South African art yearns for caring conservators

Standard Bank Art Gallery’s head curator Dr Same Mdluli walked audiences through a history of black modernist art at the A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African artists (1970-1990) exhibition recently. She explained that an important, but overlooked, part of this is the preservation and maintenance of its artworks.

It was this nugget that stayed with me after I left the gallery. I remember, when I was little, my grandfather finding odd bits of wood and metal to make frames for people who wanted a beloved piece of art (Princess Diana and Lord Shiva featured strongly) reframed. I was fascinated by his care for these objects, and that love of restoring old things was passed on to me.

“I think there is a narrowness that is kind of being preached at institutions, that yes, you study fine arts so you’re going to be a fine artist. The one thing that this exhibition has highlighted is around conservation and restoration, which is a whole other career,” Mdluli told Londiwe Dlomo from The Sowetan.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, she explained that some works from the University of Fort Hare’s archive needed to be reframed and although the collection was maintained to the highest standards, the work of conservation is such that it requires preventative maintenance. She said that some ceramic works in the university’s collection were too fragile to be transported to Johannesburg for the exhibition.

“Conservation work [and archiving] is a consistent activity that requires constant discipline and attention. This is, of course, guided and determined by several factors including: infrastructural, administrative, economic and, most importantly, environmental,” Mdluli said.

Within gallery, art collection and museum spaces, conservators and restorers facilitate the interactions and feelings we have towards objects of cultural, aesthetic and historical importance.

So, when laser and X-radiography technologies are applied to a painting and hidden figures invisible to the eye are uncovered — that’s conservation in practice.

“My favourite part is seeing an artwork that’s been covered in old varnish and dirt come back to life. Removing the acidity from a discoloured work on paper, seeing the work brighten and removing yellowed varnish from a painting, seeing the true original colours underneath is a great feeling,” said Ernest Bellingan Scott, a Johannesburg-based private art restorer who has over 20 years’ experience in fine art restoration and conservation.

In South Africa, the work of carrying artistic objects from one generation to the next generation falls on a small pool of private and public conservators and restorers, a fact Mdluli alluded to in the walkabout.

Isabelle McGinn, museum conservator and academic at the University of Pretoria (UP), noted in her paper Conservation Conversations: Moving towards Training for Tangible Heritage Conservation at the University of Pretoria, that “the state of conservation in South African museums and other heritage repositories are in a state of crisis, which can partly be ascribed to a lack of professionally trained conservators, and a lack of university qualifications in the field of conservation”.

Stepping into the vacuum of technical and long-term conservation training is the South African Institute for Heritage Science and Conservation. Since 2018, it has offered a postgraduate conservation course: technical conservation studies, which is one of the first practical, science-led conservation qualifications not housed under the humanities. UP recently started a master’s in tangible heritage conservation and many universities offer degrees and diplomas in museum science, curatorship and related disciplines.

The South African National Gallery in Cape Town also has been able to make “huge advances” in painting conservation after receiving funding for scientific equipment, says the gallery’s Hayden Proud.

South Africa has some of the oldest cultural objects and artworks in the world and continues to produce outstanding contemporary artists. We live in a culturally rich space, yet most of the time our preservation of it is poor. We should give it the care it deserves so that future generations can appreciate the works of those who came before.

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Youlendree Appasamy
Youlendree Appasamy
Youlendree Appasamy is a freelance writer and journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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