South African National Gallery @ Iziko Museum, Cape Town.

Happy New Year Year everyone!

Starting this new year with a post about a museum. I’ve been in Cape Town for three months but realised haven’t been writing much about the local museum offer. I visited the South African National Gallery at the end of last year, and really liked it. Thought it was worth sharing.

The South African National Gallery is in the Company Gardens in the heart of Cape Town. In contrary to a lot of museums I have been to, there is no permanent gallery. The building is divided into six spaces, each being an autonomous temporary exhibition. The visit thus becomes a series of discoveries. Diverse curatorial practices and choices are juxtaposed and it is very interesting to see the different impacts they have on the work on display. I am going to talk about the first three exhibitions which I found fascinating in terms of the different curatorial practices they put on the table. The three other will make another post!

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Assessing Abstraction, South African National Gallery, Cape Town, Dec 2017.

The first exhibition is Assessing Abstraction. It’s in the first room, you can’t miss it. My first impression was actually surprise. I found the ‘look and feel’ very 19th century: a lot of pieces on the walls which produces an impression of being lost in front of too many propositions. However, the exhibitions appears to be a lot more. Quite basically, it presents a chronology of abstraction. The thesis is that the different types of abstraction show a plurality of faces to what abstraction is and to its influence on art and culture. Plus, it places the origin of abstraction in South Africa, in rock art – to be discussed in my opinion, but can be understood in a South African context. Anyway, the strength of the exhibition is in how the thesis is visually showcased. Because there’s a lot to look at in a confined space, as a visitor, I wasn’t into looking at each art work individually and I don’t think that it is what the curator wants you to do. They are presented as groups. Several of them make one proposition and words on the walls around the space put them in categories. A journey was offered to me, I just had to follow it. It is sober and neat. Very clever! I found myself simply going around, reading the words and looking at the groups which all present similar works. I felt like I had no effort to do, it was all very smooth. It is about having an overview and it’s well done! At the end, in a very direct way and in a short period of time, you leave with an impression of what abstraction is, in its diversity.

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Assessing Abstraction, South African National Gallery, Cape Town, Dec 2017.

The second exhibition presents in perpetuum by the artist Beth Diane Armstrong. In this case, and also for the next one, curation is quite classical for an art museum. It follows the theory of the white cube: works of art and white walls, very little or no explanation. It is understood that the pieces are enough, they do not need anything else than themselves. Plus, in this particular case, only one particular work by one particular artist is presented. A panel at the beginning introduces and contextualizes the work, but that is all. Then, the captions are really simple: title, date, materials, dimensions. This practice has pros and cons. For a visitor like me, who is already introduced to the world of art and who understand the process, it works. I found myself in connection with the work on display because there was no interference between the pieces and me. I could make my own journey. However, I always wonder if that’s the right type of curation for visitors who are not introduced to art, or for visitors who want to know more and learn. Indeed, the truth is, it is not didactic. It give artworks the power. However, to enjoy art, I believe you need to be taught how. The white cube curation does not teach you how, it admits that you already know. Therefore, it is great for some, but meaningless for others. That being said, it is very well made in this particular case. The work of the artist is highlighted to its best and it was a pleasure to walk around the space.

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in perpetuum, Beth Diane Armstrong, South African National Gallery, Cape Town, Dec 2017.

The third exhibition respects the same ‘white cube’ principle. It showcases Footprints by Andrew Tshabangu. It is a photographic journey through moments of life around the world. A ‘series of impressions’ as it is said in the introductory panel. The pictures are profound and made me looked at my inner self, at my own reflections, or impressions. It was an inspiring experience. It felt like a sanctuary: calm, tranquil. A place where you just are, and where you just feel. Footprints had an impact on me.

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Footprints, Andrew Tshabangu, South African National Gallery, Cape Town, Dec 2017.

As a conclusion, I was overly impressed by the quality of what was exhibited and of the curatorial practices put forward, especially in Assessing Abstraction. In this particular case, it was about curation more than it was about the work on display, which I enjoyed. The work of the curator was original and convincing. I would definitely recommend a visit.

Plus, as it is summer in Cape Town, locals go the beach or on a hike, not to museums, it is not busy. I had the space for myself ;). Now Looking forward to go back to review the other exhibits!

Maxime

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