Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

The studious observer: Nontobeko Ntombela

Nontobeko Ntombela, curator of contemporary art at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), laughs about the idea of being considered a guinea pig.

She is the University of the Witwatersrand’s first fine art master’s student with a curatorial focus.

She says the notion of “first” should be contested.

“It fits the formula of a practical degree, only the work I curate isn’t mine.”

For Durban-born Ntombela, converting a fine arts diploma in printmaking at the Durban University of Technology to a master’s degree in curatorial studies was a no-brainer when she was awarded funding, but getting the job of a lifetime was priceless. She wanted to curate an exhibition about 20th-century South African female artists as her master’s project, but the gallery wanted not only her exhibition but also her.

“My exhibition proposal to JAG was accepted before I got the job. It’s a dream come true. Here I’ve learnt the gallery inside out, something I would never otherwise have had the chance to do. For a student to curate a show of this nature, the challenges surrounding accessing work for loan and funding would be major.”

Talking to the audience
An advisory committee member of the National Arts Council, Ntombela is a lapsed printmaker. “I believe it is a conflict of interests to try to be both artist and curator. In the past, curating was understood to be behind the scenes, now it’s foregrounded. These days it is part of a constructed ­narrative.”

Working in one of Johannesburg’s worst areas, the central business district, does not faze her, but she does not romanticise it either. “It’s not without challenges; I believe the arts can engage the community.”

Ntombela moved from Durban in 2010. She graduated from the Durban University of Technology in 2001 and was appointed curator at the BAT Centre in 2003 and the university in 2006. In 2010 she made people sit up and take notice when she was a guest curator of the MTN New Contemporaries awards.

“Durban’s community is small. In Johannesburg you are anonymous. This is a blessing. And a challenge. Here, there is much more diverse dialogue at the same time. There is focus on the sustainability of untraditional spaces.

“If I had no budget constraints, I would do an exhibition about the history of exhibitions in South Africa. We have repositories of biographies but none of exhibitions — an index to how art in this country has evolved.

A Fragile Archive considered [the] damage and absence part of the art’s history. It alienated those who expected it to be like Elza Miles’s ­retrospective of South African expressionist painter Gladys ­Mgudlandlu in 2002. In South Africa, not only do you have to generate research, you have to do your own fundraising. This has left us behind. We can’t fund what international institutions can, not until we have government buy-in. You don’t get tax rebates on museum donations, which are necessary — not only for new projects, but [also] for infrastructure. I mean, how do you host important shows when gallery walls are crumbling?”

Ntombela believes in the investment of time. Next up for her is an exhibition celebrating 21 years of the Artist Proof Studio, featuring diverse curatorial voices.

See more young curator profiles here.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Robyn Sassen
Robyn Sassen
A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and artslink.co.za and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Family wants clarity on SANDF soldier killed in friendly fire...

Corporal Simanga Khuselo join the peacekeeping mission in the DRC to save money to build his family a home

SA soldiers have been fighting in a distant land for...

Troops were sent to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001 as part of the UN peacekeeping mission that became an offensive against rebels

More top stories

Family wants clarity on SANDF soldier killed in friendly fire...

Corporal Simanga Khuselo join the peacekeeping mission in the DRC to save money to build his family a home

SA soldiers have been fighting in a distant land for...

Troops were sent to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001 as part of the UN peacekeeping mission that became an offensive against rebels

UK red list will hit SA tourism hard

More than 430 000 British tourists visited South Africa in 2019 but this dropped by 97% last year because of Covid-19

Shoprite among firms that failed in Africa, Europe, Australia

Corporate South Africa is feeling the Covid-19 pinch. But is there space for growth domestically?
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×