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Conversing the Land

WORDS: Johan Myburg

Conversing the Land, the latest collaboration between the University of Johannesburg and the MTN SA Foundation in the UJ Gallery from 22 October to 27 November, offers, as the title indicates, an exploration of the South African landscape as shaped by the memories, myths and meanings artists have attached to place. Any physical place has the potential to embody multiple landscapes, each of which is grounded in the cultural definitions of those who encounter the place.

University Johannesburg MTN South Africa Foundation UJ Gallery Conversing Land exhibition black artists
Alfred Thoba, Untitled. Oil on paper. 46 x 66,5 cm. UJ Art Collection

Landscape is the work of the mind, British historian and writer Simon Schama argues in Landscape and Memory (1995). Landscape exists as a cultural construct, a mirror of our memories and myths encoded with meanings, which can be read and interpreted. 
     Large-scale urban development at the height of capitalism stimulated development and welfare, but also overcrowding, insufficient housing and utilities, a division between upper class and township communities as well as unequal distribution of land resulting in forced removals and displacement.
     Within this dichotomy of have and have-not, the issue of land reform and restitution comes to the fore, but also brings with it the deeper yearning of the urbanite for the rural, the memory of a time and place that is no more and the re-imagining of a mythical landscape.
     As such, the landscape as a form of artistic expression becomes a site of hopes and aspirations, of memory, trauma, identity, history, heritage, migrations and a yearning to reconnect with land. Land issues, land ownership, identity, belonging and place of connection are constantly being reimagined in this country we call home. 
     As in Shifting Conversations (engaging colonial and post-colonial narratives) in 2017 and Continuing Conversations (focusing on various forms of identity in portraiture) in 2018, the previous iterations of this current collaboration between UJ and MTN, the underlying principle of this exhibition is more to stimulate conversation than to address – hence the exhibition title. 

University Johannesburg MTN South Africa Foundation UJ Gallery Conversing Land exhibition black artists
Nhlanhla Xaba, Migrant family life. Linocut. 30,5 x 44,5 cm. MTN Art Collection

In presenting an exhibition based more on temporally fluid meaning, curators Annali Dempsey (UJ) and Katlego Lefine (MTN) included artworks from the permanent collections of MTN and the University of Johannesburg as well as selected artworks derived from an Emerging Artists Portrait Development Programme. 
     To extend the reach and scope of this exhibition, the two curators facilitated three programmes aimed at developing participation in the conversation on land issues. 
     The Mentorship Programme, under the guidance of the project manager Rika Nortje and two curators, offered three B Tech students at the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA) at UJ a first-hand experience of curatorial practice with masterclasses on collection management, safe handling of artworks, practical in-house label making and marketing. The mentees assisted with the content and the running of the Educational Programme, administrative tasks pertaining to the emerging artist programme as well as the setting up of the exhibition.
     The Emerging Artists Development Programme invited artists, through public advertising, to submit artwork in response to, or in conversation with, modern and contemporary South African landscapes, thereby offering a platform to showcase talents and interpretations of contemporary South African land issues. Ten works were selected from the entries received and form part of the Conversing the Land exhibition, alongside the works sourced from both UJ’s and MTN’s art collections. The winner will be announced at the opening of the exhibition on 22 October.
     The Educational Programme was designed for this particular exhibition, aimed at learners and students, and is accompanied by a full-colour catalogue and learner material.

University Johannesburg MTN South Africa Foundation UJ Gallery Conversing Land exhibition black artists
Walter Battis, Icarus, Watercolor on paper, 33,6 x 48 cm. UJ Art Collection

Divided into broad themes, Conversing the Land explores the idyllic depiction of pastoral and rural life, the effect of industrialisation, the devastating influence of mining on the physical landscape, as well as the consequence of the lack of social cohesion within migrant families.
     On so many levels, Conversing the Land continues to solidify the MTN/UJ partnership and the mutual aim to make their respective collections visible to a wider public. However, more than showing a fine collection of artworks ‘the collaborative projects between the UJ Art Gallery and the MTN SA Foundation afford both parties the opportunity to promote emerging artists and to provide opportunities for personal growth through educational programmes, walkabouts and masterclasses,’ Dempsey adds.
     ‘MTN is fortunate to be involved in a creative programme which gives tangible support and opportunity to emerging artists and simultaneously contributes to relevant contemporary discussions about our collective experience,’ Lefine says. ‘The tradition of depicting the landscape is intimately connected to the colonial experience and is thus rendered pertinent in conversations relating to history, ownership and agency.’
     Conversing the Land is at the UJ Art Gallery, Auckland Park, Johannesburg, from 22 October to 27 November 2019.

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