What does the story of South Africa’s historical transformation look like when told by the country’s artists and artworks? In September 2022, Sanlam and MTN joined forces to host Re Mmogo: We are Together, an exhibition comprised of artworks from both of their corporate art collections.
Artworks included in the exhibition offer up a unique and far-reaching account of the socio-political change that has taken place in the country over the past few decades. With striking and narrative-driven artworks by artists including Durant Sihlali, Willem Boshoff, Simon Lekgetho, Yinka Shonibare, Tracey Rose and Alexis Preller, Re Mmogo: We are Together is both a considered and comprehensive exhibition, and a rare opportunity to view important artworks from two of the country’s most significant corporate art collections.
We reached out to curator of the Sanlam Art Collection Stefan Hundt, and Manager of the MTN Art Collection Niel Nortje, to unpack some of the stories imbedded in the exhibition, and what a partnership between Sanlam and MTN can mean for the arts.
Creative Feel: Hi Niel and Stefan. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us and congratulations on the launch of the Re Mmogo: We are Together exhibition. To begin, could you tell us a bit about the history of the Sanlam Art Collection and the MTN Art Collection?
Stefan Hundt: The Sanlam Art Collection was founded in 1965 when the company’s board of directors decided to start a collection of South African art. Fortunately, they appointed an independent advisor to propose acquisitions from the outset. This is still the case today. The collection consists of 2 200 works by South African artists dating from 1873 to the present. With the inauguration of the Sanlam Art Gallery in Bellville in 1993, the Sanlam Art Collection was able to expand its horizons in terms of the type of works that could be acquired. Not all art fits into the office environment, especially if it makes a noise, such as an installation by Jan van der Merwe, or is deliberately confrontational, such as an etching by Diane Victor. The collection now consists of works in almost every practical exhibitable medium. Whether the collection will acquire an NFT still remains up for debate. Sanlam has always shared its collection by organising regular touring exhibitions which were showcased in museums, town halls and festivals throughout South Africa. This still continues. With the development of the Sanlam Art Lounge at 11 Alice Lane Sandton, the Sanlam Art Collection also has a presence in Gauteng.
Niel Nortje: MTN’s Art Collection acquisitions programme was initiated in late 1997 during an historical period of dramatic socio-political change in our country. Where many older corporate art collections were having to suddenly revise their art collections to become more inclusive and representative of especially marginalised black artists; MTN, itself a ‘new-born’ company, was in the fortunate position to start an art collection from a clean slate as it was eager to prove its investment into the inclusive social and cultural development of a new South Africa. The initial acquisitions programme, meant to be implemented over a period of nine months to acquire at least 400 artworks with the inclusion of four site specific commissions, would by the end of 1998 have expanded to include over 900 artworks by South African and African artists. In November 1998 the MTN Art Collection would officially be launched under the auspices of the MTN Art Institute, adopting a mandate still implemented today: to utilise this appreciating company asset, currently holding over 1 400 pieces, in contribution towards the development of resources and opportunities for the arts and culture education sector.
CF: There are over 100 artworks by 75 artists from across the African continent in this exhibition. Can you give us a bit of insight into the process of curating such a monumental exhibition?
SH: The exhibition is a collaboration between the Sanlam Art Collection the MTN Foundation’s art collection. MTN’s collection is much younger and has some significant works from other parts of Africa which compliment the older Sanlam Art Collection in many respects. Both collections have endeavoured to acquire representative works from the past right through to the present so there are some delightful overlaps and some unique definitive works in the show. Curating the exhibition focussed on these instances, trying to compile an engaging exhibition which showcased the peculiarities of the two collections such as a selection of 20 pieces from Willem Boshoff’s Blind Alphabet, Kendell Geers’ Lovers and Yinka Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 14h00 Hours, from MTN’s collection and Gavin Younge’s Forces Favourites, Tracy Rose’s La Annunciazone after Fra Angelico and Frans Thoka’s Moipolai Ga LLelwe, Sello Sa Gagwe ke Moropa to mention a few. There are of course significant overlaps in terms of artists in both collections and in such instances a work selected on its representational strength within the artist’s oeuvre. For instance, the Gerard Sekoto paintings from both collections are included. While Sanlam holds more than 100 works by Emily Fern we decided to showcase one from the MTN collection. Similarly with Sam Nhlengethwa (MTN), Irma Stern (Sanlam), Helen Sebidi (Sanlam). If the two collections were to be showcased together in their entirety, they would complement each other very well. There were many difficult choices to make in terms of what to leave out. The selection process also involved looking at common themes and subject matters that appeared in both collections yet were represented differently by artists. Visitors to the show will quickly realise the installation of works is deliberate and meant to be viewed in their groupings to get a broader sense of the collections, but also what engaged and motivated a selection of South African artists over more than a century.
