From the Gertrude Posel Gallery to the Wits Art Museum: exhibiting African Art in a South African University
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In 1979, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and the Standard Bank Investment Corporation came together to form the Standard Bank Foundation Collection of African Tribal Art, the first public collection of its kind in South Africa, which fundamentally re-shaped public and institutional perceptions of black art in the country. Its collection and display, at first in the Gertrude Posel Gallery and then in the Wits Art Museum, formed a canon of African art that represented the artistic identities of a larger continent as well as those of South Africa’s majority black population. Together these formed an explicit political statement. This dissertation traces the evolution of the Standard Bank Collection, examining key developments at critical moments in South Africa’s political history. Divided into two parts that juxtapose the apartheid and post-apartheid periods, the first section begins with the founding of the Standard Bank Collection and its inaugural exhibition, African Tribal Sculpture held in 1979. In Chapter One, a case study considers how Wits placed black South African objects in dialogue with the canonical sculpture from West and Central Africa. Wits thereby authenticated black South African objects as art, both in South Africa itself and within the field of African art history, an action that undermined the apartheid system. Chapter Two offers a second case study that takes on the racially charged climate of late apartheid, situating Wits’ collecting practices in relationship to the collections and exhibitions of other art museums in the country. Wits curators employed and politicized the labels traditional art and transitional art in their classifications of South African objects at a critical juncture in the nation’s political transformation. Part two looks at the post-apartheid period in a single case study. Chapter Three examines the politics present in exhibitions featuring African art in the new Wits Art Museum that addressed themes relevant to popular urban culture – including style, fashion, and adornment – viewed as central to the presentation of post-apartheid black identities. By examining the types of objects Wits collected and the kinds of exhibitions it mounted, this dissertation illuminates how the art museum’s cultural authority represented and grappled with the changing racial politics of the nation.
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