Heidi Fourie’s ‘Beyond Brick and Mortar. Picture: SUPPLIED
Heidi Fourie’s ‘Beyond Brick and Mortar. Picture: SUPPLIED

Can art tell the future?

If the curators of an ambitious group exhibition in celebration of Stellenbosch University’s centenary have it right, art needs not pander to science fiction. It can and should participate constructively in conversations about the future, especially of higher education.

If the title Forward? Forward! Forward ... sounds a little chewy, its open-endedness is not so puerile, given the challenges facing real artists in an unstable global environment. It could be one of the most important projects undertaken by the university’s museum — an apt move given the 100 years of education and culture celebrated.

The theme of the show, tuned to the future of a critical educational institution — like many others on the cusp of dramatic change and challenges — is serious: What will art be? And what will higher education become? And how can the practice of art be involved?

Sights foreseen: Conrad Botes, ‘Proximity of Obscenity’. Picture: SUPPLIED
Sights foreseen: Conrad Botes, ‘Proximity of Obscenity’. Picture: SUPPLIED

In an essay prepared for the catalogue, Lize van Robbroeck, a professor at the university’s visual arts faculty, makes a compelling argument for culture production as key “corrective” in what she calls “a time of unprecedented global crisis”.

She asserts that the arts have an essential role in reconnecting humanity in a contemporary world that is in dire and dark moral straits.

The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the presentation. And according to the university’s two curators charged with the project — Ulrich Wolff and Elizabeth Miller-Vermeulen — the response has delivered an intriguing range of exciting works, touching numerous themes in a variety of media.

Out of more than 250 innovative and compelling proposals, say the curators, they selected close to 100 works which could serve as catalysts for debate about and engagement with the future of the university and higher education in general. 

Artists interpreted the theme to address such issues as identity and cultural perspectives, mentorship, literacy, fields of knowledge, human-to-human connectivity, language, campus power structures and politics, social systems and replicating past mistakes.

Heidi Fourie’s Knowledge Flows Freely, on exhibition at the Stellenbosch University Museum. Picture: SUPPLIED
Heidi Fourie’s Knowledge Flows Freely, on exhibition at the Stellenbosch University Museum. Picture: SUPPLIED

Artworks include installations, painting, collage, drawing, photography, video, short film, animation, print media, sculpture and performance art. While some classy names feature, a number of lesser-known artists are contributing dynamic pieces.

After a widely-published call for suggestions —  an ‘open invitation’ as it were, which, despite a democratic basis, do not always play out as organisers or curators wish — the result turned out surprisingly serious. A selection panel comprising artists and curators Ashley Walters, Robyn-Leigh Cedras, Maurice Mbikayi, Ulrich Wolff and Elizabeth Miller-Vermeulen decided on the works to include in the show.

A commemorative publication by the Stellenbosch University Museum will accompany the exhibition, recording the ambitious installation, and hosting a variety of essays pondering the future of art and education.

Stellenbosch University, like most institutions of higher learning, is dealing with dramatic social changes, and it is interesting that the centenary year prompted this project for introspection. (One compares this project with a sister university where a large number of artworks in its collection remains locked away, subjected to muddled thinking.)

Van Robbroeck’s argument for the arts involvement in considerations of the future is a strong driver for the exhibition, as she calls for new ways of imagination, “capable of conceiving less exploitative technologies and systems”.

“The power of representation must never be underestimated, and imagination is needed to re-present the human in ways that can heal the toxic world we created.”

This is a power call for art itself, of course. Clearly, art has a say in discussions about where it is heading and can and should debate itself.

The postmodern question-mark that hovers over Forward? Forward! Forward... allowed artists to interrogate not only the future of art itself but the manner in which it may negotiate that unknown territory.

It makes for plenty of excitement in skilled and talented minds and hands. When scientists, economists and philosophers hold their indaba, the conversation would be incomplete without those who speak in a different way about different things concerning the human condition.

Art, and what it will be in future, is indeed a serious matter.

Robbroeck’s dark scenario of the state of things sets a high bar to art, and in this ambitious group show, one is highly aware of how serious our artists engage with the healing she calls for.

In the exhibition, numerous conversations over genres and media take place — as only South Africans, highly-tuned to existential morality — can when they consider the future.

At a time when art, its museums, cultural institutions and, yes, universities are threatened by a destabilised environment in which late-capitalism and corporate greed act as handmaidens, Stellenbosch University celebrates artists who are not here for only the money. They seem to argue that they are the future.

Among the artists in Forward? Forward! Forward... are Zyma Amien, Willem Boshoff, Liza Grobler, Lhola Amira, Johann Louw, Maurice Mbikayi, Willie Bester, Gordon Froud, Mark Rautenbach, Dan Halter, Marlise Keith, Conrad Botes, Lunga Kama, Colleen Alborough, Claudette Schreuders, Hannelie Taute, Lehlohonolo Mkhasibe, Heleen de Haas, Norman O`Flynn, Jaco Sieberhagen, Victor Mofokeng and  Sinethemba Ntuli.

• Forward? Forward! Forward... opened on December 5 in the Stellenbosch University Museum and will be on show until April.