Review of the South African Visual Art Historians’ Conference 2015

The 30th edition of the South African Visual Art Historians’ Association conference  (SAVAH) took place last month. To celebrate this significant milestone it returned to its original location of Pietermaritzburg, hosted by the Visual Arts Department, University of KwaZulu-Natal. This is an annual conference with presentations from both South African and international scholars and practitioners.

With a packed schedule of presentations, the two-day conference was rich in content with carefully grouped presentations allowing for discrete sub categories and researchers to be identified. One of the invaluable aspects of attending the conference was the opportunity to share research interests revealing a repetition of concerns. It was not just a theoretical exchange of dry papers read aloud. Rather, a refreshing element was that the conference was attended not only by university affiliated researchers, but also museum and gallery professionals and art educators. This allowed for a thoroughly practical perspective, pulling much of the theory presented back to la vie quotidienne of the curatorial. What became apparent with that balance of theoreticians and arts professionals was that the institutional pressures at play such as funding or staffing shortages are substantial and often so oppressive on an organisation that the implementation of progressive curatorial strategies are nigh impossible in practice.

The call for papers invited ‘new anthropologies of creative intent, and the revisiting of all facets of power, not only those that are seemingly coercive and constraining.’ This interrogation of power in the field of art making, presentation and critique lay at the heart of all the presentations. I would like to draw attention to a few papers and themes covered. The keynote speaker via Skype was Anthony Downey. His provocative presentation argued that the art world does not sit outside of the neo-liberal system nor is it innocent of the ills of global capitalism, rather at some point and in some transaction we are all complicit. From exhibiting at a biennial, receiving funding for a community arts project, or having one’s artwork purchased for collection into a museum, these are all tendrils feeding in and off the system which so often an artwork itself is critiquing, but by its presentation within that system, complicity is palpable.

My presentation was titled, The Silence is Deafening: introducing the artist’s voice into the museum, which challenged the dominant object-centric curatorial emphasis in museums, rather proposing a more expansive artist-engaged approach when working with contemporary art in a museum collection. It further unpacked the agency and nuance of the voice and reviewed examples of how to present the artist’s voices and artistic strategies for working with the voice. It relates to on-going research at the South African National Gallery involving conversation with artists relating to artworks in their collection.

There was a selection of comprehensive research projects focusing in incredible depth on a topic providing very specific insight into practice or objects. An example of this detailed research was Bill Dewey, from Pennsylvania State University, exploring Swazi Headrests. However, one concept which stood out for me was made by Anitra Nettleton from WITS. She highlighted that talking of an artist as ‘rural’ is a conflation of the distance between people in time and people in space. I took this to distinguish between the proximity to dominant national or global hubs of art creation and display, and the practice of the artist and work itself. I would take this a step further to encourage that we be careful to distinguish between ‘rural’ and ‘non-urban’. Rural so often is used pejoratively and this serves not only to reinforce structures of power which can be detrimental to artistic creation but also to organisations not operating within these key recognised nodes. This impacts on funding, resources and the capabilities of an artist, curator or museum director which the SAVAH 2015 conference served to remove a degree of opacity on. Revealing the struggles of where theory and idealised notions of curatorship meet the power struggles of day-to-day curatorial practice.