Riason Naidoo, director of Iziko South African National Gallery, talks to Bronwyn Law-Viljoen about life before taking up his job in Cape Town, reading Fanon for the first time, Mali, art education and why parliamentarians don’t visit his museum
Riason Naidoo leads a press conference in his corner office, Cape Town, April 15, 2010
BLV: I thought I
would start with a personal question, and ask you about the trajectory of your
work that has led to your being the Director of Iziko South African National
RN: Where to
start? I had in intense interest in art from a very young age and studied it
till matric at school, which was unusual, since very few Indian public schools
in the townships in the 1980s offered art at all. After school I first started
studying towards architecture but I decided to pack it in and follow my heart.
So after a gap year working in Durban and backpacking around Europe I enrolled
for a degree in Fine Art at Wits in 1992. I was curious to travel and explore
and to have a broad range of experiences in the art world.
graduating I started out working at the Durban Art Gallery in charge of art
education — giving guided tours, working with school groups, university
students, etc. I also went on a scholarship to the University of Baroda, an art
school in India in 1997. It was on my return to the gallery in 1998 that I
first met photographer Ranjith Kally, who came to the gallery to take a photo
for a local newspaper. The relevance of that meeting with Kally will emerge
the Durban Art Gallery I taught history of art, drawing and painting in the
Department of Architecture at Wits. I thoroughly enjoyed the engagement with
students, and in the process I learnt a lot myself. I left for France on a
scholarship in 2001 where I spent my time at the Museum of Contemporary Art of
Bordeaux. While in France I was contacted by the French Institute of South
Africa (IFAS) in Johannesburg to work for them.
my return to Johannesburg at IFAS one of the main projects I was to work on was
a project with Ernest Pignon-Ernest, one of the curators of the UNESCO
exhibition Art Against Apartheid. I also worked with musicians, dance and
theatre companies, filmmakers from France and the broader francophone world. This exposed me to artistic possibilities across genres and I also became
fluent in French, which prepared me for my next project working in Mali, West
I became involved in the South Africa-Mali Project: Timbuktu Manuscripts as director from 2003-2009 and it was a very productive period for me. It involved working with
a public archive of 30, 000 Arabic manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mali dating from
the thirteenth century until the nineteenth. It consisted of a few exhibitions
of the manuscripts in South Africa, research projects into the contents of the
manuscripts, and the design and construction of a new museum to house the
manuscripts in Timbuktu. It was a very high-profile project and I was working directly with the Presidencies and with the Arts and Culture departments of
both Mali and South Africa. And it was a very successful project.
Riason Naidoo, left, with Roger van Wyk at the Dada South? press conference, Cape Town, December 12, 2009
At the same time as the Timbuktu project I was doing my MA in Fine Arts and my intention was to
go back to making art, but I got a little sidetracked. Ranjith Kally’sphotographs that he showed me back in 1998 made me think about the fact that
there is still so much work to do in this country in uncovering the suppressed
histories and in getting recognition to an older generation of artists and
photographers that have for too long been overlooked. And that became a much
bigger project than my own personal one of making art.
I thought of how I could contribute to the redress of this history from my own personal experience and skills?
So I showed Kally’s photos to some galleries and in 2004. I curated Ranjith Kally’s first solo exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. Kally was 79 years old at the time and had been working as a professional photographer for almost 60 years. The commercial exhibition was followed by a large retrospective at the Durban Art Gallery.
It later travelled to the Bamako Photo Biennale in Mali in 2005, where he received a lifetime achievement award from an international jury − none of whom had heard of Ranjith Kally before. The show then travelled to the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona, to the Kunsthalle in Vienna, and to Espace Jeumon in the Réunion Islands. People started to acknowledge Ranjith Kally and his work after
those exhibitions — and he’s now represented in the major public art
collections around the country.
Then one day, quite by accident, I came across some copies of DRUM magazine from 1955 as I was browsing through old journals in the basement of the Africana library at Wits University. As I continued to page through the yellowed pages of the magazine, edition after edition, month after month, another thread emerged: intimate stories of ‘Indian’ life illustrated
with exquisite photographs unlike anything I had encountered before.
The Indian In Drum Cover, edited by Riason Naidoo (Bell-Roberts, 2009) ISBN 978-0-9814200-0-4 The photos in these editions of DRUM evoked thekind of stories that I had heard so much of from my parents. Here was a legendary archive of images and texts that spoke of other ‘Indian’ identities which no one had cared to mention before. Inspired by the need to tell these stories as an alternative to the ‘official’ versions
produced by the state I set about working on the DRUM archives.
I read through all the monthly editions from the
1950s and went through approximately half a million negatives from the decade
which resulted in the exhibition and book entitled The Indian in DRUM Magazine in the 1950s. The public responded very enthusiastically when it was exhibited in Durban and Johannesburg. It will be
shown in Cape Town in 2011.
