Nontobeko Ntombela is a curator based in Johannesburg. She holds a masters in Fine Arts from the Wits University where she works as a lecturer in the History of Art and Heritage studies department, and is currently enrolled in a PhD programme in History of Art at Rhodes University. Previously she worked as a curator of the contemporary collection at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (2010 – 2012), curator and gallery manager at Durban Institute of Technology Art Gallery (2006–2010), public art project coordinator at Amafa Heritage KZN (2006) and curator at Bat Centre Art Galleries, Durban (2002-2005).
As I understand you are enrolled in a PhD program while at the same time holding a teaching position at the school of Wits in Johannesburg. Could you describe what your practice looks like at the moment?
My research is largely based on knowledge production and its dissemination, exploring particularly the question of how knowledge gets produced in Africa. In my teaching work I focus on histories of early South African modern artists and in particular artists of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. I’m interested in researching about these artists’ lives.
With regards to making exhibitions I have, since taking up the PhD, halted producing exhibitions, though I’m still involved in a small project which is like a hang-over from a project that started in 2012. This project is a collaborative book project with a contemporary artist, Reshma Chhiba, who works primarily with photography but also explores painting and installational art. Although premised on her interest in the philosophy of the Indian goddess, Kali, her work is mostly concerned with notions of feminine power.
In my PhD I’m curious about the possibility of arguing for knowledge that is centred and focused on an African position. I look at different kinds of moments where knowledge gets produced (through writing, exhibitions, creative practices and so forth) and how knowledge gets disseminated.
At the moment I am busy writing a chapter on arts education, but one that produces a model that interrogates complexities of different African contexts. One example is the Àsìkò programme, which constitutes knowledge through hosting its programmes in different sites and contexts. It’s been running for five years already, and it’s been in Dakar, in Mozambique and in Nigeria, among other places, now it’s going to be in Addis Ababa. This particular program is centred around working with young curators and artists, premising its structure and content on things that these curators and artists are already working on. In this programme conversations are based on an environment in which these curators and artists’ work gets produced, and they use this content to reflect and critically analyse how that work can be improved. This kind of art-teaching methodology is what for me cites a moment of knowledge production and dissemination.
Does working in Johannesburg influence the subjects you treat and artists you invite? Can you describe that influence?
I think my questions as a curator and an academic are always provoked by the environment that I live in. But they are also provoked by the conversation South-Africa is having, or not, with the rest of Africa. Therefore I wouldn’t say that my work is about the city, as many more contemporary work revolves around this idea of the urban contemporary context, but rather that Johannesburg is a site from which I ask questions about what informs my knowledge of contemporary art. I can’t deny that my everyday existence of waking up and working in Johannesburg influences my work, but it’s not Jo’burg-specific.
You mentioned your interest in artists from the 60’s and 70’s, as well as contemporary artists. How does the historical and the contemporary balance out in your work?
There is a question that I always ask myself: how do we encounter knowledge? Part of my frustration has always been about how writing on early artists on early South African modern art practitioners, particularly black practitioners, was absent in my academic life as a young student. It felt as though I was speaking into a vacuum. And so I’ve always been interested in understanding who those artists may be, and what has informed their work.
In a way this interest in researching those early artists (Gladys Mgudlandlu, Noria Mabaso, Helen Sebidi, Bongiwe Dhlomo and Bonnie Ntshalintshali, among others) has been about understanding myself. These early modern artists have mostly been woman artists (with an few exceptions), and because of this, I think, the contemporary artists that I have been drawn to are young contemporary woman artists as well, like Thenjiwe Nkosi, Pamela Sunstrum, Donna Kukama, Nothando Mkhize and Molemo Moiloa. I’ve been interested in artists with whom I have been able to sustain conversations. Those are the people I’m interested in working with. There isn’t a border or a strategic way that I’ve been selecting work or making comparisons between contemporary and historical, to me they have been projects that have been developed out of interest and desire to know more, to know where my own work as a curator gets plugged.
So you don’t work with existent history, but you work with the histories that haven’t been told.
Yes, or rather histories that have lost prominence because they’ve been systematically ignored to a certain degree, and/or are disappearing. My work offers a different take on this history as it has often been written from one particular perspective, a perspective that does not always give agency to the artists.
All works by Reshma Chhiba, image courtesy of the artist.
Photo credit: Anthea Pokroy
In aanloop naar de aanstaande Invest Week in juni presenteert Jegens & Tevens in samenwerking met Stroom Den Haag een reeks persoonlijke portretten. Jonge kunstenaars die een Pro Invest subsidie hebben ontvangen en een selecte groep (inter)nationale curatoren worden door Jegens & Tevens geïnterviewd. Het doel van de jaarlijkse Invest Week is dat de kunstenaars feedback en reflectie op het eigen werk ontvangen van een groep ervaren curatoren, critici en kunstenaars uit binnen- en buitenland. Tot aan 27 juni 2016, als de Invest Week start, komen alle deelnemende kunstenaars en curatoren hier uitgebreid aan bod. Meer informatie over de Invest Week is binnenkort te vinden via www.stroom.nl.