Notes From South Africa
On four Thursdays during the month of August, Perrin Lathrop, Research Assistant for the Arts of Africa, will share impressions on her July trip through South Africa to participate in the South African Visual Arts Historians annual conference. Check back each week for a new insight into Perrin’s travels.
“He would not mind hearing Petrus’s story one day. But preferably not reduced to English. More and more he is convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa.” –J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace
I spent the month leading up to my trip to South Africa reading all of the South African literature that I could get my hands on. Hoping that the words of J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and the like would prepare me for my first trip to the country, and to the continent at large, I realize now that the racial and cultural tensions simmering beneath the surface of these authors’ texts did not—could not—fully resonate with me upon first reading. Nothing compares to first hand experience. Or, perhaps, to my art historically trained eye, the visual simply makes more of an impact.
My cab driver, Piet, lost his way on the supposedly 15 minute journey from my guesthouse in Brooklyn (a district in Pretoria, and coincidentally, my own neighborhood in New York) to the site of the South African Visual Arts Historians conference on the University of South Africa campus, where I was to deliver a paper. Though Piet was himself a life-long resident of Pretoria, he had never been to the University of South Africa—in fact, he had no idea where it was located. Passing house after house walled up like fortresses with barbed wire and electric fences, I began to realize how these ubiquitous security measures pervaded everyday life, cordoning off individuals by protected boundaries. As Piet meandered his way through the streets of Pretoria, he explained that after years of discussion, all of the street names in the former capital of Apartheid South Africa had been changed just weeks before my arrival. In a symbolic removal of names that paid homage to the leaders of Apartheid, the originals were crossed out in red with the new signage displayed underneath. Walker Street became Justice Mohammed Street; Voortrekker Street now bears the name of anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko. Everyone, including Google maps, was having some trouble with the adjustments.
Finally arriving at the conference, themed Visual Dialogues: South Africa in Conversation, it was refreshing to find myself in an environment where African art took center stage. I listened to a variety of interesting papers, covering topics from the Black Consciousness group of the 1970s and 1980s to the evolving representations of the domestic worker in South African art to Japan’s failure to find an audience for anime among South African cable television viewers. Most pertinent to my role at the Newark Museum, however, was University of Witwatersrand professor Anitra Nettleton’s discussion of her reinstallation of the Wits Art Museum (WAM), entitled Exhibiting “Africa” in Africa: An Impossible Conundrum?Nettleton
reviewed the challenges inherent in displaying African art in collections that span geography and time. By placing contemporary art objects in visual conversation with historical ones, Nettleton hopes to create a dialogue about the ways old objects inform new ones. Like the NewarkMuseum, Nettleton emphasized her goal of placing permanent curatorial attention on a range of media and genres, such as textiles and beadwork. As I walked through the installation at WAM a few days later, I appreciated Nettleton’s tendency to give as much room to a textile wall hanging as a painting.
– Perrin Lathrop, Research Assistant, Arts of Africa
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