Historical Perspective on South African women artists

Nontobeko Ntombela is a slight figure with a sharp mind. She is doing some interesting curatorial and academic research work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery with an exhibition entitled A Fragile Archive.

Ms Ntombela is investigating the role of history, memory and archive in looking at the work of Gladys Mgudlandlu who was critically acclaimed as South Africa’s first black woman artist. This claim has now been proved to be inaccurate and Ntombela has put up some of the works of Valerie Desmore indicating that she was exhibited here in South Africa before Gladys Mgudlandlu. Valerie Desmore (1925-2008) had her first exhibition in 1943 when she was only twelve and she left South Africa when she was sixteen.

Desmore, Street Accident, Oil on Hardboard, 1959

The first room in the gallery is dedicated to the four paintings of Valerie Desmore that Ntombela has been able to trace and access. Only one of them dates back to the early work of Desmore, while others have been purchased by JAG in more recent years, more particularly when she once again became known in the 1990s. We are meant to question the way South African art history was written and understood and the value systems of the time and how this has affected South African art history.

Moving on to Gladys Mgudlandlu’s work, Gallery 2 has a recreation of the 1961 exhibition which was held in the boardroom of the Contact offices. Contact was the newspaper of the Liberal Party. It is the investigative and curatorial process of this recreation, rather than the exhibition itself which is bold, new and exciting. The catalogue for the 1961 exhibition is reproduced. There are thirty items. Of these items 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 13, 22, 23, 24, 29 are known today. Some are available, some not. Where these paintings have been sold with titles changed, this has been noted. Questions are left unanswered. Some are available only as images of the original, in books or as digital images. The other spaces are deliberately left blank. Even the lack of knowledge is now part of the history and the curatorial process of accurate capturing of what is currently known. The concept that history is NOT fixed and that one cannot be prescriptive is an important part of this exhibition.

Gladys Mgudlandlu, Birds View Landscape, 1961

A recording of an interview of one of the people vaguely associated with that 1961 exhibition, Randolph Vigne, illustrates the fragility of memory in the process of art history. It is now over fifty years since that exhibition. He points out that the art critics, although invited, were by and large not interested in attending. It is slow listening, but well worth it. At the other side is an article scanned from the Contact paper documenting the fact that the exhibition did take place from 23 September to 7 October 1961.

Gladys Mgudlandlu, Bride and Groom, gouache on board

Many of the source documents came from Judy Drew, the granddaughter of Mavis Orpen, an admirer of the work of Gladys Mgudlandlu, and these are housed in a third room, together with all but three of the works owed by Gladys Mgudlandlu at the time of her death. Sadly, these were improperly stored and many of them have been damaged beyond repair. This damage too has been documented as part of the concept of the “Fragile Archive” and as part of the capturing of history during the curatorial process.

Nontobeko Ntombela then moves from the works of Gladys Mgudlandlu to the works of other self-taught women artists operating mainly before 1994. The intention of this exhibition is to understand the context of the work of Gladys Mgudlandlu in relation to South Africa’s political past and the way Western ideologies have influenced the development of image-making in South Africa. This historical context has influenced the way these artists’ archives have been construed. One of the consequences of this legacy of aesthetic, technical and conceptual discrepancies is a differentiation between the work of self-taught and academically trained artists, often privileging the latter and dismissing the former. The artists selected are Mmkgabo Mmapula Helen Sebidi, Noria Mabasa, Bonnie Ntshalintshali, Alina Kumalo, Elize Xaba and Bongi Dhloma-Mautloa, Seven etchings showing forced resettlement scenes by Bongi Dhloma-Mautloa have been borrowed from the Wits Art Museum, but all the other works by these other women are from JAG’s own collection.

This is a fascinating case study for general history students and scholars as well as art and art history students and scholars. Unfortunately funds have not been available for a printed and bound exhibition catalogue to accompany the exhibition, but guides are available to talk one through the exhibition and Ms Ntombela is available by appointment to discuss the exhibition.

A Fragile Archive, curated by Nontobeko Ntombela, Curator: Contemporary Collection, is being exhibited from 29 January 2012 to 8 April 2012. The Johannesburg Art Gallery is situated in King George Street, between Wolmarans and Noord Streets, Joubert Park. Entrance is free. The gallery is open from 10h00 to 17h00 Tuesdays to Sundays. Secure parking is available. There is always an exhibition of some kind available, usually different ones upstairs and downstairs, as well as permanent exhibitions. There is a research library and appointments can be made to view specific works held in the JAG’s collection of over 10 000 pieces. The Gallery conducts regular free art classes for local children. There is a small restaurant upstairs. For more information contact 011 725 3130.

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About moirads

Clergy person, theatre and music lover, avid reader, foodie. Basically, I write about what I do, where I go and things I love (or hate).
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