The power and potential of the work we do

Hello everyone, I’m Storm Janse Van Rensburg, Senior Curator at Zeitz MOCAA

As I am writing this, South Africa has been 94 days in lockdown. I cannot recall when last I have been in one place for more than three months in a row. Time has gone by incredibly fast and excruciating slowly. I am not able to see or touch or hug those that I am the closest to, but I also feel deeply connected to friends and colleagues that live elsewhere as we virtually meet, more so than before.

Some proximities, the intangible ones, are pronounced while others, the intimate ones, feel distant, sometimes painfully so.

We live in a time of paradoxes, that have deepened fault lines in our societies, and made them even harsher. As I am locked in my small, safe, secure bubble, the turmoil wrecked by the Covid-19 pandemic is taking its excruciating toll outside, both in terms of a terrible human loss, but also as economies at home and around the world are straining.

At the onset of the pandemic, there was something in me that was hoping and thinking that perhaps, as we all around the globe navigate the same crisis, collectively we could reach for that reset button and start working on a just and equitable world. But it is clear, that any alternative will take time, setbacks will occur, and strategies will have to be realigned.

Becoming the institution we want to be

After temporarily closing the doors of Zeitz MOCAA to the public in March this year, we have not stopped working, thinking, talking, and connecting (virtually). We are taking the time given to us to do a deep interrogation of the work we do, to understand better what kind of institution we want to be, and how we will achieve this. Our challenges, as a new institution, remain, and have starkly sharpened as we face loss of income, and a radically changing social and economic environment.

I am part of a youthful, committed, thoughtful and reflexive curatorial faculty at Zeitz MOCAA, which comprises members of our education, curatorial, exhibitions’ management, collections’ management, and front of house departments.

In April we embarked on individual research projects to allow us to collectively navigate some of our pressing concerns.

Each member of the team was invited to develop a research question and given three weeks to do their research. Fifteen individual, full presentations to the group followed, presented over two weeks, with case studies and references as a way for us to rethink, and improve on the way we work. A looking inward and outward was encouraged.
Julia Kabat, our Exhibitions’ Manager asked: “How does a developing institution create a strategy of sustainability in exhibition-making?” Our exhibitions at Zeitz MOCAA are some of the most ambitious in South Africa, if not the continent, and have included remarkable feats, including William Kentridge’s largest retrospective to date, as well as the monumental new commission of Abdoulaye Konaté, which adorns the museum’s atrium. Julia proposed a roadmap for a way of working that is not only more considered, but also considerate and responsible.

Liesl Hartman, Head of the Centre for Art Education, proposed a timely rethink of our work with youth and adults in an era of social distancing and asked: “How do we take our content into communities considering the following: different modes and forms of physical engagement and extending our digital programming?” The call has been taken to heed, and our digital educational offer has been introduced, with Liesl leading the way.

The place of the museum in context

The way in which we mediate our exhibitions and programming came into focus with a contribution by Michael Jacobs, one of our inimitable gallery guides, who asked: “How does/can oral literature exist within African contemporary art institutions and museums?”
In this presentation, as well as in others, the issue of multiple language offerings featured strongly, as we debate the didactic and accessibility tools available to our public. It is an area we have identified that needs much and urgent further work.

Several questions also probed, critically, the place of the museum within larger contexts. Phokeng Setai, Research Assistant asked: “How does the museum (Zeitz MOCAA) re-inscribe Africa into a discourse, but without integrating it within a framework that did not have space for thinking about it?” This question pivots to a more critical engagement with the structural and systemic issues related to the museum as a construct.

Sakhi Gcina, Project Content Coordinator asked: “How can the (Zeitz MOCAA) museum library function as an open platform and resource on study of curatorial research methodologies, museum practice and objects’ historical, political, social, cultural contexts for museum publics?” A pertinent question, as we as an institution at the start of our journey, navigate our processes of historicization and establishing an archive.

Tammy Langtry, Curatorial Assistant, asked: “How can the exhibitions produced by the museum function as a communication network to research, experiment and galvanize?” This question interrogated our most visible form or ‘output’ at the museum, and focused on exhibition-making as a tool and language, and the responsibilities that come with it. Our relationship to objects, its interpretation, and the structures that govern this relationship came under scrutiny and discussion.

In a similar manner, Tandazani Dhlakama, Assistant Curator, asked: “How does the museum become a receptacle of African knowledge production, a platform for ideas and archives through publishing?” As Zeitz MOCAA amped up its publishing for each exhibition, it is also timely for us to start developing policies that will guide us to develop new platforms for the development and promotion of discourses related to not only our work, but also the furthering of contemporary art of the continent and its diaspora.

Getting ready to gather again

The critical question, “How can a museum be more inclusive?” posed by Mzi Cele, Assistant Registrar, remains an urgent aspect of our work at Zeitz MOCAA. Our work is an essential part of our commitment to the citizens of the city of Cape Town. In the coming months, we will roll out an ambitious and radical shift in how we approach inclusivity, as we are working on new projects and the positioning of the museum as a real home for art and artists.

As I have personally searched for clarity on my own work as a museum professional and cultural worker, and the impact that museums and the contemporary art sector could have on our world, the last three months have taught me the power and potential of the work we do, and the change we can, and have a responsibility to effect.

As we get ready to commune and gather again, we will not let this temporary suspension be in vain. We will use it to plan, to plot and build capacity. We will see each other again soon, to celebrate, to talk, to see and to experience. And yes, let’s also plan to dance.