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ART: To see and be seen – Business Day

Another of the opening exhibitions, 101 Collecting Conversations: Signature Works of a Century, kicks off the centre’s raison d’être, which is to explore what Christopher Till, director of the Javett-UP, terms “the art of Africa”, rather than the ubiquitous “African art”.

“Everyone said: ‘What’s that?’” recalls Till when he first articulated this aim. His response was: “That’s the point.” Rather than trying to define what the art of Africa might be in any narrow or ideological way, the centre aims to use an unanswerable question to open up the possibilities. The idea is “to trace [the] tributaries, see where they come into the mainstream, where they flow to, what they influence, what comes back again, and what is that dynamic, that signature?” says Till.

For this opening exhibition, Till approached public, corporate or private collections to gather artworks. “We asked them to give us a list of what they consider their most interesting, valuable, iconic works,” he says. At first he was shown a lot of Pierneef and Stern, but prompted the curators of the collections to dig deeper, and pushed them to find the hidden gems in their collections.

Till writes in his statement on the exhibition, on a large vinyl mural at the entrance: these collections are understood, like the Javett collection, not as exemplary, but as “representative of the time and period in which they are assembled”. It’s about understanding the works in context: the importance of constantly reframing history and revisiting it to set up a dynamic tension between history and ideology.

The big guns

Of course, the university’s world-famous Mapungubwe collection, housed in the dark, cave-like interior of Javett-UP’s concrete architectural “mountain”, anchors all the exhibitions at the centre. Because of that historical gravitas it perhaps allows them to drift a little further from narrow or literal definitions.

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