This is a must see exhibition. Currently open, it is on until 30th April. It will set you thinking in all sorts of unexpected ways!
This is an art exhibition with a difference, as the invented gallery space is the dank, decaying cells of the Old Fort on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. It is an exhibition celebrating 20 years of South Africa's post independence Constitution launched in 1996. The Ichikowitz Family Foundation commissioned artist, Dean Simon to "immortalize" some of the people, places and events along the road to democracy and the Foundation has teamed up with Constitution Hill to place the works before the Johannesburg citizenry. Sixteen large pencil drawings, importantly framed, stand mainly on easels. One work of art is displayed at the centre of each bare walled cell, lit by either a single electric lIght or natural light penetrating from a high cell window. You walk down a corridor, drawn into each of the prison cells. It is a multi-media experience and viewing the art work combines with "rare archival footage" played through a video recorder, to add reality to the events portrayed in the art works.
"It is a fine line" (a clever title) between the vision and perspective of the artist and the reportage of photographers and journalists captured on contemporary film. The exhibition invites us to cross back and forth across the line to probe fact and fiction. Represented art or actual reality turns "history" into "heritage". The art works in pencil have an almost photographic quality and come across as a documentary record. These works of art are drawn from the Ichikowitz Heritage Art Collection. They are not on sale.
All 16 art works engage with 20th century contemporary history from the perspectives of the African liberation movement and the specifics of struggle events in South Africa. The art works are about ideas of different imagined futures of Black and White Africans coming together in struggle, dialogue, negotiation and reconciliation. Central characters in the art works are historic people such as Enoch Sontonga, Ruth Mompati, Albert Luthuli, Gerald Sekoto, George Pemba, George Bizos, Steve Biko, Pik Botha, Bram Fischer, Oliver Tambo, Matthews Phosa, Winnie Mandela, FW De Klerk, Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela all playing star roles towards peaceful transition, new power dynamics and a progressive constitution. There are many bit players too, but it's by no means a comprehensive view of the 20th century (see if you notice the missing characters). My favourite portraits were The Blessing (Enoch Sontongo) and In the Eye of the Beholder (Gerald Sekoto and George Pemba). These are two works of huge cultural reference and deference (spot the vignette of Sol Plaatje and Mohandas Gandhi as an inset in the Sekoto homage, but Hermann Kallenbach is missing).
An excellent 26 page catalogue accompanies the exhibition. This booklet is a "must acquire" as it reproduces and explains each picture and itself becomes a collectable document. It is also a catalogue that ought to be read as you view the exhibition. This is an exhibition with a political message and in a highly politicized space but also a dignified space with the Constitutional Court nearby, that transcends politics. In the present climate of Gupta led state capture and the Zuma led journey to Nkandla, it is a good moment to be reminded of those days of heady idealism of only two decades ago and all that past political leaders, artists, anthem writers, philosophers anticipated and envisioned. The people featured in the portraits here made enormous sacrifices and the sources of their inspiration is made explicit. Those events have so speedily passed into history to be now given the artist's interpretation but also reflected through the prism of an art patron's beneficence.
The arts have always depended on patrons, benefactors and philanthropists. The problem though with "commissioned" art, is that it adds a new layer of mediation to art works. One has to begin to ask questions about the purpose of the commission. The Ichikowitz Family Foundation states that it "contributes of the preservation of our heritage, the conservation of our environment, the education of our people and actively promotes nation building".
I found myself wanting to know more about Ivor Ichikowitz and his foundation and how this clearly successful and wealthy individual arrived at the point where he is now shaping heritage, if not history, through the generous sponsorship of the arts and other good works. Try googling his name and there are some not so surprising answers.
We visited the exhibition on the 21 March public holiday, commemorating Human Rights and found ourselves to be the only viewers. There is no signposting and security guards at the Fort were vague about the direction. The exhibition is difficult to find (it's at the far end of the Fort in original cells on the top end of the hill). We passed through the central atrium and out before retracing our steps to find the corridors to left and right of cells with those heavy formidable and doom like doors swung wide open. The lighting was non operational in the sequence of cells to the right and the video equipment was out of order throughout. Curiously little yellow post it labels were prominently positioned on the art works informing a mythical maintenance team to "fix it".
The exhibition is an important one. The constitution, the artists, the patron deserve better than echoing empty decaying, neglected cells. Fine, it's a place of history, bitter hurt, and political incarceration for many of the greats of the struggle years. I think it is an interesting choice of exhibition space but if the facilities don't work, forget it! I left with the passing thought that this multimedia experience would be better served in a venue such as the Saxon Hotel or the SA Coin Exchange in Mandela Square or the Apartheid Museum or the Gold Reef City hotel. That would be a rather more explicit coupling of business and politics and the making of instant heritage. On the other hand, maybe one should be pleased to see new philanthropists emerge and we need successors to Rhodes, the Oppenheimers and the Ecksteins. Modern Banks and finance companies are firm supporters of the arts and own impressive collections too.
Kathy Munro is an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She enjoyed a long career as an academic and in management at Wits University. She trained as an economic historian. She is an enthusiastic book person and has built her own somewhat eclectic book collection over 40 years. Her interests cover Africana, Johannesburg history, history, art history, travel, business and banking histories.