CHRIS THURMAN: Bid to put Kimberley’s hidden gem on the map
Curator Chepape Makgato wants William Humphreys Art Gallery to feature more prominently in SA’s arts landscape
The William Humphreys Art Gallery in Kimberley is one of SA’s three national art museums but it remains, to borrow a mining metaphor, something of a hidden gem. If recently appointed chief curator Chepape Makgato has his way, however, that is going to change.
Makgato is a mover, shaker, connector and maker. He seeks to position the gallery more prominently in the SA arts landscape while not losing focus on its regional role. The gallery’s most recent exhibition, which closed at the end of October, featured prints, paintings and drawings by the redoubtable artist-activist Peter E Clarke (1929-2014).
It has been years since I travelled to Kimberley, and the gallery has not been on my radar. I sense that I have missed out on something important. Makgato graciously agrees to an after-the-fact interview. I ask him in what spurred this retrospective show.
“I wanted to honour Clarke’s legacy and his contribution to the arts community. He was a poet, painter, teacher, author and illustrator, and his work spanned over 60 years,” said Makgato, one of many young artists who benefited from Clarke’s mentorship.
This leads us into a conversation about intersecting and intergenerational networks of creative support and guidance.
Since moving to Kimberley to take up the gallery post, Makgato has worked closely with writer, translator and Sol Plaatje University scholar Sabata-mpho Mokae, who spoke at the opening of the exhibition. It turns out that Mokae and Clarke had much in common too, including that they were both recipients of fellowships at the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Makgato is gratified to know that a new generation is drawing inspiration from Clarke: “We had groups of students who visited the exhibition and found that the title work, For Some the Pathway to Education Lies Between Thorns, resonated with their own difficulties and with funding crises at institutions of higher learning across the country.”
This is a subject close to Makgato’s heart, given his own educational journey. Schooled in Makotopong, a village near Polokwane, he moved to Johannesburg to obtain a printmaking qualification through Artist Proof Studio, and began working at David Krut Arts Resource. This vocational training occurred alongside formal undergraduate studies in arts, media and journalism.
Makgato recalls how Clarke “always impressed upon me the importance of education. In my earlier days of arts writing, he was one of my first readers. There was never a conversation with him that did not encourage me to pursue new educational opportunities.”
Clarke would be pleased to know that his protégé went on to complete an MA in fine art at Wits University, and has since enrolled for a PhD at Unisa.
Makgato finds that his various identities as artist, academic and curator complement rather than compete with one another. “The only challenge is time,” he laughs, “because I can’t be in two places at once! My practice as an artist informs my practice as a curator; I would say that I curate exhibitions from an artist’s point of view.”
So where to from here for the artist Chepape Makgato? What new directions, materials and subject matter does he want to explore? “It is an exciting time for developing my studio practice because I am in a new environment. I am exploring watercolour as a medium, inspired by Durant Sihlali and Welcome Koboka, whose work is included in the [gallery] collection.”
Makgato is passionate about SA’s literary history, and in particular the cross-pollination between books and the visual arts. He notes that 2023 is the centenary of William “Bloke” Modisane’s birth, and talks about his plans to commemorate this seminal Drum writer in an exhibition titled Postscript. Makgato has also been trying his hand at fiction, immersing himself in the diamond-mining history of Kimberley and its contemporary echoes.
“Recently I have been commuting with Sabata-mpho Mokae to the Samaria Road township, where artisanal miners are working the soil left by mining corporations more than a century ago. I wrote a short story on these experiences and I’m busy creating a body of work dedicated to the encounter.”
In next week’s column, I’ll share more about Makgato’s plans for the gallery.
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