Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Stop trying to tell me my history," reads one of the handwritten comments displayed in Overtime, an exhibition at the Wits Art Museum curated by Tatenda Magaisa and Katleho Shoro. According to its subtitle, it tackles the "representations, values and imagined futures of classical African Art".

The ethos of the exhibition centres on encouraging engagement. The museum’s education curator, Leigh Leyde, designed the interactive installation, including an entreaty to visitors to provide feedback.

The public appear keen to respond to salacious art that crosses the line of acceptability — think Ayanda Mabulu’s depictions of President Jacob Zuma. Yet public art institutions have battled to connect to their publics. As the prickly comment at the exhibition attests, racial and institutional baggage is among the reasons for it.

The architectural character of museums has supported these ideas. The Joburg Art Museum’s colonial façade is blamed for it appearing to look like a government building made by and for a small elite. When Nina Cohen, Fiona Garson and William Martinson designed the Wits Art Museum, they were mindful of this; it is no coincidence that the exterior walls are glass, allowing visitors to see into the entrance and gallery.

The gallery’s position, on the edge of the university campus, advances the blurring of the lines between the institution and public space, functioning as a sort of interface between the university and the world.

With no entrance fee, the public should feel free to enter the museum. But the curators and Leyde have been aware that continuous work needs to support access and ensure its transparency extends beyond its physical appearance.

Saturday public programming (Adult and Family Talkabouts and Drop-in Drawing), rotating exhibitions rather than a permanent exhibition to provide more access to the 11,500 artworks in the collection and fundraising to provide a bus sponsorship programme for schools that cannot afford to visit the museum have been in service of this objective, says Leyde. Yet despite these efforts, the white cube art gallery remains off-putting.

"We have received feedback the museum is intimidating and not inviting. Some of our public are frustrated that they can’t access the entire collection," Leyde says. "Many people don’t have a full understanding of the nature and scope of the collections and how the objects might be relevant to them."

The Overtime exhibition, which encouraged artists and historians to "respond" to the collection and consider how it could be read, was part of one strategy to make the collection — which largely consists of "classical" African art — relevant.

How do you make material culture active now? This was one of the questions Magaisa and Shoro sought to tackle and interrogate not only through the exhibition, but in a lecture as part of the Know the Show: Wits Art Museum Annual Lecture Series, which took place at the end of its run.

"We needed to allow for different ‘knowledges’ to settle in the space," observed Magaisa.

"Exhibitions leave out information and you need to accept that and work with it," said Shoro, reflecting on the challenges and anxieties of mounting an exhibition dealing with SA’s artistic heritage.

This kind of work has become more significant in the current "decolonisation" climate swirling around universities and who and how knowledge is produced. It became clear during their lecture that it is not so useful to see exhibitions as an endpoint that either succeeds or fails, but rather as part of a process of negotiation and engagement between artists, curators and the public.

Not every lecture will shed light on the behind-the-scenes activities and politics. The third lecture, presented by Moses Tladi’s relative Sekhubami Tladi, will uncover biographical information about the artist.

Undoubtedly, this will enrich visitors’ understanding not only of Tladi’s art, which is currently on exhibit, but more broadly on the way an artist’s upbringing and life shapes their expression.

Connecting with artists and hearing them talk about their work in their own words encourages transparency about art making. Michael MacGarry’s lecture, the second in the series, allowed him to elaborate on the making of his filmic works in a retrospective of them on the exhibit Show no Pain.

Connecting the public to art is an objective shared by almost everyone in the art world. The auction house Stefan Welz & Co agreed to sponsor the lecture series, and Business Arts SA also lent their support.

Know the Show: Wits Art Museum Annual Lecture Series is held from 6.30pm to 7.30pm on Wednesdays in May. The lecture on Moses Tladi is on May 10. On May 24, George Mahashe presents Artwork in Focus.

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