Objects in the Tide of Time

  • Posted: Sep 10, 2013

Objectsin the Tide of Time

The storerooms of the Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG) hold many fine treasures seldom on display because of the acute space constraints of the present building, which was first opened 83 years ago.

The new exhibition, Objects in the Tide of Time,sheds new light on some of these seldom-seen pieces.

Art museums all around the world face similar challenges. Art collections are often likened to an iceberg floating in deep waters, subject to changing currents, with less than ten percent of its mass visible above the surface at any time. Similarly, the collection in any museum is only partially visible; most of it remaining unseen in safe, climate-controlled storage. 

While thematic exhibitions can often make unseen objects temporarily visible, some can remain consistently unseen for many years. Concealed along with them is the history and the much larger picture of the museum’s shifting aspirations and collecting priorities over the years. The prized museum acquisitions of the past may well not appeal to present-day tastes or even relate to our ongoing self-definition in the political present. With the passage of time, what once seemed “new” and fresh in contemporary art inevitably becomes “period”, and old-fashioned. Such objects, however, remain the material embodiments of the cultural priorities and ideas of their time.

A new exhibition of selections from the ISANG collection, spread over five rooms, celebrates the collection’s depth and variety. Amassed over the past 140 years, the collection reflects its genesis as a colonial concept transplanted on the tip of Africa, yet also points toward the growth and strength of a new and diverse South African and African visual arts identity in the post-colonial present.Objects in the Tide of Time attempts to give many long-unseen acquisitions an airing, and foregrounds new, exciting contemporary examples, which, for various reasons, have not yet been displayed.

The theme of “history” itself is reflected in a number of important works on the exhibition, such as Penny Siopis’ large painting Piling Wreckage upon Wreckage (1989) or Helmut Starcke’s The Muse of History (2001). The title of the Siopis work makes direct reference to the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s famous conception of the nature of history, which he wrote after seeing an image of an angel painted by the German artist Paul Klee: The face of the Angel of History is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurling it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, to awaken the dead, and make whole again what has been smashed. But a violent storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the Angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of wreckage before him grows ever skyward. The storm is what we call “progress”.

The “wreckage” that Benjamin speaks of consists of surviving objects and fragments retrieved from the tide of time, and the efforts of the angel in this piece of writing are analogous to the role played by museums in collecting, restoring and preserving. Indian miniatures, Japanese prints, Peruvian ceramics dating back to 600AD; Turkish (Iznik) ceramics from the 16th century, and other surprising but seldom-seen treasures are but some of the surprising items now on view. Also on display are items from the Gallery’s study collections, such as Dorothy Kay’s original studio glue-pot, Gerard Sekoto’s palette, and rare historical photographs. The exhibition offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of collecting at the Gallery, and contradicts some commonly-held assumptions about that same history.

The exhibition runs at the Iziko South African National Gallery, through March 31 2014. For more information and the fascinating stories behind some of the works on display please contact the exhibition’s curator Hayden Proud at hproud@iziko.org.za


Image caption

Top row, L to R:

Unknown Indian Miniaturist, c. 1650. Ladies by a Well with a Man on Horseback, gouache and gilt on paper.

Unknown Kota Artist (Gabon), c.1950. Mbulu Ngulu (Reliquary figure). Copper and brass, wood and pigments.

Alan Davie (born 1920)(Scottish). Romance for Flute and Glass (detail). 1963. Oil on canvas.


Bottom row, L to R:

Unknown Turkish Ceramist, c. 1580. Iznik Dish with Tulips and Carnations. Ceramic, frit-ware, polychrome under-glaze and over-glaze.

Unknown Flemish sculptor, late 1400s. The Deposition of Christ from the Cross. Alabaster with carved and gilded wooden frame.

Unknown Potter from Nazca, Peru, c. 600 AD. Bowl, low-fired ceramic decorated with clay slip.

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