Art and Design

The Accidental Curator: Portia Malatjie

Mpho Moshe Matheolane

Portia Malatjie (26) insists that she never envisaged herself as a curator.

Portia Malatjie (26) insists that she never envisaged herself as a curator. Yet, listening to the recently selected guest curator for the MTN New Contemporary Awards of 2012, one becomes aware that she is in her ­element.

She fell into the practice with her first project, an exhibition of Nelson Makamo’s Citytales and Countryscapes at Museum Africa last year.

The story goes that Makamo initially approached David Koloane, one of South Africa’s established art names, to curate his show and was serendipitously pointed in the direction of Malatjie.

Since then, she has been involved in a number of projects both independently and ­collaboratively.

Malatjie completed a fine arts degree at the University of the Witwatersrand and then later a master’s degree in art history. The latter has served as the catalyst for her foray into curating, but it has also enabled her to take up a post as a visiting junior art history lecturer at Rhodes University. The post begins next month and will last until November.

New audiences
Malatjie is working on a collaborative project with three groups: Assemblage, Urban Arts Platforms and Anstey’s Kids Projects. With the wacky title dis/play, it will be exhibited at the Goethe on Main gallery and at the historic Anstey’s apartment block in June.

The project is aimed at introducing the practice of visual arts to the children of Anstey’s building. To do so, Malatjie has roped in 10 ­artists, including Donna Kukama and Anthea Moys.

The collaboration of emerging and prominent artists is key in Malatjie’s approach to curatorial practice. She hopes to tease out the use of alternative space in which different modes of art—the traditional and the new—can speak to and with each other.

Of course, one cannot overlook the most notable accomplishment the young curator has attained so far in being selected as guest curator for the MTN New Contemporaries awards. Other names who have benefited from this honour and gained prominence include ­Nontobeko Ntombela, Melissa Mboweni and Khwezi Gule.

Malatjie said the experience has given her the opportunity to travel around the country, meeting other artists whom she probably never would have met if she was “stuck in Johannesburg”.

In talking about these other artists, she refers to her own practice as a young, independent curator, as opposed to an institutional one. She tells of how some of them have knowingly decided to stay away from popular and central spaces such as Johannesburg, where “everything is happening”, to mould themselves and their craft.

But she acknowledges that there are skills she is likely to learn only by being in an art institution.

Malatjie clearly has no fear of humbling herself to the process of learning and has, at times, made use of the wisdom of other curators.

“I am constantly calling people and asking: ‘How does this work? Am I doing this right?’” she said, mentioning that Gabi Ngcobo, a more established curator, once told her “we all have to find our feet”.

A rising group
So, how does she feel about being on the cusp in a field that is becoming populated by a rising group of young, female, black aspirants? “There seems to be a hype around being a curator, more people wanting to do it. But it is not like they are realising it only now. It’s always been there,” she said.

A striking feature of Malatjie’s modest self-appraisal is that she is a typical arts “hustler”, never waiting for an opportunity to present itself but constantly conceptualising ideas and making proposals for future projects. It takes bravery, because the act of choosing who and what is to be represented in the art space should always appear to be made without compromise.

See more young curator profiles here.


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