Today is National Heritage Day in South Africa and in the first of our series of Q&A’s in the lead up to ICTAF 2020, we speak to newly appointed Curator of Contemporary Art at Iziko South African National Gallery, Tšhegofatso Mabaso. She shares with us the misconceptions of what curating entails, what she loves about her job, and what the concept of ‘heritage’ means to her.
1. You recently stepped into the role of Curator of Contemporary Art at Iziko Museums, firstly congrats and secondly what has been the most surprising thing since starting in this new role?
It isn’t so much surprising, because I knew this was a huge part of my job but it is still something that takes me aback when I experience this. Being able to access the storerooms and spend time with the collections is still really fascinating to me. That I can for a few hours a day literally go into a storeroom and spend an hour or two just looking at works. It seems a ridiculous thing but I still haven’t completely absorbed the idea that I have access to these collections. I would like to think of innovative ways to allow more people to experience that.
2. Aside from this you also have a side-hustle as co-founder of Rera Letsema, can you explain what it is and how it started?
Rera Letsema is a collaborative research group/network, founded by myself and artist Tatenda Magaisa. We started it out of a curiosity for collaborative modes of working and to explore ways of being together as artists that were not immediately premised on finite creative outputs. In some ways it has become a process of archiving and recording the experiences of artists we have worked around, mainly in Johannesburg.
3. Tell us 3 misconceptions about curating
1. Curating isn’t just about selection.
The curatorial is such an expanded practice today that it speaks more to a mode of thinking than an activity.
2. The “evil” curator:
While it is important to consistently engage with dynamics of power and how curators may leverage such to advance themselves or other artists, I do find there is a common misconception that curators are just gatekeepers of institutions or solely interested in speaking authoritatively about and over artists. Curating is often such a sensitive practice, hinged on negotiating several variables, ideas and role players.
3. ‘Curator as caretaker’
Particularly in a museum context, our role is to look after and think through the objects in our care, but so much of the work that curators do, whether independently or within institutions is about responding to our environments and concerns and unpacking these through our projects.
4. Today in South Africa we celebrate Heritage Day, what does heritage mean to you a) as a South African and b) as an art professional at one of our national cultural institutions?
a) As a South African, I have a complex relationship to heritage. My understanding of it is rooted in history of grand monuments in confrontation with personal story-telling and memory. So it is constantly shifting and affected by my evolving understanding of our history. Quite often my celebration of heritage often ends up being more an exercise of defining what it isn’t as opposed to what it is. Having not always celebrated national holidays out of a sense that they often simultaneously sensationalised and erased the events or people they sought to commemorate, I wish for more moments to celebrate shifting ideas of heritage on special occasions and everyday.
b) As a cultural practitioner working at a national cultural institution, my personal understanding of heritage definitely informs my approach. Working in cultural institutions we are custodians of sites, works and items of cultural significance. We are tasked with advocating for what ought to be preserved while also questioning the mechanisms that inform such decisions. It is impossible to do so without the buy-in of the communities we represent and as such, I feel that our audiences should constantly push us to broaden the parameters of what heritage means to reflect their daily experiences and understandings of this concept. I’d like to see people of my communities reflected with great complexity in our spaces of heritage.
5. If you had to pick one South African contemporary artist that you feel is capturing the zeitgeist of contemporary African Art right now who would it be and why?
I am really interested in the work of Simnikiwe Buhlungu, particularly her interlacing of texts, video and sound as a mode through which to think through histories made invisible and surface what has not been allowed to speak, what has been missed, mis-read etc.
I continue to be moved and challenged by the work of Dineo Seshee Bopape. Her multimedia installations are imbued with such a visceral sense of materiality and they invoke provocations into history and the present in a sensorial way.
6. In closing…
I understand this current moment as one of deep critical excavating and interrogation of the relationship between our history and our current conditions. In many ways we’ve rushed through history and I am really intrigued by artists who are finding ways to engage it, not in a linear or archaeological manor but from an experiential and intuitive approach.
Image credit: (c)Iziko Museums Of SA/Nigel Pamplin