SAARTJIES DILEMMA or Natives on Display

As the Director of a non-commercial Art Gallery, the Saartjie Gallery, I am often forced to stop and contemplate the direction that the gallery is to take. I often ask myself questions like where the gallery is going or what is the focus of this Gallery or, for that matter, any Art Gallery in South Africa?

Certainly, comprehending the idea of a gallery in South Africa seems an easy task. It is a place, a building that displays Art, but the Art Gallery in South Africa is also a physical manifestation that has been left over as part of the legacy of colonial power. Alternatively, the gallery system is a system that closes the gap made by secularisation and the subsequent developments in Capitalism. It can also be a system of empowering the item, thus giving it meaning. The gallery in South Africa is possibly all these things and none of these things.

The problem is that the method of creating these categories of understanding forces misunderstanding and generalisations that move away from the real issues. The gallery becomes a place that tends to uphold trends of popular thinking, trends that are in vogue and so over-represented. If the Art Gallery represents the over-represented then it is also a system that makes the represented accessible and popular. In South Africa the Art galleries follow a line of collecting and exhibiting that can only be called ‘main-stream’. The education systems that offer the study of art reinforce the concepts of ‘high culture’ of Western thinking. Thus, the concept of Art as a re-assertion of Western ways of thinking becomes the Art Gallery’s central meaning. The gallery is a system and physical manifestation that perpetuates the notion of the ‘derivative object’ that in turn has helped to create objects of ‘otherness’.

Thus, the present-ed objects in South African Art galleries are mastered by the dominant culture. The dominantculture has infiltrated all objects with appropriation, objects infiltrated by concepts of ‘unotherness’, but also objects rooted in otherness. The parent and the child concepts appear to be divorced in what has become a happy post-marital settlement. In other words, Art Galleries in South Africa are rooted in the concept of ‘other-ness’, the origin of otherness, as an awareness of the other has negated an innocence that has made the other another and rendered it ‘othered’ – or meaningless. The quest to regain the innocence-lost in the ever-smaller divisions of seeing the ‘other’ is the task of the Gallery. It should involve the unmaking or un-dividing of units of otherness, in other words, un-othering – becoming natives.

Recently I went to a conference on Gallery Policies – ‘Collection trends in South Africa’, and I asked the natives “if it was a sin to exhibit”, and the mommy said: “I only saw the building as a reflection”.

Gently, I placed my finger on an item and asked the price.

Afterwards I said, “I TRIED NOT TO”.


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