The double digits are a milestone, also a moment of reflection. For the Wits Arts Museum (WAM) at 10, the reckoning comes with questions about what art is seen, whose art is elevated to solo exhibition status, and ultimately who and what controls the economy. art.
For conservatives at WAM, the answers come back to the reality that women and people from the queer community remain on the margins. Systemic sexism sustains the status quo in the art world and keeps the balance of representation unequal. It’s also a moment that puts more emphasis on the fact that sustainability and the evolving relevance of an art museum in 2022 also needs to be reframed.
WAM’s Curator of Special Projects, Fiona Rankin-Smith, puts it plainly: “Who do you think controls the galleries, sales and prices of artworks? They are still mostly white men.
Reviewing their exhibitions over the past 10 years, Rankin-Smith and WAM Senior Curator Julia Charlton were surprised when they realized their own blind spot and the arts museum had fallen into the same trap.
“It’s not that we’ve never featured female artists or queer artists, but when we’ve counted the number of solo exhibitions over the years, it’s been weighted in favor of men,” explains Charlton.
This led to the decision that at the age of 10 – and as Wits University celebrates its centenary – WAM would reserve solo exhibitions for works by women and artists of diverse genres. His TENX10: 100 Works by Artists of Women and Diverse Genders the exhibition kicks off this year-long focus.
The exhibition features works from Wits’ vast collection of over 15,000 works of art, artifacts and ephemera collected across different streams and departments over the decades. The 100 pieces on display were all created by women and queer artists, some high profile artists and some unknown. Their anonymity offers damning clues to how early Western collectors viewed female artists and entire genres of art as “unworthy” or too insignificant to be recognized individually.
The scope of the project
TENX10 is an exhibition of enormous scope and diversity, making it seemingly impossible to string together. But the pieces are organized to unravel themes and deliberately connect or clash with each other across media, techniques, time, place, and subject.
There are themes of the body, gender roles and the destruction of those gender stereotypes. There is a pause in memory, earth and a tapestry diary of the Covid-19 lockdown. The exhibition touches on history that has become intimate and personal, and also where there is grip and declaration in pieces made with a collective objective.
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Personal is the Zulu beaded bag made by an unknown person and designed to hold a dompas, a booklet held by his black body every day from the time the Native Act of 1952 was passed. From a collective, there are works of a “curtain” made of cards woven together as a sort of memorial as far as the eye can see to the victims of AIDS. Closer examination reveals that the curtain is made up of dozens of individual cards, each with a personal message of loss and longing.
Rankin-Smith skillfully used a color-coding system for each piece in the exhibit. It guides the viewer to explore the themes and see how they overlap. There is also an empty square for personal interpretation.
“The curator brings her own informed opinions, but she is not the final arbiter of what a work of art means. Everyone’s life experience informs their own perspectives,” says Charlton.
Change access to art
Finding more ways to speak to each person was a priority for WAM during its first decade. It started with the geography and location of the museum, architecture, funding structure and endowments, programming and outreach to include projects like schools.
This resulted in WAM being located on the ground floor and at the contiguous points of Jorissen Street and Jan Smuts Avenue, where the university campus meets its Braamfontein neighbours. The glass walls of the museum were deliberate, for openness and connection to street life. Admission to WAM has always been public and free, and programming has incorporated public walks and interactive workshops, and is aligned with the school curriculum.
There are other details, like the wall text that “doesn’t communicate to elites,” Charlton says. It is also simply a matter of welcoming visitors with a “welcome” and taking into account transport and meal costs for school groups who need assistance.
Visitor Services Coordinator Vuyiswa Ngesman remembers how, at the start of WAM in 2012, she saw people stop and look through the glass, then keep walking. “I decided to go out and invite people in, and I was asking them why they weren’t coming in. They were saying they felt they didn’t belong or they thought it was just for Wits or it looked expensive and they would have to pay an entrance fee.
Ngesman persisted and was open to their feedback. She translated it into change, things like better “free entry” signage.
“Our seniors are very loyal, but over the past few years we’ve also started to attract millennials and Gen Xers. They’ve been drawn to our beautiful lighting, which is great for their social media posts. But here and there, some would ask questions and some would stay. Other people come here because they are early for an appointment, and there are even people who come to ask for directions. I welcome them all “, she says.
push for change
All of this has helped WAM grow from around 2,000 visitors a year 10 years ago to as high as 24,000 before Covid hit, Ngesman says. Now, charting the way out of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns is the immediate focus. But a solid plan for the next 10 years that is transformative, inclusive and adapts to competing priorities and tighter budgets is essential.
“We need to create and support more messages. We need to build capacity and diversity for when some of us retire in the near future. We also need to buy more works by young black women and artists of various genres, that’s a gap in our collection,” says Rankin-Smith.
Buying for the collection means going beyond creating a platform and exposure for artists, it must ensure that artists can live off the proceeds of their art and produce more of it.
Interdisciplinary artist Senzeni Marasela has a solo exhibition planned at WAM this year. His work is also featured in the TENX10 exposure. For Marasela, WAM’s decision to focus on gender representation is a step in the right direction.
“Until gender diversity in the arts becomes normal, we have to do this. We also know that it is white men at the top, then white women, then black men and only then black women,” she said. But her caveat is that the goal is to push for structural and systemic change for gender parity and racial diversity, not box-ticking exercises. “The problem is that when people look at all black female artists as a group, they may think they bought art from one or two black female artists, so they’re done,” she said.
Marasela says that in 2022, the reality remains that many female artists, especially black artists, cannot afford to produce art full time. It wasn’t until 2015 that she became a full-time artist, although she has been creating and producing work since the 1990s. Negotiating the art world has also sometimes meant navigating the absurdity of how the value and prominence of various arts are determined.
“The art business is worth billions, but you will find that some people have the power. They define the speech, even the material you use and whether or not your work will be salable. So these people influence the market,” she says.
Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, now 79 and internationally renowned, still reflects on the humble lessons learned being carried on the back of her mother and grandparents who refused to let her settle for empty praise.
Sebidi’s Traditionally, Mother Saves Life (1993) is a key feature at the starting point of TENX10 and his work is featured on the cover of the workbook created for the exhibition. She finds it fitting because it’s a piece that embodies the lessons for today’s women passed down from mothers and grandmothers who have come before us.
“Saviour – it means that the whole story is shared with you from the life experiences of those who traveled, carried and collected stories from before. All of this is now communicated to you,” says Sebidi, who was awarded the Silver Order of Ikhamanga in 2004 for his contribution to the arts, among a long list of accomplishments.
As a woman on the wrong side of apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s, she had to leave her rural home in Marapyane near Hammanskraal in North Gauteng to look for work. She became “one of the flocks”, forced to leave “lessons and life in the ground” to work in Johannesburg.
She became a domestic worker, but an employer who recognized her talent helped her improve. She would begin exhibiting as one of Johannesburg’s artists under the sun at Zoo Lake in the 1980s, which would lead to her breakthrough into the commercial art market.
For Sebidi, the WAM exhibition’s focus on women and gender diversity restores personal truths, personal judgment and also personal power. As she says, “We need this because we have to find our own pride somewhere and open the doors of our love for ourselves.”
the TENX10 The exhibition runs at the Wits Arts Museum in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until July 23, 2022.