The city’s treasure

2018-11-05 11:29
Former Tatham Art Gallery director Brendan Bell retired at the end of September.

Former Tatham Art Gallery director Brendan Bell retired at the end of September.

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Momentous artworks collected over the years hang in a derelict building as continuous neglect threatens to rob Pietermaritzburg of one of its most treasured sites.

This is the concern expressed by art connoisseur and recently retired Tatham Art Gallery director Brendan Bell, in his recent interview with Weekend Witness.

Bell could not suppress his dejection as he pointed out how Msunduzi Municipality has over the years failed to maintain the gallery building and other surrounding historical buildings in the city that belong to it.

“It has always been a battle to try to communicate the value and importance of the art museum. It is simply not seen as a priority,” he said.

“The roof of this building needs constant maintenance. Over time, with the rain and the heat, the sunbaked bricks have started crumbling and they need to be replaced.

“This is a national monument building and year after year we didn’t get funds.”

“Political will is diverting funds elsewhere and the gallery is not the only part of the municipality that is affected,” he added.

Bell, who retired at the end of September, was at the helm of the Tatham Art Gallery, one of seven major art museums in South Africa.

“The future is anybody’s guess. There’s an underlying sadness at the thought of what could possibly happen, which I’ve seen at other institutions similar to this,” said Bell reflecting on his many years’ service to the gallery.

Originally from Durban, Bell, an artist in his own right, was drawn to art from a young age.

“I had a wonderful art teacher at school and I got very involved. I enjoyed being creative, and also knowing more about the history of art and how things developed, ignited my love for the arts,” he recalled.

A fine arts degree and an education diploma resulted in him teaching art and English at Eshowe High School, and then at Maritzburg College.

Being a teacher, Bell found his first art job as an educational officer at the Tatham Art Gallery in 1982, a position he held for five years.

“The work gave me scope to broaden my knowledge and experience of art history and education practice,” he told Weekend Witness.

But during his tenure as education officer, he was head hunted in 1986 by the Johannesburg Art Gallery to design and implement its education programmes, a post he held for some two and a half years.

brendan bell

‘It was a case of saying, let us not just collect but look at why we collect.’ A series of field trips, during which Tatham staff travelled the length and breadth of the province to meet master crafters, yielded among others, these works that were accessioned by the gallery with Brendan Bell at the helm. Top left: Widas Mtshali’s dog made from wood with a burn pattern and (top right) button-and-wire chandelier by Usisi Designs. Below from left: an embroided Ottoman made by Tunga Embroidery Group from Hluhluwe, Beauty Ngxongo’s two-lidded grass baskets and three glass perfume bottles made by Guido and Coralie van Besouw. Photos: Tatham Art Gallery

He cited the period he spent in Johannesburg as one of the most important phases in his career, particularly being involved with the Neglected Tradition Exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in late 1988 and early 1989.

“While I wasn’t in charge of the project, I certainly helped with the documentation side of it, particularly the extensive bibliography that went with the catalogue.”

Bell said that during that time he was also involved in training a group of volunteer guides who took groups and individuals around art displays at the gallery.

With limited opportunity for advancement in the art museum world, in 1989, Bell and his wife Jenny took a leap of faith and joined a family pig farming business in the Eastern Cape.

“The art world in South Africa is very small, particularly in the museums. It got to a point where there wasn’t much room for advancement.

“We were asked by my wife’s family to go down to the Eastern Cape where they owned a pig farm, and we took a walk on the wild side.”

Due to financial constraints in the farming business, in 1990, Bell found himself back in Pietermaritzburg where he again taught at Maritzburg College for 18 months, before finally returning to art work.

As fate would have it, in 1991, his predecessor Lorna Ferguson resigned as director and Bell was asked to apply for the post.

“For personal reasons I declined, but couldn’t ignore my fate when a few months later the post again became available. It seemed like fate or God was calling and I eventually took the job.”

After 27 years, he has been the longest-serving director of the gallery.

“I love this gallery and I find the collection very interesting.

“Each successive director adds his or her stamp on how the permanent collection is consolidated and expanded, within the framework of an acquisition policy.”

Bell said he worked with a focused acquisition policy, devised originally by Valerie Leigh, who was curator of the Tatham Art Gallery from 1967 to 1974.

The gallery was started in 1903 and initially it comprised Victorian artworks.


As the winds of change blew over South Africa, signalling an end to the apartheid era, art museums, which had previously sidelined African artists, were challenged to make their acquisition policies inclusive.

Bell said inclusivity implied not only racial representation but breaking down barriers between traditional Western notions of high art and craft, consciously embracing a fluid African aesthetic.

This in turn led to accepting that traditional material cultural artefacts such as Zulu clay vessels and beadwork could no longer be marginalised as items of material culture only.

“I think it was only in the eighties that the first works by a black artist came into the collection,” he said.

The first black artists’ work acquired by the gallery under his curatorship was from the Rorke’s Drift Art and Craft Centre outside Dundee.

