Concerning Museums


In response to the Iziko and New Church Museums’ Public Discussion of ‘Our Lady’


On Thursday 15 December 2016, Iziko National Art Gallery, and the New Church Museum were forced to create a space for voices to respond and react to the recent show ‘Our Lady’  (since taken down) in a public discussion forum. The discussion included the curators of the show from both museums, activists from SWEAT and Sisonke, artists included in the exhibition, observers, and those wishing to share their thoughts.

After both museums’ curators had given statements , which were largely justifications around why it was of such weighty significance that a relatively mundane and de-contextualised photograph by Zwelethu Mthethwa, alleged murderer of 25-year-old Nokuphila Kumalo, was included in the show, a statement from SWEAT was concise in explaining why this did not really make sense and why this was a violent act for sex workers, for the representation of women*, and for those mourning Kumalo’s death.

After statements had been given, the floor was opened, at which point Candice Breitz stepped in with the longest statement of all, explaining why the women artists in the show did not wish to be included anymore, and would instead like the letter they had written together explaining their reasoning for this, to be shown on the empty walls. When Breitz was done, discussion ensued…

Little consensus was reached within the two hour slot allocated for the discussion, although Ernestine White from Iziko was far more willing to recognize the damage that had been caused than Kirsty Cockerill and her cohort from the New Church, whom refused the opportunity to apologise, at the very least, for causing people pain.

A number of issues surfaced during these two hours, which I would like to characterize, within the art institutional space from which I speak, as a historical moment.

there is no symbolic gesture

I think that perhaps the purpose of throwing my own two cents into the ongoing conversation about museums and how they function – with particular reference to the New Church and Iziko SANG in the midst of the Mthethwa situation – is in order to offer ways to think practically about how we might appropriate this functioning into something less foreign, threatening, and exclusionary. We would be wasting some important information if we did not use this particular case of museum discourse to examine the broader role of museums, artists, and thinkers in relation to self-reflexive complicity, in a space that is guilty of such violence.


My main intention for the past while of navigating the CBD has been to avoid talking about the talk. This talk violated many people in ways I am not able to understand. My own experience was of shock, anger, and disturbingly creative ideas for ‘revenge’ against the most obviously actively violent parties involved. Of course, in navigating these very deep impulses I was forced to acknowledge my own complicity – my own profiting – and the potential for my own version of ‘upward mobility’ in engaging theoretically through writing with this situation that embodies material, legislative, and psychological violence.


It has taken a few days for me to understand that feeling this kind of outrage and hurt (in relation to an obviously incredibly violent situation) carries with it some fundamental belief in the idea that, as opposed to the majority of societal niches, the art institution is ‘special’, and built upon some kind of deeply embedded and humane ethical code. This feeling of betrayal that many are carrying around with them (following the inclusion of Mthethwa in an exhibition) relies on the assumption that the art world is somehow exceptional and that its role, as opposed to more overtly unethical institutions, is in the purist pursuit of the production of knowledge.


If we unpack this ‘betrayal’ though and situate it a little bit more honestly in our minds, we might begin to replace the idea of the art institutions’ ‘noble’ position – as public, as socially responsible, and as knowledge producing – with the art institution as a microcosm of larger societal dynamics from which we can pull ideas. However, in ‘pulling these ideas’ – in being viewers, thinkers and artists – it becomes impossible to simply observe the system, without being affected by the pain it causes us and the pain we affect through it as participants. And here I think it is of the utmost importance to distinguish between practices of knowledge production and practices of socio-cultural reproduction.


Recognising this as the starting point is a really horrible exercise, because it involves self-validation and honesty in reviewing the number of unacknowledged or systemic hurts that one encounters in the art institution. One is also forced to confront the complicity that follows (in my case as a writer) in having to direct one’s agency toward producing discourse that essentially legitimizes this institution, as opposed to finding ways to work outside of it.


I think this might be useful though. In this sense, I would propose that overt violence (as displayed by the talk) is healthy only inasmuch as it reminds us of the ‘covert’, that is the feelings that are ever-present in certain spaces, and the feelings that we perpetuate by investing in ‘certain’ spaces. The art institution is so internally dynamic that we are often led to forget the potency of its stagnant violence when we think about it from a broader perspective.


Thursday the 15th’s mess provided a very neat case study of how our society works – overtly – or if you would prefer, Thursday the 15th’s mess provided a very neat case study of how the art institution works.


institutional ‘critique’

If we want to engage with this issue it might be useful to begin by articulating where the points of separation between the art world and the ‘real world’ have been constructed and why this might be so. At the ‘African’ art institution in which I studied, I was made poignantly aware of the tradition of institutional ‘critique’ in Europe and America at the beginnings of the post-modernist period and in particular, the brand aimed at the art institution itself. In short, as I think many of us are aware, the art institution very much enjoys occupying a farcical position of cultural mystique that allows it to pretend to separate itself from the global capitalist system in which it is in fact solidly reliant on, contributes to, and importantly, profits from.