I was engaged in all of this at the same time as the Timbuktu Manuscripts project so it was an extremely busy period for me. The Timbuktu Manuscripts project was also coming
to an end after the Presidential inauguration in January 2009 and it was at
this point that I decided to interview for the job at the National Gallery. The
timing was good.
BLV: What teachers influenced you or were important to you?
RN: Well firstly, the teachers at secondary and high school were quite encouraging. There was an art teacher in Woodhurst in Chatsworth called ‘Lucky’ and quite a talented painter called Brijmohan at Burnwood High School in Sydenham. Most of the art
teachers came from the Teacher Training Colleges. He unfortunately passed away
At Wits, I had the likes of Karel Nel, Clive van den Berg, Walter Oltman, Peter Schutz, Alan
Crump and Penny Siopis and for a short while Pitika Ntuli. Colin Richards
taught a course on postcolonial theory, which really got my attention. This was
back in 1995. When I first read Frantz Fanon I couldn’t put it down because it related so directly to our experience and it also inspired me in my own creative
One of the most rewarding moments was in my final year assessment when all of the cleaners in the Fine Art department came up to me and congratulated me on my work — I was
really moved by that. That body of work spoke of about my own experiences of
growing up in Chatsworth, articulating a working class Indian culture,
reflecting on that experience, which no-one had really touched on before. Some
of those paintings (enamel paint on pegboard) are in the permanent collections
of the Pretoria Art Museum and the Durban Art Gallery, among others.
Later while at IFAS,
I learnt a lot working closely with Ernest Pignon-Ernest, who draws in a very
classical style – almost Renaissance – but intervenes in the public space commenting
on social issues in a very poetic way. We worked on a project entitled Soweto-Warwick on the theme of AIDS,
which took place in Warwick Junction in Durban and Kliptown in Johannesburg in
2002. I learnt a lot working closely with an artist of that calibre.
BLV: What do you think the ongoing role of national galleries is, not only in South Africa but also internationally? You have had some experience in Europe and Asia, and elsewhere in Africa — what is the status of national museums on the rest of the Continent? How is the way we think about museums here, in the rest of Africa and in Europe and North America changing? Where is the museum, and are we in
South Africa at the same place as other countries?
RN: Those are very varied and loaded questions, which I will try to respond to best I can. Firstly, the state of museums in Africa is not healthy. Bamako Photo or Rencontres des Photographes Africaine is held at the Musée Nationale du Bamako, which is a wonderfully designed
architectural space. But even during the Photo Biennale the visitors are mainly foreigners — they have a real problem making the museum local and encouraging
The fundamental problem, and this is also complex one, is a question of art education in schools. The question that follows in Africa is whose art are we talking about — what canon are we using? There is a difficulty here in our own country and also in Mali and other countries on the continent, of prioritising the arts. Or
at least of giving it equal status as other fields of study at a school level,
because it is at that level that we start to build an interest and build new
I think there is a need to grow new art museum audiences through art education, at a very young
age, and to sustain that. Compare this to a country like France, for example,
where going to an art museum is as common as going to the movies.
SANG was closed for six weeks for preparation of 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective. Photo: Carina Beyer, Iziko Museums
The fundamental problem is education. To illustrate my example, let me pose the question of what percentage of our parliamentarians visit the National Gallery? We know the answer to that. The question is why is the number so low? We know that historically there was no art taught in
black schools and I don’t think that has been addressed yet. For me the contemporary art museum locally can also become a site for other activities.
Given the prime location of the National Gallery in the gardens we have the
potential to draw in broader cultural audiences for music and dance and even be
a consistent site of intellectual debate via a dynamic cultural events
BLV: What programmes or plans does the National Gallery have to address that particular problem?
RN: Well, I think the recent exhibition (1910-2010: From
Pierneef to Gugulective) started to address some of the problems. It was
not just an exhibition that we put up — it was an opportunity to tie in a new
vision for the gallery with the exhibition. For example how do we get audiences
who don’t come to the National Gallery to see their own histories and by
implication themselves reflected in the space?
We also know
that different ideologies affect how art is collected and what exhibitions go
on display. So I expected that there would be gaps in the National Gallery collection. And so there was a drive to go out and look at other collections
around the country, which yielded a number of pleasant surprises. I had worked
at the Durban Art Gallery so I was familiar with some of the collection there,
and I had been a regular visitor at JAG during the seventeen years I lived in
Johannesburg, so I knew some of their collection. But to go through the
storerooms at the JAG, Tatham Art Gallery and Pretoria Art Museum was revealing
in the story of how art was collected around the country.
