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Curating our tangible heritage | A Q&A with NWU’s Amohelang Mohajane

It has been a rich and busy year for the North West University (NWU) Gallery. Over the course of 2021, Creative Feel has had the pleasure of reporting on a number of the institution’s innovative and engaging solo and group exhibitions across its various spaces.

Now, as NWU Gallery wraps up a successful year with Untold Stories, an exhibition of works by art students from the former University of Bophuthatswana (UNIBO), we speak with NWU Gallery curator and collections manager Amohelang Mohajane about the importance of curating tangible heritage and archives, how to better embrace the virtual and the physical worlds for arts education and research, and her own experience of the past year.

To begin, could you tell us a bit about the story behind this exhibition? How did you come across these artworks and when did you decide to curate an exhibition around what you found?

In 2019, when I began at the NWU Gallery I was invited to come view more than 50 artworks that were found in a storeroom on the NWU Mahikeng campus, where the paintings and sculptures had been relegated for over three decades. The works date from the 1980s to the early 1990s, when the UNIBO (later renamed the University of the North-West), offered a degree in Fine Art. Keen to take on the opportunity, I accepted the invitation. Little did I know I would be taking a journey back into 31 years of the University’s history.

The NWU Records and Archive staff had known the history of how the artworks came into their possession when the Fine Art Department ceased to exist many years ago. We scheduled a meeting with the staff and one of the Alumnus Tonic Dichaba, to meet at the NWU Archives. She was immediately transported back to the 80s – nostalgic moments. In my capacity as the NWU Gallery curator, I had an opportunity to encounter this archive in more fascinating ways than one. We got the material; we maintained by processes of rehabilitation and started some conservation; and we went through our first process of disseminating the information, as this tangible heritage is deserving of scholarly research.

I first decided to show a part of the archive in 2019 in the exhibition titled Decades in Waiting – The Art of Our Alumni, UNIBO. The second iteration was in collaboration with ViNCO in conjunction with the 35th Annual South African Visual Art Historians (SAVAH) conference titled UNTOLD STORIES: LEGACY OF THE UNIBO (University of Bophuthatswana) ARCHIVE. Art of our alumni: North-West University Collection.

NWU Gallery Untold Stories

You’ve mentioned that there is a lack of information and research around the period that these artworks were produced. How does one begin to both research and curate these works? What was your process?

I am in a fortunate position to form part of ViNCO and was privileged with an opportunity to use this archive as a teaching and research resource for an Honours KGSG component of Gallery practical. Untold Stories, the exhibition, is an attempt at opening critical discussion and research on the archive. So, with the support of the Faculty of Humanities, I applied my expertise to teach using the archive, the practical communication fundamentals, condition reporting, cataloguing, research development, and practical outputs. I have also reached out to alumni and former lecturers for primary information. I also included in my practical teaching and artists talks, which included, staff, students, and industry experts.    

Can you give us a brief overview of the works on exhibition in Untold Stories? What kinds of narratives emerge, and how well do you find these artworks speak to the moment in history that they were produced? 

The exhibition provides an overview of both the arts curriculum of the former department and the personal voices and burgeoning styles of individual students. The subject matter includes still life, figure and perspective studies, portraits, and genre scenes in paint on board, plaster busts, wood carving and linocuts. There are also striking self-portraits, exploratory and expressive paintings and sculptures that make strong social-political statements, and others that experiment with Cubist and Surrealist influences. While most of the works are unsigned and undated, artists such as Daniel Mosako, George Bhunu, Tommy Motswai, Felicious Dichaba, Frank Ledimo and Gemma Tabane are represented in the archive and exhibition.  

NWU Gallery student art Untold Stories

How important is it for universities to research and interrogate their own collections? And is this something that should be done on a continual basis?

Universities must research their collections. They are how knowledge will be created so that it allows the Universities to share and allow research and scholarship. Especially during the time of Covid-19 and the fourth industrial revolution, open access scholarship is quite important. Digital curation forms a catalyst and presents opportunities that align with many art historians, archivists, librarians, and the digital humanities sector. Using online representation examples of repositories can be shared as a form of care, curating the humanistic aspect of digital content, therefore, speaks to new alternative ways of engagement.

Amohelang Mohajane guest curates Strauss & Co auction

Exhibitions such as Untold Stories are one way of sharing the university’s collections and archives with the public. What are some of the other ways that the public can engage with these things?

There is published media in circulation, they can also reach out to the Gallery through our social media platforms and online exhibitions. The NWU Gallery is also open, albeit under strict protocols.

Lastly, considering Untold Stories is one of the last exhibitions at NWU this year, could we take a moment to reflect on your role as curator of the gallery over the past year? What have been some of your highlights or most memorable exhibitions from this year?

It has been a very interesting year indeed for the NWU gallery and the accomplishments and positive strides we have taken. We have managed to create a platform where students and staff members engage with our exhibitions in a hybrid method. Furthermore, we’ve tapped into an array of conversations, ranging from spirituality and family to hair politics and the dynamics of beauty, but also deliberately showcasing talented women all throughout the year, rather than just one month of the year. All the exhibitions were memorable because they are the catalyst for more growth for me as a professional and the NWU Gallery an institution that strives to push the envelope.

View NWU’s current and past exhibitions, and their virtual tours on their website.

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