Wits Art Museum has just announced Lifescapes, an exhibition that is the culmination of an innovative post-graduate course entitled ‘Writing Art’s Histories’, run by the Wits History of Art department. The course requires each student to write the ‘biography’ of a single object from WAM’s collection. The exhibition presents six objects researched by students in 2015 in dialogue with other objects and pictures, evoking aspects of their wider lives that students uncovered. The biographies are published in detail in an accompanying book of the same name. Lifescapes is the third in a series of linked books and exhibitions based on post-graduate object biography research and will be hosted at WAM for the first time.
This kind of research points to the rewards gained from close looking, intensive enquiry, and deep thinking about the objects and the multiple people who, in varying ways, have shaped the objects’ lives. In 2015, students explored the compelling life-stories of a bowl-bearing figure carved from wood, a pastel landscape drawing, a clay pot, a pair of wooden colon figures, a suspended sculpture made of bone, and a black-and-white photograph. Through the exhibition and comprehensive accompanying publication, visitors will be able to access the multi-layered lives that each object has lived. Beyond mapping contexts for these objects, the stories in the book speak of the rich intersections and overlapping lives that can be revealed from within each object. Visitors are thus invited to take a glimpse into a series of object worlds, or ‘lifescapes’.
This is a project about knowledge-making — where students produce knowledge rather than consume it, and where individual interests drive the research. The research is rooted in processes of looking, touching, feeling, talking, reading, recording, imaging, telling and writing. As such the resulting biographies embody research as a multidimensional experience characterised by intersections, journeys and conversations and give insight to the possibilities of this kind of open yet demanding approach. The project enables and pushes students to develop their research into publishable form — going through all the attendant processes of editing, peer review, image permissions and so on — while also providing a space for students to explore curatorial processes and display practices as they consider ways in which to present ‘their’ objects and aspects of the wider worlds they form part of, for exhibition.