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Dismantling silos and engaging our contested past at Iziko National Gallery

Dismantling silos and engaging our contested past at Iziko National Gallery
Visitors at Iziko South African National Gallery. Image: Iziko Museums of South Africa / N Pamplin.

The Iziko South African National Gallery reopened on 26 October with a groundbreaking exhibition, ‘Breaking Down the Walls’, boldly comparing works of South Africa’s contested history and challenging the traditional boundaries of the art world.

The Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town, historically exhibiting the works of white colonial figures traced back to 1872, did not acquire the work of a South African artist until 1926.

And it wasn’t until 1964 that the work of a black South African entered the collection, according to Deputy Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture Nocawe Noncedo Mafu.

Reflecting on its exclusionary history, Iziko Museums of South Africa closed down the gallery in May for “reimagining”, to “bring Iziko right back into the 21st century” and give due attention to neglected artworks, said Jabulani Sithole, chairperson of Iziko.

On 26 October, Iziko’s new exhibition, Breaking Down the Walls, opened to the public with a kick-off celebration. 

“There is an imbalance in the holdings,” said Andrew Lamprecht, the exhibition’s curator. “This exhibition reflects and considers this imbalance, while celebrating the attempts to redress in more recent decades.” 

“It speaks to the decolonial agenda,” said Rooksana Omar, the CEO of Iziko Museums of South Africa.

This new exhibition strives for further racial and cultural inclusion and a more honest representation of South Africa, but it also makes a unique statement in the art world about the need for accessibility and removing disciplinary barriers, Lamprecht added.

“We are at the beginning of a new era of challenging our visitors to see things differently,” said Sithole.

Visitors react to 'Breaking Down the Walls - 150 years of Art Collecting' at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Image: Iziko Museums of South Africa/N Pamplin.

Visitors react to ‘Breaking Down the Walls – 150 years of Art Collecting’ at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Image: Iziko Museums of South Africa/N Pamplin.

Visitors react to 'Breaking Down the Walls - 150 years of Art Collecting' at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Image: Iziko Museums of South Africa/N Pamplin.

Visitors react to ‘Breaking Down the Walls – 150 years of Art Collecting’ at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Image: Iziko Museums of South Africa/N Pamplin.

A unique approach

Showcasing a variety of works from the past 150 years of South Africa, Breaking Down the Walls organises the artworks not in chronological order, but rather each room in the exhibit is divided by topic. 

Artworks of different time periods and by artists of different races, of different places and of different stories with varying messages – from South Africa’s colonial era, apartheid era or post-apartheid era – are closely displayed side-by-side on vibrantly coloured walls. 

It depicts the “commonalities and constant interplays of past and present”, said Anna Tietze, senior lecturer in art history at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

As visitors drift from room to room, they enter a new topic of discussion and introspection – with titles such as “Lost and Found”, “Science as Art”, “Looking to the Future”, “Nation and Resistance”, “Genders and Agendas”, “Comparisons and Contrasts”, “Friends and (Art) Lovers”, and “Aesthetics and Prejudice”.

This method of organisation “allows works across decades and continents to be brought together on the walls so that we visitors can make new and exciting comparisons and contrasts”, she said.

Tietze added that this retrospective contrasts with the minimalist style of many modern and postmodern exhibitions which tend to have an “inhibiting, sobering effect” on visitors, making them feel silenced and nervous as if they are “trespassers on hallowed ground”.

“This retrospective reverses that tendency, offering a wealth of art to choose from, an enabling atmosphere and an invitation to enjoy.”

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Dismantling ‘silos’ in the art world

The exhibit also challenges and broadens the traditional definitions of artwork. It includes an intentional combination of the common mediums of artwork with artefacts of science, archaeology and social history that might not be traditionally seen together in the same space.

Not only does Breaking Down the Walls showcase paintings, sculptures and photography, but also woven fabrics, banners, maps, postage stamps, furniture, shoes, accessories, scientific images, 3D creations and many other forms of artistic creation.

“Art is not only a painting on a wall, but also a performance, a memory, a living story, a comment on a protest,” said Mafu. “We use art to share our joy, our sadness, our anger, our knowledge, our science, our culture and our past.”

Disciplinary silos in museums and galleries between art, science, archaeology, social history and more “limit the full expression and storytelling of South Africa’s reality”, said Lamprecht. Breaking Down the Walls blurs the lines between these silos and puts it all in one space. He added that “the lack of disciplinary silos allows visitors to make their own connections, draw lines across different rooms, find their own paths in the gallery and come to their own unique conclusions”.

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Lamprecht said his aim was to pull as much out of storage as possible and make it all available to the public eye for their interpretation.

Mafu added: “We are safeguarding and making accessible our shared and contested history.”

'Breaking Down the Walls' on show at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Image: Iziko Museums of South Africa/N Pamplin.

‘Breaking Down the Walls’ on show at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Image: Iziko Museums of South Africa/N Pamplin.

'Breaking Down the Walls' on show at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Image: Iziko Museums of South Africa/N Pamplin.

‘Breaking Down the Walls’ on show at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Image: Iziko Museums of South Africa/N Pamplin.

A new step toward accessibility

Lamprecht’s vision for Breaking Down the Walls also centres on the inspiration of young people – to move them and catalyse them to get involved in the art world.

This goal is addressed by a specific room in the exhibit dedicated to children – works are positioned on the wall at a lower eye level, bean bags are scattered across the room and future interactive elements will help children connect with the art.

A series of public programmes, events and activities for younger audiences is planned for the duration of the exhibition, according to a media statement.

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“I remember coming to Iziko as a kid, and in many ways I still feel like a kid,” said Lamprecht. “I want young people to come here and be moved by the lusciousness and beauty of art, like I was, perhaps for the first time.”

The Absences room

One of the most powerful messages of Breaking Down the Walls is the Absences room, an empty room without any artwork in it at all, with black painted walls and no light. 

The Absences room, in memory of all of the South African works and artists who are missing and were never previously acknowledged. Image: Anna Southwell.

The Absences room, in memory of all of the South African works and artists who are missing and were never previously acknowledged. Image: Anna Southwell.

The eerie emptiness of this room symbolises the names of artists from the precolonial, colonial and apartheid eras that have been erased, forgotten and neglected, according to the descriptive label on the wall.

The room serves as a “place for quiet reflection of the missing works and missing artists”, according to the label, and the absence in itself is a potent form of expression which may spark visceral feelings in the visitor.

“The biases and prejudices of those who formed these collections and acquired works are still reflected in our holdings, despite many efforts to redress these imbalances in more recent years,” it said.

This room is a tribute to all who were neglected in South Africa’s past “when so many were denied a proper place in society”, Tietze added.

Breaking Down the Walls alerts us to the certainty that art collections are not easy artefacts to engage with,” said Thabang Monoa, a lecturer in art history at UCT. “This exhibition might be overwhelming, as it is an attempt to signify histories that are highly contested.”

“As you [the visitor] navigate this space, I encourage you to think about how it solicits a re-understanding of our contested past, our troubled present and our innocent future,” he added. 

Mafu described the critical role of museums and galleries in upholding not only the preservation of South Africa’s complex heritage, but also in being models for how society shapes its actions and attitudes in the future.

“Iziko is working hard to correct these injustices by actively trying to fill the gaps in our knowledge,” Mafu concluded. DM/ML

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