Ernestine White & Yentl Kohler
Perspectives

In the fourth installment of Perspectives, adjective speaks to Curator of Contemporary Art, Ernestine White and Art Educator, Yentle Kohler about the collaborative effort of mounting Studio at the Iziko South African National Gallery.

Studio is a big exhibition at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Where did the idea come from?

Yentle Kohler: So I don’t necessarily work on the art collections but I work in Education and Public Programs and what my colleague Phillipa and I were thinking about when we chatted to the curators was that when they for example put an exhibition we would try pull out the artists that are the curriculum…because that’s what teachers want to focus on. So we thought what if there’s an exhibition that’s directly linked to the grade 12 syllabus, and all the themes are highlighted.

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So the artists are blocked into different rooms according to different themes that would make it easier for the South African art student to come in…and makes the exam a bit easier to pass because they’ve actually seen the real work. So after chatting and coming to compromises with the curators from different collections of how to do this and to best show the work is how it started.

Ernestine White: Initially it was only meant to be one room

Yentle Kohler: Just one room, with just some work from the curriculum…

So this is quite interesting question for me, because it seems that it is such an important thing for students to actually see the work in real life…what role does the National Gallery play in that regard? Is this the first show to highlight these kinds of works or is there a regular commitment?

Ernestine White: This is the first serious effort. In all the exhibitions there are always artists that are in the school curriculum and the difficult task at times, for the educators, is to extract the information to make it more relative to the learners. But this was such a concerted focus on the artists in the school curriculum from just our collections, so this was a first.

Also in terms of identifying and allocating a space, which was a one where young people could create after being inspired by what they saw…

What seemed to be very popular was this additional programming built around the exhibition…

Yentle Kohler: Well, with all exhibitions we usually do have education programming running, it’s just not in the public eye because the workshops take place in the annex and people don’t usually come past that space. So what would happen is they would come to the National Gallery first  and then we would take them to the annex. But for us it was quite important because in the curriculum it states that learners should engage with theoretical work on a practical level as well.

So for us it was to have that space in the heart of the National Gallery and it became the heart of the show. We’ve had lots of talks and workshops and curriculum advisor meetings in that space.

Ernestine White: Teachers coming here to meet and talk about the curriculum has been really exciting. I think, as Yentl mentioned, the crux was really based on the concept of the studio, which is where everything begins…in the studio. And so bringing artists who are showcased in Studio to talk to learners and talk to the visiting audience about their creative practice. And so that space has really been very dynamic in terms of the kinds of public programs that have emanated from this exhibition…

Yentle Kohler: Like the “anything is possible” space…

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When it comes to art one of the challenges very often seems to lie not with the learners themselves but rather with how informed and exposed the educators are. How have you addressed that?

Yentle Kohler: We work quite closely with the curriculum advisors and the subject heads for Arts & Culture, for GET (General Education and Training) and FET (Further Education and Training) and when chatting about teacher workshops and enrichment sessions…

A lot of primary school teachers for example, they don’t necessarily have art training…they could be the Maths or Afrikaans teacher that was given the art class, so by them coming along with the learners I think just in the way curators and educators chat about and engage with the work they’re already gaining something and starting to understand how one could speak about an artwork. Or how one could relate to a certain artist and then link that back to a practical activity and take it back to the classroom. So we have had direct teacher workshops but I think that just by them coming on the visit with the school learners has changed things a bit and we’ve got some really good feedback. So we’ve had good feedback.

So one of their requirements is that every quarter they have to have a 2-D assessment task and we thought that it’s quite easy for us to invite learners to the National Gallery, create this work in the space. We came up with a rubric and we completed the work in the studio and we gave teachers the guidelines so that they can go back and mark this work which gave them an entire package of why to come here and what to do in terms what we can offer them.

So we’ve done it with about five primary schools that have been identified by the advisors as being in need and need support but we are hoping that next year we can get to more schools…

Ernestine White: Because that space that we are talking about has been so proactive in engaging, but it’s not a permanent space, the long term vision or ambition would be to create a space that is designated for these kinds of activities…but because we’fe so limited with space even to exhibit works that it becomes difficult, especially when we’re looking at other exhibitions we would love to have here and wall space is at a premium. So now it’s about trying to find other spaces that could serve in that same way in the way that the studio space has.

So, curatorially, once the compromises were settled between the educational interests and the curatorial mandates what were some of the solutions that you came with in terms of “enacting the studio”?

Ernestine White: First, the challenge was that we’ve got such a vast collection, made up of five different collections, and everyone had to be included. But what made it easy was that the educators had already identified themes and the artists that are specifically spoken about in the school curriculum. So that’s where we started; with the artists and the themes.

