After more than two decades of being at the helm, Annali Cabano-Dempsey has announced her retirement from the University of Johannesburg (UJ), where she served as Curator of the UJ Art Gallery. Looking back, she says the past 23 years have been some of the richest and most rewarding of her career.
Back in 1993, Cabano-Dempsey was already wearing a number of hats. Trained in journalism, she worked as an arts writer while also teaching, and creating her own artworks across painting and sculpture. That year, an exhibition of her work was hosted at the UJ Gallery, followed by another two years later. Little did she know that in 1998, when she assumed the role of curator of the UJ Gallery, she’d end up finding some of her artworks in the same university collection that she was now overseeing.
All of these skills – the teaching, writing, and artmaking – ended up finding their way into Cabano-Dempsey’s curatorial practice in one way or another, be it the journalist’s pursuit of truth, or the artist’s ability to make sense of the world outside of fact and language.
‘I was a very curious child and I’m still a curious adult,’ she says to Creative Feel over Zoom. ‘Apart from being privy to information ahead of the deadline, journalists are also finely tuned to the prevailing zeitgeist and the imminent developments and changes lurking around the corner. It’s quite fun to know things ahead of other people. This suits my nature – the wanting to know things and the innate understanding of change. I’m also a voracious reader and a lifelong learner. On the other hand, I consider artists to be like prophets. They have a tendency to predict and react to the defining ideas and beliefs of particular social constructs long before mere mortals do. This convergence of understanding of what is happening in the crystal ball has put me in good standing throughout my career.’
Towards a more collaborative and accessible curatorial practice
During her tenure as curator of the UJ Art Gallery, Cabano-Dempsey has continued to wear many hats. As she puts it, the job has never involved sticking to any single task. A day’s work can see one playing the role of researcher, archivist, HR manager, legal eagle, time-keeper, mother, administrator and more. All of this in addition to the vital, primary role of curating and caring for artists and their work.
Her approach to the role of curatorship has been one that involves respect and reverence for the artworks she engages with, while striving, always, to democratise the gallery space itself – to transport the gallery from its often-inaccessible rootedness in ivory towers and white cube spaces, and towards a more widely-accessible point of entry for artists, students, and audiences alike.
Cabano-Dempsey recalls an exhibition by the artist Samson Mnisi being hosted at the gallery. Mnisi’s work, which employed abstract symbols and mathematical ciphers, required a great deal of thematic decoding for those who came to view it. A group of students from a primary school in Soweto, however, immediately resonated with the works, reflecting on the exhibition’s overt and subliminal contexts in equal measure.
‘Moments like that throughout my career convinced me that we must move away from the ivory tower and stop pretending that it’s only a privileged few that can appreciate, understand, and have access to art… I’ve tried my best and I hope that I have succeeded to some degree to make the gallery more accessible on various levels.’Annali Cabano-Dempsey
Steering the UJ Art Gallery into the future
Most recently, Cabano-Dempsey’s efforts to extend the reach of the UJ Gallery have resulted in UJ Art Gallery’s Moving Cube platform. Launched in November 2020, the newly developed UJ Art Gallery website offers content such as 3D virtual exhibitions, 2D documentation, educational programmes, online walkabouts, video interviews with artists and curators, media, archival material and more. Already, it’s housed fully immersive, collaborative, and educational exhibitions including Pauline Gutter’s PRIMORDIAL and Willem Boshoff’s Blind Alphabet.
The Moving Cube was Cabano-Dempsey’s vision, in partnership with the MTN SA Foundation, and carried out by a dedicated team at UJ Arts and Culture. Naturally, with the advent of the global Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on our ability to access the arts, the UJ Art Gallery’s move to digital was an urgent and necessary step.
‘You know, we are so invested in the idea that visual arts offer a sensory experience, and that holds true – there is just something so very special about becoming immersed in an artwork to get a whiff of the residue of paint and varnish or to delicately touch a piece of bronze. The mantra of the real-time, real space, and the appreciation of the visual arts – the emotional relationship that is formed, being moved aesthetically – this mantra has made us complacent in terms of the creation of digitally created or virtual exhibitions. We knew it was coming but still, digital representation of the real was seen as the stepchild, the secondary option. Then this minute organism called Covid-19 hit our planet and it was such a force, it completely changed how things operated forever. We found ourselves in 2020 on the cusp of a new approach to visual art.’Annali Cabano-Dempsey
Undaunted, UJ Arts and Culture combined choral music, visual art, and dance to create a project called The Pandemic that was hugely successful. This was followed by CURE where artists were called upon to interact again with choral music and the principles of Michelangelo Pistoletto in addressing the curative qualities of art – another successful project.
‘In between those two projects we realised that we had to build a gallery website. It was a hefty enterprise which we completed within a relatively short period with the support of the MTN SA Foundation,’ says Cabano-Dempsey. ‘The resulting Moving Cube is now firmly established not only as a virtual gallery but also as a repository of knowledge, research, and archive – a teaching and learning mechanism. I’m very proud to see the Moving Cube as part of my legacy this late in my career.’
Two decades of rich memories
Cabano-Dempsey’s legacy is also built up through the countless exhibitions and artists she worked with. Reflecting on her time as curator, she explains that to single out a handful of exhibitions or artworks as her career highlights is impossible, but that a few experiences remain top of mind.
Working with the late Maestro Edoardo Villa in 2000 to host an exhibition of about 100 of his sculptures at his Johannesburg home remains a truly exceptional experience for Cabano-Dempsey, as does the memory of walking into the gallery and encountering anti-apartheid poet, painter, and activist Breyten Breytenbach ready to work in the space, or witnessing the photographer Peter Magubane perform a praise song in the gallery. Another stand-out memory is the 2019 retrospective exhibition 21 Years of Curating The Cube which paid tribute to the over 2 500 artists who completed more than 6 800 artworks in about 140 exhibitions over the years.
Still, it is the simple joy of having worked with some of South Africa’s greatest artistic minds that Cabano-Dempsey prizes above all else.
‘The most enduring memories though, would be that of meeting with artists and getting insights into those beautiful minds. It’s very gratifying to see how artists who exhibited at UJ at the beginning of my career have developed and grown up, grown into the present. To know that I played a small role in forming the new person that came out of that is gratifying,’ she says.
Big shoes to fill
Now, as Cabano-Dempsey passes on the baton to the next curator, what tips does she have for whoever comes to fill the role? There are many, she explains, a sensible pair of shoes, a capacity for late nights and early mornings, and the ability to be both a firm presence and a soft shoulder to cry on, being just a few of them. But most of all:
‘You must be prepared to have the time of your life, because this position offers continuous opportunities for creative thought that are afforded to very few. I’m deeply grateful to UJ for entrusting me with a wonderful facility where I could live out my dreams for so many years. I thank my colleagues for their support, encouragement, and understanding. I tip my hat to all of the artists who participated in exhibitions at the gallery throughout my tenure. Without them I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of exploring art as I did over all these years.’Annali Cabano-Dempsey
Looking to the future, and reflecting on what’s come to pass
What’s next for Cabano-Dempsey? The bucket list is long, she explains. The paints are organised, the canvases have been primed, and the road trips have been mapped out. For the first few months, though, books, rest, and quality time with family are the order of the day.
‘It’s not always the big picture,’ says Cabano-Dempsey as she shares a final reflection on her time with the UJ Art Gallery and the many people that help it thrive. ‘It’s the small things that were really endearing and special, and the things that I will remember into an old age and share with my own children and grandchildren as a way to live, a way to appreciate people.’
Are you interested in pursuing a career in arts curation? See if you’re eligible to apply for the position of curator at the UJ Art Gallery.