Love as a bridge to art of the past

Gabi Ngcobo and Yvette Mutumba spent two years curating art work for A Labour Of Love, a group exhibition being showcased in the Johannesburg Art Gallery (Wolfgang Günzel)

Gabi Ngcobo and Yvette Mutumba spent two years curating art work for A Labour Of Love, a group exhibition being showcased in the Johannesburg Art Gallery (Wolfgang Günzel)

Bondage. Perversion. Recognition. Retreat. These are among the forms in which love greets us as we enter the Johannesburg Art Gallery. We are here for A Labour of Love, a group exhibition conceived, curated and two years in the making by curators Gabi Ngcobo and Yvette Mutumba.

It takes no more than a single breath — involuntarily drawn — to absorb the quiet fullness of the exhibition’s entrance hall, to sense that something other than a group show is underway.

A row of framed relief prints sits not fixed, but hinged to a wall. They sway imperceptibly like overembellished window shutters, with their carbon paper anatomy just visible in the afternoon light. Struck with a sense of the mortality of paper, of memory, it becomes clear to the observer: we are in the heart of a resurrection.

“You must understand how we were rendered stark naked by the previous government,” says artist Charles Sokhaya Nkosi in his opening address to a full gallery of art labourers and lovers at the exhibition’s Sunday-afternoon opening. “Our artistic expression meant nothing to them. To them we were nobodies. But today, thanks must go to the curators of A Labour of Love for making this heritage a touchable reality.”

Standing at the foot of a floor-to-ceiling printed receipt that details the 1986 sale of 80 original pieces by the late Namibian-born artist John Muafangejo to one Hans Blum of the German mission in South Africa for just over R1 200, it is both easy and jarring to see what Nkosi means by a “touchable” heritage.

The life-sized receipt is painted directly on to the gallery wall among a roomful of Muafangejo’s prints, leaving us unable to divorce the work of an artist known as a “prolific chronicler of historical narratives” from the question of the value of the black artist’s body of work in an economy that would sooner pillage African art than pay for it.

Who is Hans Blum? Why did he buy so many of Muafangejo’s artworks? Why did he pay so little? Did he pay too little? What was the German mission doing buying art during a state of emergency? These are some of the questions that sit with us as we move through the exhibition.

From Muafangejo’s prints depicting the birth of organised religion through colonial and missionary interactions to candid photographs taken by Blum as he was collecting art and MA candidate Michelle Monareng’s ongoing exploration of her grandfather’s records of the German mission’s role in land dispossession,  the answers become messier.

A Labour of Love exhibition draws on the 600 original artworks acquired by Blum on behalf of Germany’s Weltkulturen Museum in 1986. These pieces — all produced by black artists between the late 1960s and mid-1980s — form a core part of the German museum’s contemporary African art collection but have not been exhibited in South Africa until now.

Artists included in this archive are Azaria Mbatha, Sam Nhlengethwa, David Koloane, the late Dan Rakgoathe, Peter Clarke and George Msimang. They were “nobodies” in the eyes of the apartheid government and prevailing cultural institutions of the time.

The show presents 150 of these 600 works alongside newer pieces made in response by Wits School of Arts graduates Monareng, Matshelane Xhakaza, Nathaniel Sheppard and Chad Cordeiro. Since 2014, they have been working on the exhibition with co-curator Ngcobo in an exercise of reappraisal and response to the works and their hidden histories.

There are themes that appear in the 1986 print collection that re-emerge in 2014, such as the “idea of space and access to space”, says Sheppard. This gives weight to the idea of a “larger conversation we are all just joining”, he adds.

The opportunity to curate this exhibition emerged when, in 2014, Ngcobo was invited to deliver a talk at the Weltkulturen Museum about her artistic practice — one that is primarily concerned with history and its mechanics. After she was invited to visit the museum’s storage facility with its then curator, Mutumba, the two began to think seriously about how to revisit the large volume of South African art — and history — to which they had been given access.

“There were interesting gaps in the collection and conversations that were not possible when [the pieces] were collected in the 1980s,” Ngcobo says about the exercise of reappraisal.

“The gap in female artists and sexuality in the collection, for example, is true to the times,” she says. “I wanted to work with these gaps. The concept of A Labour of Love was borne out of an idea of resurrecting a language … [and of] dealing with ghosts of the past.”

An educator and facilitator at heart, Ngcobo brought students into the process from the project’s inception. “I thought that this could be interesting to address together with students — students who were not born at the time of the collection. The collection had never been shown in their lifetime, until now, yet it has existed in Germany for over 20 years,” she says.

How these works came to exist in the archives of a Frankfurt institution in the first place is — as the opening statement of the exhibition suggests — the product of multiple loves: “love as a political act”, “love as bondage” and “love as a bridge”.

Blum — the exhibition’s omnipresent collector — served as a pastor with the German mission in South Africa from 1964. He spent time at the mission-sponsored Rorke’s Drift school — an arts and culture centre in KwaZulu-Natal dedicated to educating young black artists — and he soon began to build up a private collection consisting mostly of black South African works. 

What we do know is that he would exhibit the acquired works on his return trips to Germany, and one such exhibit caught the eye of Josef Franz Thiel — director of the Weltkulturen Museum — in about 1974. Building on the zeal of the museum’s African collection curator, Johanna Agthe, to acquire contemporary work and turn the museum into a safe house of sorts for marginalised voices, Thiel commissioned Blum in 1986 to acquire 600 contemporary artworks from South Africa.

The timing could not have been incidental. A state of emergency had been declared in South Africa a year earlier and civil war looked imminent. The artworks acquired by Blum served as messages of struggle in a climate where the apartheid government violently clamped down on all modes of black expression. This is an activism few, if any, South Africans outside the art world may know of — until now.

The questions surrounding Blum’s and the Weltkulturen Museum’s intentions rise and fall as the exhibition serves up photographs of German missionary life in rural South Africa — prints depicting a bittersweet relationship between the artists and their new Christianity and memoirs of African mysticism.

These are questions that the students involved in A Labour of Love’s development first met with scepticism and, later, with nuance.

“We questioned if this was just another white man from Europe buying black art for next to nothing — as was the common practice among European and North American art collectors,” says Cordeiro.

But they learned that Blum made a personal decision to start buying from black artists at a time when African art — let alone African printmaking — was not considered “serious art”, and that he paid the artists their quoted prices. It appears that Blum had acquired the reputation among artists of being “Father Christmas” during his mid-1980s commission.

Acknowledging the complexity of the artworks’ German ownership, A Labour of Love resurrects a nonlinear story of small acts of dissidence — both by the collector and by the artists in their messages of love in a time of lived struggle.

This nuance is, perhaps, what gives the exhibition its critical relevance. “[The real story] is in the receipts we have, the photographs the collector took … the conversations he had with artists then and the conversations we had more recently,” says Ngcobo.

“Here, we have a cross-generational conversation happening — without [which] we’re just spinning in a historical vacuum.”

A Labour of Love runs until November 5 at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in Joubert Park, Johannesburg. Entrance is free

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