Shifting Conversations

UJ Art Gallery
JH Pierneef (1886 – 1957) | Wilgebome (1913) | Pastel on paper | 37 x 45.3 cm | UJ Art Collection

As in the past, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Art Gallery will once again be collaborating with the MTN SA Foundation in an MTN sponsored exhibition entitled Shifting Conversations from 18 October to 22 November 2017 at the UJ Gallery. To find out more, Creative Feel contacted Annali Dempsey, the curator of the UJ Art Gallery, and Niel Nortje, the manager of the MTN Art Collection.

The UJ Art Gallery is situated on the main campus of the University of Johannesburg and, as Dempsey explains, the role of the UJ Art Gallery is ‘in support of the University’s vision of being an international university of choice, anchored in Africa, dynamically shaping the future, the UJ Art Gallery promotes the importance of visual art as a vehicle for reflecting social constructs and debates. It aims to promote dialogue and debate on social and cultural matters, both historical and contemporary, and is reflective of the social, cultural and political diversity of Johannesburg and South Africa. As such, it engages directly with the core values of the University, namely imagination, regeneration, conversation and an ethical foundation.’ Annali Dempsey herself is looking back on 21 years of curating the UJ Art Gallery because she strongly believes that it is important to look at the world around you through the eyes of artists. She has been trying to fulfil the gallery’s mandate with ten exhibitions annually for the first 15 years and now with bigger exhibitions six times a year, always promoting dialogue and debate on social and cultural matters. She explains that she receives many proposals and, in the end, the selection is made on the value of the mandate of the gallery. ‘As an African University, the artist view should reflect a national level, an international level, a Pan-African level as well as a global level, all about global excellence. For South Africa, it is an important time for all universities with the present debates about colonial values, decolonisation and about post-colonial values.’

UJ Art Gallery
Joachim Schönfeldt (1958 – ) | 360 degrees (2008) | Oil on wood | 725 cm diameter | UJ Art Collection

The MTN Foundation is proud of this initiative and look forward to the possibilities it will create for both art collections and how it will contribute towards developing a socially conscious, historically aware youth who are our future leaders

Niel Nortje told Creative Feel that he has been looking after the MTN Art Collection as its manager for the last 19 years. ‘Since the MTN Art Collection’s inception in November 1998, it was dedicated to making a contribution towards arts and culture educational development in South Africa. The approximately 1 400-piece art collection, which is housed at MTN’s head offices on 14th Avenue in Fairlands, Johannesburg, consists of original prints, paintings, drawings, sculpture, classical African Art and contemporary art from across the continent by artists from the colonial to post apartheid and post modern eras. As part of our mandate to utilise MTN’s Art Collection for educational and social development, the MTN Foundation decided to partner with museums and university galleries to initiate programmes that will not only avail such opportunities but also develop provenance and investment value for both institution’s art collections. The MTN Foundation regards these strategic partnerships as pivotal to accomplishing our corporate social investment targets and has also partnered with the North-West University Gallery in Potchefstroom, the Voices of Women Museum in Durban and the William Humphreys Art Gallery in Kimberley. ‘Shifting Conversations is, therefore, the product of our collaboration with the UJ Art Gallery and involves both our art collections in an exhibition with an educational programme.

UJ Art Gallery

Shifting Conversations is a response to the recent protest actions by students from major universities across the country against the vestiges of colonialism that still play a role in our tertiary institutions. The MTN Foundation is proud of this initiative and looks forward to the possibilities it will create for both art collections and how it will contribute towards developing a socially conscious, historically aware youth who are our future leaders.’ UJ and MTN appointed Johan Myburg and Melissa Goba as guest curators. Myburg started his career as an arts writer at an Afrikaans, Johannesburg-based newspaper where he held the position of arts editor until 2014 when he started to write about art on a freelance basis. He is one of few arts writers publishing in Afrikaans as well as in English. He obtained a doctorate with the thesis, ‘Deconstructing Identity in a Landscape of Ideology, Belief, Culture and Power’, from Unisa in 2000 and is currently a research fellow at the unit for the visual arts at the North-West University. Goba is an artist, writer, curator and producer who has worked in various capacities in the visual arts. Her interest is primarily in popular culture and its global relationship to Africa. Goba has written for various publications and has curated various projects including: Jive Soweto! (A Homage to Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse and Soweto, 2007), The MTN New Contemporaries (2008), Domestic (2009) and SPace: Currencies in Contemporary African Art (which formed part of the cultural programming during the FIFA 2010 World Cup). 

For South Africa, it is an important time for all universities with the present debates about colonial values, decolonisation and about post-colonial values

Dempsey feels strongly that guest curators need all the freedom they deserve and Goba and Myburg selected over 40 artworks, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and installations from both the MTN and UJ Art Collections, by predominantly South African artists, Santu Mofokeng, Willem Boshoff, Jackson Hlungwani, Maggie Laubser, Credo Mutwa, Noria Mabasa, JH Pierneef, Helen Sebidi, Coert Steynberg and Alfred Thoba, among others. Thematically, the exhibition explores ‘shifting conversations’ in response to binaries such as ‘colonised’ and ‘coloniser’ prevalent within the collections of the two institutions and examines possible overlaps or shifts in a series of ideas that include agency, gaze, histories, landscape and traditions, memory, nature, representation and spirit. The aim is to present an open-ended discourse that might invite new or different ways of experiencing art. Dempsey and Nortje are excited by the outcome of the project and are currently busy with a full-colour catalogue relating to this exhibition, for educational purposes. The catalogue will include essays by prominent academics as well as an interview with the curators, explaining their curatorial narrative and choices of artworks. The opening speaker at this event is Prof. Njabulo Ndebele, Chairman: MTN SA Foundation and Chancellor: University of Johannesburg.

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