NN: It was difficult to keep it to only 100 artworks. If Stefan and I were able to curate the exhibition for a space that was the size of a warehouse or an airport hangar, we would probably have easily filled it. To bring two monumental art collections with different curatorial narratives together, was a tremendously interesting and rewarding experience. We started by looking at the archives and registers of the respective art collections. I would look at Sanlam’s art collection register to find artworks and artists that MTN have not yet collected, and Stefan would do the same with MTN’s art collection register. This process provided the organic development of a curatorial narrative which not only investigated the gaps, but also similarities, in the companies’ art acquisition practices.
The works on exhibition can be said to reflect on South Africa’s history over the past 50 years. What kind of stories can be found in these works?
NN: I suppose it goes without saying that one will find a different story from each decade. As American author and artist, Joan Mondale, once said, “Art is the signature of a Nation”, because artists create work in response to the times they live in, and it becomes visual testimonies, evidence, or the signatures of a nation during those times. There are so many stories to be found in this exhibition; some are an obvious response to the violence of the 80s and late 90s, such as in Thomas Nkuna’s Amandla Iliswe iAfrika! (1989) and Lizo Manzi’s Civil War is a Disgrace (1998). Other stories are more nuanced and personal such as Durant Sihlali’s personal experience of the forced removals act in his work Looking In: Paddavlei, Kliptown (1974). Personally, I find the subjective dialogues between the portrait selections from both art collections to be offering the most interesting stories, especially between George Pemba’s Daughter of a Shebeen Queen (1957) and Irma Stern’s Portrait of a young Malay girl (1939), as the stories between two children from different eras and cultures, painted by two artists from vastly different backgrounds, leaves much to the imagination of the viewer.
SH: The exhibition straddles more than a hundred years. The earliest work on the exhibition is from 1897. It is a portrait of Gwelo Goodman done by a celebrated New Zealand artist Charls Fredeick Goldie. This portrait titled Mon Chér Goodman would have been done in Paris when both artists were attending art academies in the city. The storyline in the exhibition flowing chronologically from here is the practice of portraiture which can been followed through the exhibition with superb examples by George Pemba, Irma Stern, Pat Mautloa, Simon Lekgetho and Asha Zero to mention a few examples.
Part of MTN’s collection consists of ‘protest’ posters from the 1960s up to the 1990s. These in their own right represent specific stories within South Africa history. We selected only two for this exhibition. One of them being one of the first printed versions of the ANC’s freedom Charter from 1956. Alongside this is a woodcut by Elza Botha (Elza Miles) from 1982 which reproduces clauses from the Freedom Charter, but in Afrikaans. The charter was a banned document in South Africa in that period and possession of such a document was a criminal offence. Publishing it would have attracted a severe penalty. Presenting the charter as an artwork was an evasion of such restrictions and the translation of the text into Afrikaans was a defiant stand by Elza against the apartheid state but also a stand for Afrikaans as a language that could carry a liberatory message irrespective of the state’s attempt to control and monopolise its use. Similarly, the poster from the MTN collection by Miles Pello The Spear Fights On – Iswandlana, which recalls the victory in battle of the Zulu impi over a marauding British force which had invaded what was then known as Zululand, reference direct themes of conflict, land dispossession and, by extension, South Africa’s colonial history. Themes which are also reflected on in works such as Richard Mudariki’s Model, Brett Murray’s Empire, Abrie Fourie’s Waymark, Stephen Maqashela’s Ride to Rights, Thomas Nkuna’s Amandla Iliswe I Afrika and Lizo Manzi’s Civil War is a Disgrace.