Then we said, ok, in our different collections do we have work by those artists that speak to those themes and if we didn’t…oh, here are these other artists that aren’t necessarily spoken about in the curriculum but speak to the various themes that are being unpacked. So each room had it’s own theme or one additional theme depending on the size of the room. Then we worked around the theme and list of artists.

So in each room we tried to incorporate each collection, which was a challenge because there were five cooks in the kitchen which was a very delicate maneuver…

Yentle Kohler: It took us about six months…

Ernestine White: But the educators did the bulk of the research before we began and then it was really a process of following the lists into the storerooms and we marked each work, took pictures, printed each one and went into the rooms and started placing them…considering theme and flow…we worked with paper on walls, and then we brought the actual artworks into the rooms…

Yentle Kohler: …and sometimes took it back…

Ernestine White: …because sometimes it didn’t look right or it was too big or we had to include a specific aspect of the theme or groups of artists that are not spoken about but are equally important…so it was a back and forth…going from one room at a time to another.

People often ask “what is a curator”…how long did that process take? From room to room how long was the gallery closed for while you did it?

Yentle Kohler: I think those six rooms were closed for almost a month…

Ernestine White: Which is not ideal, but because it was such a large exhibition it had to be done.

Yentle Kohler: I think we opened with the studio and then room 4 first…

Ernestine White: Then we moved our way around the gallery. There wasn’t an official opening which was nice so we could slowly open rooms to the public…

Like a slow reveal…

Ernestine White: Yes, then the other two rooms and then the other two rooms at the end.

Yentle Kohler: and on the 17th of February we had a different opening for school learners so each visual arts teacher could identify two learners that they could bring with them and we had a day time opening with the CEO’s address, and the curators were there and held walkabouts for the learners…

Ernestine White: One must remember too, that even the wall texts were important and took a lot of time. We had to consider all kinds of visitors, local and international, so it became a challenge to cater to everyone at the same time.

So, talk me through the exhibition and its themes,

Yentle Kohler: It starts from the ‘Original Report’ which in the curriculum is called ‘The voice of emerging artists’ so it’s the artists working n the 30’s and 40’s . George Pemba, Gerard Sekoto, Dumile Feni. That’s the way that they’ve been boxed in, and we’ve had to change the topics slightly so we asked ourselves what are they actually doing.

In thinking about the original report we thought about documentation of existing area’s that might no longer exist like Sofiatown, District 6. They were telling unique stories from their communities that might not have been told by other people at the time.

Then we moved onto Striking Back which was Resistance Art in the 70’s and 80’s and then “New Report” which was post-democratic identity in South Africa and then “Body Politics” which was gender issues, masculinity and femininity and then sacred heritage and “The Quest” which was the search for African identity and art, craft and the spiritual…so we adjusted the topic names where necessary.

So what did you think was necessary about changing them?

Yentle Kohler: I think it goes down to what Ernestine was saying that it’s not only for grade twelve leraners it was for all members of the public, it’s not only the story of the curriculum it’s the story of South Africa through art. So I think that was important for everyone…

Ernestine White: …to make it more user friendly to a general audience…

So the numbers have been good for Studio?

Yentle Kohler: Our numbers per quarter have tripled our targets. So we are busy putting together a document to identify the numbers properly. because it’s easy to say “we’ve seen more kids” but it’s good to get the facts down, so we can present such a document and hopefully in the future get more funding for more projects like this.

Just the idea of the studio, it’s been so amazing for young people to have a space, because if you think about all the different themes in the curriculum the question is where do they fit in? If they make work now where is their space? So they come in and make work in response to what they see and actually get to hang their work in the space.

So I’ve said that museums are like trophy cabinets on steroids of the artworld, where our best stuff is being put, or should be put…what are some of the challenges of getting visitors in and legitimating an art museums role now…

Ernestine White: We may be called the National Gallery but we are an art museum so our role and core is about education, so yes we have the artwork. We require the best and that is always the desire, the best. And once that artwork comes into the space then it’s about how do we dissemenate the context of what this work…what is it about the work that speaks to a moment in history, in time, within the South African context of either, economic, social or political.

How do we unpack that? And our audience is the South African public, so that is the 2 year olds to the 102 year olds, the person that walks down government avenue, the business person, the auntie that is going to clean somebody’s house…everybody. But how do you provide an opportunity for all those vast kinds of people to engage with an artwork. It’s also about this understanding that we are acquiring for the future…so this is their treasure trove of our heritage.

Whereas in a gallery it’s there for just a moment and it goes to someone’s home, where the understanding here is that once it’s here you and your children’s children can come to experience what is our South African heritage. It’s through the artwork that we get to see ourselves whether we like ourselves or not.

It is a way to reflect what is happening in our environment and I think it’s a difficult thing to balance….what is it about the artwork that makes it important.

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