As opposed to archiving the interventions of cultural workers such as the Medu Ensemble, whose practice outside of the apartheid-driven art institution was based on an inherent ‘critique’, rejection and simultaneous creative production, the kind of discourse we choose to include in this category is the Kendell Geers-style, intentionally inconsequential ‘destruction’ of a space that is more than willing to absorb this pseudo-disruption into its 3dgy (see Urban Dictionary, or ask a youth) archive.


Crucially I am certain now that when I learned about institutional critique, I was made far less aware of how extreme this art institutional mystique becomes when we understand it from a black feminist position, which posits that systemic violences like patriarchy, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia are the constructed oppressive guidelines that hold this institutional capitalism together. In fact the museum as we know it would not and could not exist without the repetition of these societal ‘guidelines’, which by now and hundreds of years of repetition later, have been so insidiously naturalised.


On the other hand we need to recognize the charm of this space and what it does offer when viewed through the lens of collaboration with its own violence. The operation of the art institution makes it unlikely that once caught – or bought in – one can completely escape the creepy charm of its disturbing utopian guise, where the market for scathing reviews, conscious black art and woke yungstas grows by the day. And so if you are reading this (or writing it), it might be too late, because it is highly likely that you are profiting from it in some way or form.


I understand that I am being dramatic, but I hope that I am trying to ignite some passion in you, dear reader. I can only write from inside of the institution, and thus my observation becomes limited in the most fundamentally crucial ways. However my feelings that I will in no way defend through evidence, is that there is purpose in expressing my thoughts here to those of us who are confused, upset and simply weirded out by the current situation. We find ourselves in a world that is at once irresistible, and very tricky to penetrate in any kind disruptive way.



Every now and again though we see something strange happen; a rupture in the form of an artwork or object, that manages to render the alleged separation between art and life a myth. Ironically, it is in the historicisation of these moments that they are somehow contextualised through scholarship back into the trap of re-affirming this myth. I am reminded here of Sipho Mpongo, a flourishing young photographer whose story has somehow slipped itself neatly into ‘discourse’, where once its relevance to ‘real life’ was indisputable. My reason here for being spicy is to make the point that discourse eventually forgives all men because it can accommodate all sin and so for this reason disruption within such an art world status quo can be characterised as a momentary phenomenon.


on mthethwa and the talk

Whenever able-bodied white folks pool together in the name of a political cause (at least, when they are doing it visibly), it does not take very long to figure out the sneaky way they are going about protecting their own things, regardless of whether they realise it or not. The art world is no different; as an anciently codified system, the process of response to ‘controversy’ seems to my young, perhaps naive, but at least interested brain, to have changed very little over time, even in the midst of the most recent radical shift in the way young South Africans are representing our own consciousnesses.


This scramble for ‘things’, as I have articulated it, is not limited to white ‘mobilization’, but must be recognized to be an action that ignites scramble across the spectrum of participants – my particular ‘scramble’ might then be characterized, if as a headline, as one for ‘a legitimate voice in the art world crisis’. All of us in this art world space – me and my ‘noble’ silence at the public discussion, Candice Breitz and her talkative feminist cohort (potentially with the exception of Mbongwa’s voice in the show), Kirsty Cockerill and her relentless smile – are in a grisly battle to lay claim to the voices of people who have been erased by Mthethwa, and larger society’s actions, and then erased representationally by the ‘Our Lady’ show, and by extension, us.


Thankfully, none of us will ever be able to lay these claims, but I think it is important to articulate numerous times that a number us will try, and that absolutely none of us should be trusted in this regard. The fight for discourse is an ideological war for landscape that is treated as more pressing than material landlessness.


In the case of the talk there existed two conversations, both happening very separately and for a number of reasons, never meeting. One conversation – the one that was given the most attention, was co-ordinated through the lense of a back and forth between two white women, arguing around the theoretical ethics of displaying Zwelethu Mthethwa’s work. The fundamental implication here was that there was merit to this even being a conversation.


The other conversation led by a statement from SWEAT was a plea to the curators to recognize the existence of poor black women together with a proposition as to how they could show this recognition in a practical, representational sense within the museum (the suggestion here was to remove the Mthethwa photograph, and to make a decision to display a painting of Kumalo by Astrid Warren indefinitely as a way to memorialise her and the struggle of poor black sex workers in South Africa, and the pain caused by this exhibition.)


This other conversation alluded to the inevitable failure to articulate in words, in language, in discourse, what a lived experience means. The other conversation exposed the reality of the classist patriarchal whiteness that many of us are complicit in by operating within the art institution. The other conversation showed us that no amount of pain, suffering and hurt could equate to the importance of engendering intellectually ‘risky’ conversations that could lead to a wider, more detailed discourse around the representation of poor black women’s bodies.


This other conversation was a deeply intense understanding that within the art institution, pain can never exist just as pain, but can only prove itself as legitimate through being translated into these kinds of words, and into this kind of text.


*On the use of ‘women’ as opposed to ‘womxn’: This is a conscious authorial decision in acknowledging, in this case, the way that this difficult reality, and problematic exhibition are very much defined by the role that men play in defining how women are able to navigate (or not) in South African society.

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