The art of archiving in Africa

The And Counting exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery considers memory and the challenges of archiving art in Zambia, a country that has no institutional collections.

On 23 May, the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) opened its doors to the And Counting exhibition, a collaboration with !Karau African Contemporary Art under the curatorial eye of South African art historian Tšhegofatso Mabaso and Zambian artist Julia Taonga Kaseka.

In roughly three months, Mabaso and Kaseka gathered artwork from institutional and gallery collections across South Africa and sourced work privately from Zambian artists. The exhibition features among others work by Zambian artists Aaron Mulenga, Gladys Kalichini and Henry Tayali, along with South Africans Ernest Cole, Nicholas Hlobo and Nyaniso Dzedze.

23 May 2019: Visual artist and sculptor Aaron Samuel Mulenga’s The Afronaut Mwamba.

Through these works, And Counting initiates a conversation between South Africa and Zambia and engages with contemporary conditions, taking into consideration how advancement and progress are often measured through accumulation and the passing of time.

Reiterating some of these ideas to New Frame, Mabaso says that “in part, we were interested in ideas of accumulation and how archives become sites of accumulation that are constantly being added to but never really subtracted from. It’s quite rare that things are taken out of archives. But we found that in that adding there are also gaps, so we were also interested in thinking about some of the gaps in the archive.”

23 May 2019: And Counting curators Tšhegofatso Mabaso (left) and Julia Taonga Kaseka at the opening of the exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

The title of the exhibition seeks to question the nature of archives as ongoing sites of accumulation and history, while also questioning ideas around the collective and shared history in two very different contexts, when it comes to the notion of institutional archives.

“The exhibition also acts as an accumulation of stories and how we can allow stories to exist in the exhibition in relation to the works,” continues Mabaso, reflecting on some of the creative impulses that led to And Counting.

23 May 2019: A featured work by South African photographer Ernest Cole of anti-apartheid activist Lillian Ngoyi.

Sourcing struggle

While Mabaso and Kaseka had access to some of the artworks displayed in the JAG archive, they struggled to source institutional works from Zambia. A twofold issue was access and permission to use and display parts of pre-existing archives from South Africa, along with speaking to independent, private curators in Lusaka to produce a cohesive narrative for the exhibition.

“Part of what we were grappling [with], as well, is how do you speak to collective memory when there aren’t national archives to source from [in Zambia],” says Mabaso. This challenge provided a useful and interesting counterpoint, because the works themselves explore the pitfalls and dangers of nationalism.

23 May 2019: Nicholas Hlobo’s stitched artwork is called Igqirha Lendlela.

For Kaseka, the exhibition not only provides a platform for African artists and cultural practitioners to showcase contemporary art from the continent, but the interaction of the artworks also allows important political and economic questions to surface.

“Given that 52% of trade in Zambia comes from South Africa, we were also thinking about how to count the relationship between South Africa and Zambia and what that relationship has looked like over the past 25 years,” says Kaseka.

23 May 2019: Night Shift by Sam Nhlengethwa is on show at And Counting.

The And Counting exhibition is on at the Johannesburg Art Gallery until 14 July 2019. Entrance is free.

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