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Imperfect librarian: ARC activists, 2012

12 – 26 March 2012

Michaelis Galleries

Clare Butcher
Andrew Putter
Jessica Brown
Joanne Bloch
Brenton Maart
George Mahashe
Jon Whidden

Presenting works-in-progress that have been developed over the past year, the group enters into ‘the library’ a set of unorthodox practices and materials which challenge the notion of archival practice. Taking its title from Jorges Luis Borges’s short story, Library of Babel, the exhibition reflects on the unusual research paths, unruly classificatory systems and multiple dimensions operational in the production of history.

‘What we hope you find as you meander through the maze of this exhibition is a set of care-full responses, manoeuvres, unfaithful facsimiles and commentaries upon commentaries which expose the support structures of history – the moments we catch sight of ourselves in the archive’s mirror’, reads the exhibition text.

Curator Clare Butcher’s research focuses on the history of curating contemporary art in South Africa, beginning with a case study from an international exhibition exchange between Britain and South Africa in 1948. By foregrounding some of the usually unseen logistics and logics at play in the making of a contemporary art show, Butcher seeks to raise awareness of the historical mechanisms used to display ‘the spirit of the now’.

George Mahashe, whose research focuses on the photographic archive of EJ and JD Krige in Bolobedu (in what is now Limpopo province) in 1930, has constructed a darkroom where he encourages visitors to develop their own prints. In the frustrating absence of a fixative, however, the limits of the photograph are revealed in its unreliability and impermanence as a record of the past. In this way viewers are asked not merely to critique a 1930’s anthropological collection – a safe position in a postcolonial era – but to assume responsibility for this archive. Balobedu, a diverse group united around a mystic queen who bestows rain on her subjects and devastates those who plot against her, boast a traceable history spanning 400 years with ties to the Great Zimbabwe complex.

Joanne Bloch’s project uses the collection based in the Manuscripts and Archives Department at UCT to explore various issues relating to objects, collecting and designating taxonomies, as well as the often arbitrary attribution of value to these collections. For the exhibition, she presents two installations that, when read together, seek to understand those complex politics of value. The first is a section of Bloch’s personal collection of thousands of (mostly) plastic toys, The People, amassed over decades. The second shows a haphazard and non-cohesive collection of artefacts from the UCT Manuscripts and Archives Department. Both installations are thrown into question by a third component, Bloch’s pseudo-priceless golden object collection.

Brenton Maart, from the series Bophuthatswana Air Force Base, pigment print, 60 x 70cm

The structures in Brenton Maart’s photographs were initially built for the expedient implementation of racist legislation: parliaments, hospitals, schools, airports, hotels, military controls, prisons and factory sites. His project revolves around the architecture of apartheid native reservations crafted in South Africa from as early as 1913. At the fall of apartheid in 1994, the homeland system dissolved, and some of these buildings were incorporated into the new government bureaucracy, while others fell into ruin. The four structures on the show, each photographed from three distinctive vantage points, might be read as ‘inadvertent monuments to an ideology of oppression’.

Andrew Putter’s current work emerges from his love affair with the ethnographic photographs of Alfred Duggan-Cronin, a body of work often criticised for its artifice and stultifying, primitivising view. By inventing and photographing an imaginary inter-racial tribe, Putter goes beyond racism and colonialism to a space of ‘sheer beauty’.

Iziko’s collection of San skin bags has been assembled, conserved and made accessible for public display and research through typical museum processes. Jon Whidden is a rock art researcher interested in the paintings found in many of the Western Cape’s shelters and caves, and, in this unconventional installation of San skin bags, highlights the relationship between the object and its spacialisation through the use of reflection.

Focusing on the University of Cape Town’s Works of Art Collection, which currently comprises about 1200 pieces, Jessica Brown’s project hones in on the continuum between destruction and preservation. For her contribution toImperfect Librarian, she selected objects that bring to light inconsistencies in the university’s re-enacting of custodianship and, more intriguingly, how its art collection projects the institution’s sense of self.

A publication of associated materials from the CCA students formed part of the show and was presented during the course of the exhibition.

Imperfect librarian: ARC activists, 2012
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