Recuperating the Present

Public museums are losing out on building representative collections for future generations as contemporary South African art increasingly gets exported. By Carol Brown.

Earlier this year I attended the 2007 Arts Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA) Conference held in Gainesville, Florida. Works by Yinka Shonibare, Chris Ofili, El Anatsui, Magdalene Odundo and William Kentridge were consistently mentioned as trophies of American contemporary art collections. It is worrying to realise that art museums in South Africa, as well as the rest of the continent, either do not have works by these flagship African artists or, if they do, they are very under-represented. Corporate collections, such as MTN, fare slightly better.

It seems ironic, however, that in South Africa while we are currently obsessed with repatriation we are not giving attention to the expatriation of our cultural production. An organization called Ifa Lethu has recently been established as an NGO to lobby for the return of the artworks taken from the country during the apartheid years. The intention of this initiative is to foster “a culture of understanding and healing through our Heritage and through the artistic work produced by South Africa’s ‘struggle era’ artists and which develops pride in our country”.

The past is also being acknowledged by the establishment new museums, most aimed at honouring previously marginalised apartheid heroes and events. Not one museum of contemporary art has however been built, despite much lobbying on the part of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban — proposals for either separate wings to existing museums or new structures for contemporary African art have been roundly thwarted.

In his June 2006 Budget speech, Minister for Arts and Culture, Pallo Jordan, reported that his department had spent R490m on heritage institutions, which accounted for 67% of his budget. He stated: “This expresses the Department’s mandate as the custodian of the nation’s collective memory. Heritage can best contribute to social cohesion and the building of a sense of South African national identity because it is a palpable record of our past.”

I don’t dispute this, but my argument is that we should also protect the heritage being made now, in perhaps the most significant years ever of this country’s history. The emphasis currently being placed on funding the craft industry, with the intention of job creation and poverty alleviation, is necessary and laudable but it is not the best thing for innovation and creativity. This segment of the market frequently seeks repetition of known forms and is insecure about work that pushes the boundaries.

I discussed these issues with some prominent dealers. Warren Siebrits comments that most of his sales are to international museums and collectors, adding that South Africans value international works more than African production — a hangover from apartheid days and the perceived inferiority of South African culture. Michael Stevenson agrees stating that 80% of his works are sold outside the country. He quotes his recent sell-out experience at New York’s Armory Show, where his was the first African gallery to show.

Works by Berni Searle, Claudette Schreuders, Zwelethu Mthethwa and Robin Rhode, to name a few, are leaving the country at a rapid pace. The low cost of African contemporary art in general, coupled with a hesitancy on the part of local museums to purchase multi- media or installation work are also factors to be taken into account when assessing our collecting patterns. It is clear from the people I canvassed that nobody wants artworks to stay on the continent at the expense of the artists’ careers. It is also evident that artistic and cultural heritage belongs to humankind and should not be placed in a ghetto. However, there is a fear that our museums are going to have large gaps in their collections of contemporary production if government funding does not take cognizance of the problem.

An interested community needs to be formed: publishing, the increased availability of books, and the retooling of educational curricula can all play a part here. There has to be a more public discourse and the South African public needs to be educated to appreciate the fact that African work is globally important. Finally, the issue of state support and funding, particularly of museum collections, is vital. We cannot afford to lose current artistic production without retaining a representative collection for future generations. We need to take action now before it is too late.

Carol Brown is a curator and writer based in Durban. She is the former Director of the Durban Art Gallery

This article is an abridged version of text which appeared in the First Word column in African Arts, African Museums Vol.40(4), Winter 2007