Life, etc

A ‘Wunderkammer’ for Braamfontein

By J Brooks Spector 3 October 2012

Steeling himself for the debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama early in the morning Johannesburg time, J. BROOKS SPECTOR stole a couple hours to visit the new Wits Art Museum and its Wits 90 Treasures Exhibition, rather than fall back on a stiff drink or three. He found a treasure – just like one of those 'wunderkammer' that were so beloved by European nobility during the Enlightenment and Baroque periods.

Despite Henry Ford’s often-quoted admonition that “history is bunk”, history – and the tangible, concrete artefacts that give it a real physical presence – are crucial to enabling us to remember where we came from and where we are going. George Orwell was particularly fierce on this notion of history, creating the memory hole, its dystopic antonym, in his novel 1984. There, he conceived the regime of Air Strip One and its willing co-conspirators that scissored ideas and events right out of history and memory and cast them into oblivion.

In Orwell’s world, office cubicles had three places for written communication. One for “speakwrite”, another for newspapers, the last for waste paper. “For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.”

In recognition of the school’s 90th anniversary and in vital contrast to such a savage, authoritarian gesture, the University of the Witwatersrand has assembled a highly unusual, even eclectic, group of objects from its many different collections throughout the campus and beyond. Each item was picked by its individual curator and brought together for a temporary exhibition now on display in the new Wits Art Museum, or as they like to call it, the WAM. The WAM is the university’s newest museum space, so new it is still finding its feet, trying out ideas of space and placement with various temporary exhibitions as well as the creative use of some the more than 9,000 items already in its permanent collection.

The WAM is an important part of the gradual redevelopment and spreading renovation of Johannesburg’s in-town Braamfontein neighbourhood. WAM now has joined new restaurants, designer coffee bars, art galleries and shops, still cheek-by-jowl with other, still-to-be-gentrified buildings. The WAM is meant to anchor the south-eastern corner of the University fronting Jan Smuts Avenue, a short distance north of the Nelson Mandela Bridge.

The museum has huge, more-than-double-story, floor-to-ceiling windows, perfect for showcasing traffic-stopping, major attention getters. With virtually no hint of things more deeply inside, the museum’s galleries burrow seamlessly into the buildings adjacent to the ground floor gallery space. This is a very clever way to recycle structurally sound old buildings, adding a degree of adventure as one moves into unknown inner recesses of the urban jungle even as it offers possibilities of expansion as circumstances and finances permit.

In its two new temporary exhibitions, the WAM is hosting the “Wits 90 Treasures” collection, as well as a large retrospective of works by famed photographer Santu Mofokeng entitled “Out of the Shadows”. Mofokeng’s exhibition has already been at the famous Jeu de Paume museum in Paris, and it includes a large body of work in which Mofokeng documents the “lives of middle class black South Africans”.

This time around, however, we are at the WAM to look at its “Treasures” exhibition. And it is worth the trip.

If one were to ask what shards of South African history – or pre-history – might be the most astonishing to see gathered together in one room, the answer would almost surely include the real Taung Child’s skull first described by Raymond Dart nearly a century ago; the Australopithecus Sediba skeleton discovered by Wits scientist Lee Berger’s nine-year-old son; samples of ancient San rock art; and actual handwritten texts from the hand of Nelson Mandela. And they are all there together.

The hominid fossils are in fact so astonishing that, lying quietly in their glass cases with virtually no attendant ceremony, they shock the viewer. These things are really old, and yet one can’t help but sense connections. The Taung Child’s jawbone is there with almost all its teeth and it looks almost like a contemporary small child’s jaw. It is delicate, beautiful, and it and the matching skull could rest easily inside one hand. It seems poignant more than ancient.

A. Sediba, meanwhile, lies there, on a velvet-covered slab; part of its skull still encased in the surrounding rock it was first discovered in (the removal work is slow, tedious and very, very carefully carried out). Not all the specimen’s bones have been recovered yet – maybe they never will be, but the missing parts – ribs, feet and hand bones – simply underscore the enormous number of years between the time when the creature fell to its death and its discovery.

But then go across the room and there is another case, this one holding pages torn from a standard student notebook paper. Written in a clear, bold hand, are the words, “It is an ideal which I have lived; it is an ideal for which I still hope to live and see realise. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” It’s there, complete with a scratched out, rewritten bit and preceded by an “XX” on the left-hand margin, indicating it is to be added to the rest of the statement Nelson Mandela has already written for reading from the prisoner’s dock. The very ordinariness of this page belies its stunning historic impact.

Walk a little further and there is an old, cracked, shellac, 78 rpm gramophone record, the first recording of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”. It dates to 1923.

Then there are large chunks of stone featuring rock art festooned with a great, swirling school of fish or with herds of giraffe; ancient cuneiform tablets; early printed Bibles, histories and hand-illuminated manuscripts; there is memorabilia from famed missionary David Livingston, including his own cure for malaria (apparently the first time someone used quinine for this purpose); 19th century slave traders’ manifests; photographs of Johannesburg’s earliest years, and there are original blueprints by Sir Herbert Baker for the Union Buildings. There is also is a collection of photographs and texts from Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje – including his handwritten diary from the Siege of Mafeking.

The collection also has some pretty odd, rather weird items in it as well. This must speak to the curatorial urge to keep absolutely everything, to never throw anything away. Someone at the medical school museum thought an old iron lung from the 1950s was the perfect thing to mark the university’s 90th anniversary. Someone else was in love with those old-style wax models (two or three times bigger than life sized) of chicken embryos, the kind instructors used to employ to teach biology students about their dissection assignments.

Along the wall there is a huge, terrier-sized coco de mer seed from the Indian Ocean islands. Well okay, maybe this one has resonances – it has an odd echo of a polished marble sculpture by Brancusi. But then, over at the far side of the hall there is a fully articulated polar bear skeleton, posed as if ready to pounce on a seal. And it’s not even a special polar bear. It lived in a cage at the Johannesburg Zoo for decades until it died and its skeleton given to Wits.

There are more subtle artistic treasures, however. Along the wall, there is an extraordinary hand-drawn scroll, metres long, and entirely illustrated by Dumile Feni. And then there is a collection of letters and postcards by Durban artist Tito Zungu written to his family and friends the curators say offer “a unique insight into issues of broad social import, such as migrant labour, literacy, political oppression and economic hardship, but they are also poignant and powerful personal narratives.”

This exhibition includes items that have been acquired by the university since its founding as the South African School of Mines in Kimberley in 1896, well before it even moved to the new gold mining centre of Johannesburg and became the Transvaal Technical Institute in 1904 and then the South African School of Mines and Technology in 1910. The mining school finally became the University College of Johannesburg in 1920, and then the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg on 1 March 1922.

The exhibition runs until 14 October. DM

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Photo: The Taung Child skull first described by Raymond Dart in 1925 that eventually led to a new understanding of the African origins of humankind. Reuters.

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