by Ngaire BlankenbergThe National Gallery, Cape Town[/caption]For most South Africans I speak to, it’s ascribed to a national inferiority complex. I prefer to think of it as an enviable quest for perfection. After all, how can you not seek perfection in a place with landscape like this?
After a whirlwind one-day tour of South Africa’s national museums in Cape Town, I am left profoundly impressed. The South Africans I am with are spitting with frustration at the inferior standards, the lack of insight, the slow pace of transformation, the overall mediocrity of their museums. I used to think the same thing when I lived and worked in South Africa. We were always striving to be as good as museums ‘overseas’ and convinced we had so far to go.
Having had the opportunity to work and visit a number of museums internationally over the last few years, I actually think South Africans often underestimate what they have accomplished.
The sheer complexity of the South African political and cultural landscape is what makes museology so exciting here. Long cut off from the international community through sanctions, and with a huge diversity of identities, stories and histories to tell, South African cultural workers- artists, administrators, programmers, museologists, performers- have developed a unique, intensely creative, highly innovative language that is often (although not always) reflected in museums and exhibitions. Without the resources to follow ‘international’ conventions, people have often just ‘made it up’, unconstrained by what they don’t know. The results are often remarkable.
In South Africa I have seen both the best and the worst- sometimes in the same museum. I’ve seen some of the best graphic and exhibition design as well as excellent unique products (often developed through community projects) for sale in museum gift shops- far more interesting than the stock and trade pens, notepads and t-shirts of more established museums. It’s no mistake that Cape Town is a finalist with Bilbao and Dublin in the race to win the title of World Design Capital for 2014. There are very sensitive, very imaginative, inter-disciplinary approaches to curation and interpretation.
For example, at the South African Museum a permanent exhibition on indigenous knowledge systems and Rock Art (‘/Qe – the Power of Rock Art’) privileges the voice of the San people in interpreting the rock art which marks the oldest human settlements and cultures in the world. At the Origins museum at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, the same subject matter is powerfully interpreted with artifacts, exceptional works of contemporary art, interactive and compelling video. A major retrospective of Vladmir Tretchikoff (Tretchikoff: The People’s Painter) is receiving unprecedented visitors at the National Gallery. Tretchikoff’s work has been long shunned by the arts establishment but he’s remained a favorite South African/Russian popular artist. The exhibition is accessible and interesting and signals a determination on the part of the institution to welcome new audiences in to this lovely gallery space nestled in the beautiful Company’s Botanical Gardens.
South African museums also feature some excellent public programs that seek to make meaningful connections with communities and schools (South African cultural workers are sensitive to the imperative to make culture matter to all in a country of such pressing development needs.)
The pockets of terrible reflect the difficult and treacherous road to genuine transformation facing South Africa in every sphere. At Groot Constantia, South Africa’s oldest (and still operating) wine estate and a key tourist destination just outside of Cape Town, a historic house is meticulously preserved. Hundreds of visitors come here each day, lured by the spectacular landscape, and the opportunity to taste renowned South African wines. They eat, they drink, they admire- but few go in to the old house to appreciate the 17th century colonial homestead that captures uncomfortably how white people made a lot of money (and continue to do so) from this land. The interpretation is deafening in its omissions: there is virtually nothing about slavery and apartheid, both which enabled such wealth to exist. The docent- a gregarious and affable Coloured man- lowers his voice conspiratorially when I ask him about the invisible black people– “There is a lot we don’t talk about here…”
You see this in many of the museums in South Africa; the ‘heritage story’ of the white colonialists, slave-owners, capitalists, apartheid-era power holders- who arguably continue to profit from South Africa (which has one of the highest income discrepancies in the world)- butting against the story of generations of black people determined to make their voices heard in the national narrative, still enraged by the persistent gaps 17 years after the official ending of apartheid.
The good, the bad, the ugly- it’s all here- as in many other museums worldwide. The constant striving to be better. I find it so much more palpable here than in more ‘established’ museum environments. That very quest for perfection, or maybe that inferiority complex, is what ultimately means that South African exhibitions and museums are something to watch out for- in all their fantastic patchiness.