Sanlam and MTN have joined forces for this exhibition. Beyond being able to draw from the rich archives of both corporate art collections, what are the benefits of this kind of partnership?
SH: There are very few corporate art collections that are made accessible to the public. In many instances, artworks are locked away in individual offices or are located in buildings which are a long way to get to. Showing these works together at a space such as the art lounge in Sandton and the Sanlam Art Gallery in Bellville provide a unique opportunity to view these works. Beyond the exhibition, Sanlam and MTN teamed up business-wise which promises to be a significant development in financial services through the continent. This exhibition gives visual evidence of this collaboration. I would envisage that such an exhibition serves as inspiration for future collaborations beyond South Africa’s borders. Corporations such as Sanlam and MTN have in the past borrowed and lent individual artworks for exhibition purposes. As far as I know this is the first collaboration of this kind in South Africa. With public museums being in dire straits for various reasons, exhibitions such as this one play an important role in providing an art historical context.
NN: With MTN and Sanlam now being business partners for their digital insurance ventures in Africa, I would propose that the most valuable benefit of this partnership is the possibility of supporting future cultural collaborations between the companies, and not only other local cultural institutions, but also those from the rest of Africa and its diasporic community.
Do you have any favourite artworks from the exhibition that you could speak to us about?
NN: There are too many, however, my favourite from MTN’s Art Collection, if my prejudice may be forgiven, must be Muzi Nomandla’s sculpture Temporal Beauty from 2011. This artwork was created after an artist’s development programme was undertaken in partnership with the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park Authority from 2008 – 2010. Nomandla was one of 10 novice artists who would benefit from this programme and which MTN was proud to include in its Art Collection. One of my favourite pieces from Sanlam’s collection must be Gavin Younge’s installation piece Forces / Favourites II (1998) as he refers to a part of South African history that I still find fascinating; that being the Angolan border conflict of the 70s – 80s, where my own father would complete his conscription service. Another favourite from MTN’s collection would most certainly be Willem Boshoff’s installation of Blind Alphabet: Babery to Bigeminate (1993) which has stepped into the digital age by offering the viewer a voice-over and musical rendition, scanned from a QR code, in addition to the engaging quality of this fascinating body of work.
SH: All the works in the exhibition are favourites in some way. I have already mentioned stand-out examples such Richard Mudariki’s The Model which presents a unique view on the removal of the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town a few years ago. The triptych reflects on the nature of the academy, the role of the artist and the legacy of colonial rule and how it is to be interpreted. Elza Botha’s Butterfly Box is a simple but powerful work which reminds one of the incarceration and murder of political activists from 1950 onwards. And Peter Schütz’s Window is a piece of urban satire whilst also disrupting the conventions of sculpture by hanging from the wall rather than standing on a pedestal. There are a number of conventional paintings such as the portraits by George Pemba, Irma Stern and Malose Pete which are superbly executed and will remain engaging forever.
Lastly, what are you hoping audiences take away from the experience of viewing the exhibition and engaging with the works of these artists?
SH: Any viewer having spent sufficient time will quickly realise how diverse South African art history is. That despite being far from the main artistic centres such as London, Berlin or New York, artists in this country produce uniquely engaging, tangible works which relate directly to the country’s past and to understanding our present. Also, I think the public will begin to understand the role corporations such as Sanlam and MTN have played in building a country and sustaining the arts.
NN: Apart from experiencing the complexity, wealth and beauty of the art and artists that our continent offers; my hope is that viewers will also recognise that the title of the exhibition Re Mmôgô: We are Together, demonstrates how MTN and Sanlam, although from different historical backgrounds, are not only together in contributing towards the economic development and financial wellbeing of its customers in Africa, but that they have both also been contributing towards nation-building efforts through their investment in the arts and support of artists.
Re Mmôgô: We are Together will run until 27 January 2023 and can be viewed by appointment on weekdays from 09:00 to 16:30.