Simon Mnguni, Portrait of a Zulu Induna, undated, watercolour and black ink on paper. The Campbell Smith Collection
from the UKZN Killy Campbell collection; Richard Baholo from the JAG
collection; Bongi Dhlomo’s abstract painting from the Standard Bank Collection;
Harold Strachan’s Nature Morte from
the Durban Art Gallery — these were unexpected. Most of the collections were
strong in collecting artists from their cities and provinces, as maybe one
would expect. I travelled around with Joe Dolby who has been a curator at the
National Gallery for many years, and he was amazed by what we found in KwaZulu
But if we say
that we are the National Gallery, then the next question is how representative
is our collection of the nation’s art? I wanted to move away from a kind of
geographic parochialism in a show that we could say was truly representative of
artists and works from around the country, celebrated the richness and
diversity on offer, while engaging with the history of the country over this
period. So it was not simply about raising the National Gallery flag, but about
meaningfully and sincerely working with other museum collections and learning
from them and showing the gaps in our own collection, for the benefit of
visitors, for research, for students and learners.
Installation view showing, at rear, Manfred Zylla’s Interaction series at the Community Arts Centre (1982), with sculptures by Noria Mabasa and Claudette Shreuders at front. Photo Carina Beyer, Iziko Museums
Apart from the
chronology there are many smaller themes in the show, but one of the main
intentions was that someone walking through the gallery space would get an idea
of who the important artists are, what some of the iconic works are, that a
visitor would get to see works from around the country, and would also get a
sense of place via the history, which in my mind is one of our strongest
themes. Also, how do we speak about the diversity of cultures through aesthetics
in South Africa, about artists from different communities, about art production
through formal and informal schools and where do these all fit in to the larger
narrative of what we call South African art?
Technicians adjust the lighting while Riason Naidoo inspects the artwork, Cape Town, April 15, 2010
BLV: Can you discuss the way in which the show was curated and hung? This was the one thing that drew sharp criticism, quite apart from the criticism of the ideas or the perceived ideas of the
RN: Well firstly, it was an adventure! It’s important to note that when I arrived at the National Gallery what was on the National Gallery schedule were football-related exhibitions, which I thought was inappropriate. I thought that
if we expected visitors both foreign and local to Cape Town over the World Cup,
let’s use the opportunity to give an overview of what we’re about.
If I was a visitor to a country I would want to get a glimpse of that country’s art — to
see how that political and social context and history had informed the work
When we look at the art of the Renaissance today we can see the influence of the church and the state on art produced during that era. On a recent visit to Leipzig in the former East Germany, I visited the art museum there and it was a treat to see the art produced during the time of the GDR. At the National Gallery we had numerous requests to show high profile foreign western artists. This didn’t seem appropriate to me.
Historically we have been under the radar internationally, and so this was an opportunity to focus on ourselves, to reflect on our art. This was the first shift that had to be made towards the exhibition. I felt it was the right way to go. On the one hand the exhibition had a chronological and thematic grand structure.
For instance the rooms were allocated according to themes such as: 1910-1930, early modernism from 1930-1960 and including DRUM magazine, Polly Street and Rorkes
Drift, Abstraction, Resistance Art, and half the gallery was allocated to art
from 1990-2010, including a room dedicated to the US exhibition, curated by Simon Njami and Bettina Malcolmess, which
formed part of the larger exhibition.
Reflections on artists in exile, voting for the first time and the inauguration in 1994, the TRC, initiation rites, influences after colonial Dutch masters, the influence of San art, landscape, afternoon tea, depictions of township life, humour, the formation of a new national identity, representation and reflections of Africa, romance and sexual politics, domesticity, AIDS, and identity politics give some idea of the
sub themes that were operating in this latter half, which were not prescribed,
rather, they emerged from the selected works themselves. So while we have a broad chronology and the major themes (mentioned earlier) there were also other intentions in the curation. I did not want it to be a boring staid chronology. There’s no fun in that!
What is very important (this was a question in my own mind) was that if you ask a diverse group of South Africans about the history
of this country you are likely to get many, different versions. I wanted to put
those different responses next to each other, to juxtapose them, to put them in
conversation with each other.
Anton Momberg’s maquette of Gandhi adjacent J.H. Pierneef’s Union Buildings (1938)
you’ve got Pierneef’s painting Union
Buildings (1938) and Willie Bester’s Bench
after the 1913 Land Act (1995) directly opposite each other. You also have
the Anton Momberg’s maquette of Gandhi in close proximity to the Pierneef.
Gandhi lived in the country for twenty-one years from 1893-1914, at the same
time as the formation of the Union, so this is a direct and relevant connection
to the Union Buildings and the British history in the country.
The intention is
not to obliterate the Pierneefs or Afrikaner history, or the Union, or British
colonialism — we all acknowledge these things, they are part of our history.
