It’s a rare honour when a curator is celebrated with an exhibition. DIANE DE BEER went to the launch and spoke to many involved in this luminous exhibition:
During her two decades of curatorship at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery, Annali Cabano-Dempsey has attempted to reach as far and wide as possible presenting a spectrum which would interest the public but also the students – one of the benefits of having an art gallery on a university campus is this potential audience which can be nurtured.
In acknowledging the dedication and passion Cabano-Dempsey has brought to the gallery, 21 Years of Curating the Cube (currently running until June 26) celebrates UJ’s continued role in supporting and embracing the diversity of art in South Africa.
As the gallery’s 6th curator, Cabano-Dempsey has seen the gallery emerge as one of Johannesburg’s foremost art centres. The UJ Art Gallery (originally known as Rand Afrikaans University – RAU) opened in the 1960s and has since hosted numerous temporary exhibitions and acted as custodian of a large collection of artworks.
“My style of curatorship is collaborative. I interact with artists on a regular basis before an exhibition, advise and shape a bit – and then I allow the artists to project their own voices. I also hand over the reins to guest curators from time to time. In the case of the 21 years exhibition, I felt too close to the artists, and called upon Johan Myburg to curate the show. We worked through all the exhibitions of the past two decades and it was surprising that he found a golden thread of text, signs, signals, semiotics unveiling itself – something I never intentionally brought into my curatorship.”
In his opening address at the exhibition, artist Gordon Froud remarked on the amazing space designed by the architect, the late Jeremy Rose, which embraced and encouraged exciting exhibitions. He also praised Cabano-Dempsey for her detailed curation and the way she kept artists informed about specific exhibitions. They would know exactly how their work did, and who came to see it during the exhibition. “That’s rare,” he remarked.
He also spoke lyrically about her opening up the space to students and facilitating gallery training, for example, that would benefit them as artists in the future when they stepped into the real world. He described 21 Years of Curating the Cube as a meeting of old friends.
And fortunately for this remarkable sculptor, UJ also has an outdoor exhibition space which allows for large works to be displayed at their best (see picture).
Although she has been closely involved with a wide spectrum of artists forming part of the annual exhibition’s programmes for more than two decades, she chose to hand over the curatorship of 21 Years of Curating the Cube to respected arts writer and author Johan Myburg. They worked closely together in choosing the 38 works which was much more difficult than they expected, but the final decisions rested with him.
“My brief was to curate a show as a celebration of Annali’s 21 years at the UJ Gallery, something like paging through her ‘exhibition album’, so to speak. You can imagine the amount of shows, artists and individual artworks we are talking about,” explains Myburg.
That was the context he had to operate within and that formed the scope of the exhibition as well.
“I made a selection based on a thread I detected in a number of the exhibitions/works of the past 21 years – the thread being manifestations of messages or mark makings in the form of signals/codes/text – in its widest sense of communication.”
He offers an example as explanation: On entering the gallery the first salient piece of sculpture is Marco Cianfanelli’s text-based work, referencing the quote by Desmond Tutu that truth, knowledge and beauty will triumph. “Whatever you want to understand under ‘truth, knowledge and beauty’ is subjective, but the basis, I think, is that of triumph. The message will live on. And art as carrier of message will triumph,” he says.
“I think the tweet (Jan’s Last Tweet, a work by the genial Jan van der Merwe – pictured) is a poignant little amplification of this triumph.”
Anyone familiar with Myburg’s work and processes will witness the thought he puts into this kind of effort. “My intention was to highlight this notion (of triumph) in a subtle way. Not in your face. Should the viewer miss it, so be it. There is, right at the back of the gallery, a clue to my curatorial thinking,” he says. (And for those who like puzzles, this is like a challenge in treasure hunt!)
The artists included are the ones that had a link with the gallery in the last 21 years (to start with) but then also the ones whose artworks comment on the named “thread”.
It includes existing work (as per UJ Collection) and work on loan, but also recent work, i.e. Hannelie Coetzee, Diane Victor, Michael Meyersfeld, Angus Taylor, Mark Swart.
“My intention was a show as ‘unintrusive’ as possible in order for the work to speak. My approach was less rather than more, since the works all have an inner strength. I did not want to tamper with that. Hence a quiet show.
“Favourites? All of them. Being able to work so closely with these gorgeous works is a privilege. And I realised how limited my understanding of these works were. Perhaps still superficial. But that is the beauty of art: You cannot see too much of a particular piece. There is always something that you miss.”
All of these elements can be found in this remarkable snapshot of South African art in a specific period of time.
Do yourself a favour. If you’ve never visited the gallery, that’s an added bonus.
A last word from the curator who is being honoured: “The next decade of my art journey (or what is left of it) will focus on two things: To make the gallery accessible to wider audiences. It has been my mission over the past few years to break down the ivory tower, to create a more informal atmosphere and to invite a younger generation to interact with the gallery programme on an interdisciplinary level. And then to recognise established and revered artists, but to also bring in younger promising artists into the fold. I found that collaborations with corporate partners, artists’ collectives and joint exhibitions (the established with the emerging) allow for this approach.”
- 21 Years of Curating the Cube runs until 26 June 2019 at the UJ Art Gallery. FREE OF CHARGE. Open Times: Mon to Fri from 9am to 3.30pm. Address: University of Johannesburg, Corner of Kingsway Ave and University Rd, Auckland Park, Johannesburg
- More info on Hannelie Coetzee’s featured artwork: She did a succession study of humanity’s relationship with nature. Locusts eat the same amount of grass per body weight as wildebeest. A swarm consumes as much of a crop as a fire does. Disclosure: This swarm was bred and studied by Wits Scientists in the 1960s. The current curator of the AP&ES Museum, James Harrison made it available to the artist to repurpose into an artwork