition came together, it hit us in ways we never imagined.”

The co-curators also wanted to highlight the lesser-known names.

“And that is also a political gesture on our part and part of the celebration,” Ntombela said. “I want to call out the names one by one so we don’t forget them.”

teaching and learning moment

The exhibition was also valuable for teaching and learning in art history. Ntombela brought her Wits postgraduate art history students to see the exhibition, which is the focus of her Writing Art Histories course. The students select an artist and one of his works of art for their biographical projects.

There’s little research on the practices of women artists from the 1940s to the 1960s because it’s believed they didn’t really make a name for themselves until the 1960s, Ntombela said.

“That is incorrect given Valerie Desmore’s contribution in the 1940s from the age of 16. And so 1940 means that beginning moment.”

She wants her students to create more than a chronology of artists’ lives. The aim is to close gaps in South Africa’s disparate art archive.

“Historical writing has focused on biographies in a way that has overshadowed the technical, conceptual, and intellectual contributions these artists made through the work.”

Bringing this range of works and artists together in this way is “very relevant,” said Malatjie, a glimpse into the vastness of work produced by black women, especially black modernists.

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The Gathering Challenge

It is also significant that the exhibition bears the name of African author Bessie Head’s first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather. Head, one of Africa’s best-known English writers, lived in exile in Botswana as an outcast of apartheid. The symbolism of the title is rich; a harbinger of the change and upheaval that Ntombela and Malatjie want to initiate through the exhibition.

There were four main reasons for using this title.

“First, we wanted to emphasize that Black creative practices and their representation are not always sub-disciplined; Writers and artists have long worked in different disciplines,” Ntombela said.

“It shows how creative black women have always illustrated powerful stories of hardship, tragedy and hope.”

“Second, it shows how creative Black women have always illustrated powerful stories of hardship, tragedy and hope in a way that tells us how women have navigated their worlds. And as such, we see Head’s book as well as the artworks in the space for critical theorization, where black women, through fiction and art, tell us about the intersection of their critique and observation of life happening around them – and the site of imagination.”

Third was the title’s metaphorical reference to clouds and what might happen when they “gather”.

“That was another point we wanted to address. What would happen if the work of black women artists were exhibited in one place? What canon shift does this offer us?”

And like any encyclopedia, the art canon is constantly being revised, Ntombela said.

“When we see this effort together in the same room, we see so much more… it’s like we’ve always been given one page at a time. And suddenly you have 200 pages at once and you see that a different story is being written.”

The exhibition is a reminder of the country’s black women artists and their struggle to give us a voice today, Ntombela said. This also extends to art classes.

Malatjie added: “We try to inscribe or expand on them in history. It is also a recognition of the contribution they have made to art history and recognizing them as practitioners, as theorists, as critical thinkers.” .