/ 28 November 2013

Treasured past secures ?a priceless future

Treasured Past Secures ?a Priceless Future

THING OF BEAUTY wits history of art portfolio

The elegant grey wooden box contains a small universe of artistic beauty. It houses the first Wits History of Art portfolio, print works by five artists – Joni Brenner, David Koloane, Walter Oltmann, Serge-Alain Nitekega and Dorothea Kreutzfeldt. 

Each work is recognisably part of the distinctive oeuvre of each of these artists and yet taken together the prints speak a similar dialect, playing with ideas about structure and what holds things together. 

The portfolio is an edition of 25 and, apart from the box housing the five prints, it contains within it the future of a discipline. Because the University of the Witwatersrand has set its vision on being a postgraduate-intensive institution by 2022 (so that 50% of the student body is comprised of postgraduates by then), the art history department is focused on ensuring the future of research. 

Rory Bester, who heads the department, says that to achieve the university's goal – and to ensure that the research the students provide is rich – they need to attract students with bursaries that pay for their studies as well as some aspects of their research. 

Basically it's a survival strategy. But in the context of bringing academia together with fund-raising work it is the perfect combination, in which everybody wins, especially those who buy the portfolio. 

Each of the artists has a relationship with the university. Brenner, Oltmann and Kreutzfeldt are on the staff, Koloane is an honorary graduate and Nitekega is a graduate. The works aim a swift kick at the lazy but persistent idea that those who can't do, teach. 

Although valuable and good value – each print would usually command a higher market value than the R21?500 (excluding VAT) price being asked for the entire portfolio – there is the added value that the sale of these artworks will secure teaching, learning and research. 

Brenner's Everyone in the World (2013) is a softly hand-coloured etching of a human skull and Koloane's Baggage (2013), with its definite and deliberate dark markings, conveys the motion that underpins city life and the transport of goods, baggage and lives, his nest of scratches creating a focal point on the striped "made in China" carrier bag on the back of the person in the image. 

Oltmann's Sleeping Child appears to float in a delicate web and Nitekega's Manouevre: Studio Study plays with the ways in which his structural sculptural work forces the viewer to navigate around the artwork by climbing over and through it, disrupting the traditional way of surveying an artwork from afar. 

Kreutzfeldt's Jacked Up Occasionally Limewashed House plays with order and the chaos of geometry and design. 

The monetary value of the project is half a million rands, which will ensure the department's future to teach with the eventual aim of a R22-million endowment by 2022. 

"The funds will support the students who are going to lead the way we think about art and about heritage," Bester says. Now that's something worth hanging on anyone's wall. 

Rory Bester can be contacted at [email protected]