Raison Naidoo: The first meaningful encounter with contemporary African Art! No straight forward answer to this, speaking as a South African. Meaning on the one hand contemporary South African art is also part of what makes up contemporary African art. So it could also mean, for us here on the Southern tip of the African continent, the first meaningful encounter with contemporary local art – art around us. On the other hand it could also ask: when I first encountered contemporary art from the rest of the continent? So a two part answer – but it does start to reveal some of the ambiguities and complexities on the continent for Africans. Given the context of apartheid (1948-1994) and the isolation of South Africa from the rest of the continent, especially in the context of the Cold War global politics, these may be relevant.

Which then asks the next question: from what point/ when do we start to define African art as contemporary? These are maybe questions we can look deeper into as we go along but it could provide some foundations.

To speak from my own experience, my first big museum project has undoubtedly been 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective – South African National Gallery (15 April–3 October, 2010). The majority of the works came from the SANG permanent collection. But this was an extraordinarily large exhibition of mainly 580 modern and contemporary South African artworks with loans from 48 other collections (including a few private lenders and some artists). There were some ‘traditional’ South African art pieces too.

The intention of the exhibition was to expand on the complexity and diversity of what we refer to as South African art within the context of the many significant political and social points in the period referred to in the title. It would also expand on the different narratives that make up this multicultural society in Africa – all operating within the discourse and language of art, of course.

And so, operating with the two end points of the early articulations of a South African modernity (e.g. an artist like J.H. Pierneef) right up to the present day giving a glimpse into the future via young emerging artists, some of whom had not yet had been signed up by galleries (e.g. Gugulective). The curating of the show was complex (and lots of fun – for me at least) but in brief, I sought to bring to the surface differing and contrasting points of view of this art history (and history because they do not operate separately), to talk about issues of representation – from artists like Simon Mnguni and Gerard Benghu through DRUM magazine to the present via Guy Tillim and Peter Hugo – to the leading characters in this narrative (hence the many loans from the outside to reflect this as accurately as possible), and important moments in this period. Many works naturally spoke to that in a variety of mediums, which is a good argument for artists being mirrors on society! Of course, all these over and above the important artists, iconic works, etc. And oh yes, it was also very important for me that the show did not reflect a geographic parochialism or bias and this was another important aspect of including works from many different collections from around the country. Much more to say but maybe later…

We closed the South African National Gallery for 6 weeks – emptied it out – and took down the Bailey Collection of historical paintings for this exhibition. The Bailey Collection, containing important works by Gainsborough, Turner, Reynolds, Stubbs, etc. had occupied pride of place in the gallery for 63 years, because of a condition in the bequest in 1947 that maintained that parts of the collection needed to be up at any one time.

So the show was also about implementing a new vision for the gallery via this show.

My previous museum shows were photography based working with the archive and shedding light on neglected photographers, histories, personalities, and identities in South Africa (e.g. Ranjith Kally and The Indian in DRUM magazine in the 1950s).

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