But what else was happening? So apart
from the Pierneefs and Sterns interpreting South African landscapes, how did
black artists such as the Moses Tladis and the Jabulani Ntulis differ in
representing the landscapes, their own environments and their own people? How
does their work differ in the broader discussion on the representation of
How do the
ethnographic and scientific photographic studies of Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin
differ to these portraits by Gerard Bhengu and Simon Nguni? And how do these
relate to the emergence of black photographers working for DRUM magazine in the
1950s, whom for the first time give insight into intimate instances of black
urban life. That was definitely a strategy on my part, so that someone walking
through a room gets different takes, multiple voices, rather than a master
connections sprang up that I could not resist. In another instance the hanging
of Pierneef’s Karibib (1924) next to
Wayne Barker’s Blue Colonies (1995),
a parody of Pierneef, is easy to see when these works are next to each other.
It was also about introducing an element of play, while still raising serious
BLV: Why do you
think there was such an outcry? There were certainly positive responses but the
negative ones were particularly visceral — why do you think this was? There are
layers to the responses — there are responses on the level of aesthetics,
composition and curatorial decisions. Sometimes those were disguising the other
RN: I could give
you a response about old networks of power and resistance to change. I’ve had
some time to think about this. But let’s rather look at what the exhibition
did. We closed the gallery to the public for six weeks to prepare for the show.
It was the first time the whole national gallery was used for one show. We
loaned works from all over the country exposing gaps in the National Gallery
collection. The Abe Bailey Collection
was taken down for the first time in sixty-three years. The exhibition placed
fairly obscure artists next to South African ‘masters’. A Tretchikoff was shown
in the National Gallery for the first time. Shall I go on?
Riason Naidoo in front of a work by Vladimir Tretchikoff
the conference we held at the end of the exhibition panellist Lloyd Pollak, in
responding to a question from one of the members of the audience about ethics
from critics in reviewing the show, indicated that one or two of the SANG
curators and some of the Friends of the National Gallery approached him
privately to say that the new director (me) was not heeding their advice. So
I’m not sure how to read that and to what degree that influenced his review of
the exhibition that appeared on the cover of May edition of Art Times. It does pose all kinds of
questions, doesn’t it?
Now that the
reviews have all been out, we can confidently say that there have only been two
out of a possible forty that were negative. The reviews that graced the covers
of Art Times and Art South Africa were totally outnumbered by the numerous positive
reviews in all major national newspapers and including reviews in New York,
London, Amsterdam and Berlin. The debate has been wonderful in drawing
attention to the exhibition and getting numbers in.
From left, Gabriel Clark-Brown, Lloyd Pollak, Gerhard Schoeman, Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, Ashraf Jamal, Alex Dodd and Thembinkosi Goniwe speaking about art criticism, Cape Town, October 2, 2010. Photo: Jenny Altschuler
BLV: Looking ahead, are there any initiatives in place or plans to strengthen ties with
similar institutions elsewhere on the continent.
RN: Yes most definitely. I was invited by the Tate Modern in October, where I gave a presentation of the 1910-2010: from Pierneef to Gugulective exhibition to the Tate curators and the London art community and curators from elsewhere on the continent. I think it is important to say that it was very enthusiastically received. I also had some valuable
discussions with curators from Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon, Morocco, Ethiopia,
Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Hopefully something will come of that.
But more broadly looking forward my intention is to turn the conversation and the focus South, meaning South America, Africa, South-East Asia. I would like to see the Iziko South African National Gallery serving as a window on Africa. I would, for
example, like to deepen the collection of contemporary and traditional African
art from the continent. Ideally I would also like to see an exhibition of
contemporary Chinese artists, and shows on the Mexican muralists like Diego
Rivera and the painter Frida Kahlo at SANG.
It is also a question of taking our rightful place in the history of the global art world?
We should be seeking to gain insight into cultures that we have not had the opportunity to engage with because of cultural boycotts under apartheid and the Cold War. And at the same time, the North is looking to us for new ways of articulating. We should not be afraid to express that. We have to see South Africa’s role in a global context as an extension of the liberation of the self. We have the potential and the opportunity to innovate in new directions.
Riason Naidoo, Cape Town, April 2010. Photo: Carina Beyer, Iziko Museums
BLV: What about future plans and what about bringing in international curators to curate shows?
RN: I don’t want to give too much away but there are interesting possibilities ahead. But yes, bringing
in outside curators is essential to broaden our experience, to create
interesting dialogues and different ways of seeing. I see the National Gallery
as becoming a space not only for art but of cultural and intellectual exchange
too. We are definitely heading in that direction. Watch this space.
This interview is an edited transcript of a conversation originally conducted August 22, 2010 at Arts on Main, Johannesburg, and includes subsequent amendments.