The custodian: Khwezi Gule
Chief Curator at the Johannesburg Art Gallery
Writer, arts activist and former chief curator at the Soweto Museums for seven years, Khwezi Gule, returned to the Johannesburg Art Gallery in December 2017 as its chief curator. He had previously been its curator of contemporary collections.
In the intervening seven years, the art world has changed, with less funding for public institutions and the commercial side of things ascending to new heights.
Gule is clear in his beliefs about the multiple roles of artworks and public institutions. A key thought occupying his mind these days is how to make the Johannesburg Art Gallery an institution that is accountable to its heterogenous constituency, while forging a meaningful partnership with its immediate environment of Joubert Park.
Work and meaning
A galvaniser and team player, Gule has been part of numerous collectives such as 3rd Eye Vision, Dead Revolutionaries Club and art scholar collective Black Mark.
As a part of Black Mark, Gule has participated in initiatives that seek to highlight the role of black artists and cultural producers who have been marginalised by hegemonic histories.
He has also published widely, ruminating on the meaning of public art in publications such as The Con and writing about the visuals of the anti-apartheid struggle in the mammoth 2013 exhibition The Rise and Fall of Apartheid.
As the chief curator to as historic an institution as the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Gule has been careful not to pander to expectations. “People have lofty ideas of what I am expected to do but my view is to pose the question, ‘What type of institution do the people expect?’ ”
“To simply return it to its former glory would be a mistake; we don’t want to go there because it is a fraught space. It is fraught with issues of exclusion and elitism, so we cannot return,” he says. “We tend to model ourselves around certain European institutions but you find that even those institutions are having an identity crisis because they are having to re-evaluate what it means to be a modern and contemporary art museum in this current environment.”
He adds: “We have to interrogate those expectations and that is not saying that I am abdicating my responsibility to those people, but certain expectations are retrogressive. But then we also have to imagine what a progressive agenda would be.
“Right now South Africa finds itself in a very interesting position, in which we are not only contesting the means of life but also what values we are supposed to embody. The most difficult thing is the crisis of identity we are facing. The contestation is not just about material value, it’s about who we are as a people. So in the same way an institution like us cannot move from those contestations. This is why critical thinking becomes absolutely central to our journey, and art is one of those things in society that can be a catalyst for these kinds of questions.”