Blood on the walls as South Africa’s national gallery axes first black director: Bold and ambitious curation has ruffled feathers among art establishment – but visitor numbers have increased despite budget cuts. Marianne Tham reports.
The first black director the South African National art gallery, Riason Naidoo, circulated an email last week alerting the arts community to his sudden and surprise axing from a position he had successfully held at the flagship institution for five years.
Naidoo is taking legal action and has since been threatened with an interdict if he makes any further statements. To those on the outside, the fine art world may appear to be a genteel and elitist milieu, but in reality it is a highly contested minefield brimming with animosities, petty bickering and much political jostling on the one hand and government indifference on the other.
Naidoo felt the first sting of the so-called “white art establishment” in Cape Town in 2010, soon after being appointed as the country’s first black director of art collections at the gallery when he curated the massive and ambitious 1910–2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective exhibition to coincide with the Fifa World Cup.
The gallery’s original plan had been to hang a “football exhibition” but Naidoo had felt, with the expected influx of tourists, that this would not reflect South Africa’s history and was not “a barometer of the country and what is going on”. The Fifa World Cup, he reckoned, provided a unique opportunity to showcase 100 years of South African art not only to South Africans but the world.
It was a bold and risky endeavour. Naidoo had only six-and-a-half weeks to curate works from the extensive, existing collection. In that short period he also managed to obtain works from 48 other lenders from across the country to complete the exhibition that took up the entire National Gallery.
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