“The inclusion of African art in the museum’s collection has immeasurably enriched both the gallery and South Africa’s heritage.”

Bell said the gallery’s inclusive acquisition policy in turn influenced how they displayed art works from the permanent collection.

“The collection has grown in a very logical and considered way. It’s not just been haphazard.

“It was a case of saying, let us not just collect but look at why we collect.” 


Bell explained that the displays at the Tatham Art Gallery are a deliberate political statement, and somewhat different from what one normally finds at art museums.

“It became evident to me in 1994 that art museums were taking all the colonial works and putting them in the storage and only had South African art on display. That didn’t make sense to me. How can you understand your present if you don’t know your past?” he said.

He said he ensured that the displays were a combination of works from different times, geographical spaces and from different cultures.

“You want your artworks to begin these conversations about where we came from and where we are going. That to me makes perfect sense. It’s our way of making society accepting of difference and similarity, and how we treasure the common things we have,” he said.

“For better or worse, if we don’t think about it or discuss it, we are not going to move forward.”


In a bid to bring crafters to the forefront of art, in 2010, Bell curated a craft exhibition titled Meeting the Makers, to break down differences between high-end art and craft.

Bell and his team spent six months travelling KwaZulu-Natal in search of crafters who displayed a contemporary vision.

He explained that the exhibition, part of which included the release of a book about the exhibit, was more about the people than the objects.

“We travelled all over KZN on field trips and a lot of the works we acquired are now in the Tatham Art Gallery collection,” he said pointing to some of the art pieces at Café Tatham.

While there have been several acquisitions made to the gallery’s collection under his directorship, Bell said it is difficult to single out any art work as his favourite.

“I have a bit of a maverick, off-beat taste, I can think of lots of little works that really grab me, that have been acquired during my time as director, which I feel add hugely to the collection, but on a slightly different level.”


While his tenure as director has been decorated with many highlights, Bell admitted that there were a fair share of lowlights as well. The most recent being the flooding of the gallery last May, which caused damage to hundreds of artworks that were stored in the basement of the building.

The flooding was a result of a revolt by Msunduzi’s workers who switched off the power in an act of sabotage during a protest, resulting in the underground river pump failing to activate.

“The room was flooded with half a metre of water that left 400 artworks damaged, which are still in the process of being sorted out. Another 10 artworks were permanently destroyed,” he said.

“That was a big challenge for us. A lot of artworks on paper were damaged and they have been sent in batches to Cape Town to be restored.”

Bell, however, said that since the incident, a generator has been installed in the building to ensure that the flooding doesn’t happen again.

Another ongoing challenge, he said has been negotiating tirelessly to ensure that the gallery is not moved to provincial museum services.

“This museum has always been intimately linked with the municipality; it’s part of it. And recently, politicians in the council have wanted to give the art gallery to province.”

“I was absolutely stunned when that suggestion was made. The gallery was never part of the province. The suggestion indicates ignorance of where the gallery comes from and its importance to the people of this area.”

Bell said while the gallery receives a small subsidy from the provincial museum services, it has certainly never belonged to them.

“It was nonsense but they will keep trying because the political will is not there,” he said.


Commenting on the visual arts landscape in South Africa, Bell said that in recent years, a lot of the contemporary art production has become self-indulgent.

“It’s very self-conscious in its sociopolitical intentions. I feel often that, particularly, commercial art galleries run on this hype of sociopolitical commentary. Youngsters get taken a bit off course.”

He said it is a “tragedy” that art is dying in the rural areas.

“It saddens me that our reliance on technology and social media, and our aspirations as South Africans are for material gain but not for creativity. Unless it’s based around technology, it’s kind of dying.”


Although it will not be an easy transition, Bell said he will focus more on his craft and home management, to take the burden off his wife who has a demanding job.

“I’ve also been advised just to take it easy,” he quipped, adding he is looking forward to an overdue trip planned to Antarctica this month.

“Knowingly and unknowingly, I’ve given up on other aspects of my life. I’m proud of what the gallery has become but it has to sail on its own.”

Although Bell’s successor has not been appointed, he advised that whoever is hired to fill his shoes to know the permanent collection and look after it.

In the interim, Bryony Clark, the assistant director, is steering the ship.

Thanks to Ada Susan Tatham, who started it all

According to the Tatham Art Gallery website, the gallery owes its origins to Ada Susan Tatham, who in early 1903 collected money donations  from friends who were interested in the formation of an art gallery, and from the city council, and travelled overseas to acquire art works.

Ada Tatham was wife of the then judge president of Natal, and the gallery was named after her.

In England, she contacted her husband’s cousin, the president of the Royal Academy, and met other Royal academicians.

With their help and their interest in the founding of an art gallery in an English colony, Tatham managed to acquire paintings of a value in excess of what she had to spend.

In addition, she arranged for the loan of a large collection of paintings to be shipped out to the colony, and Pietermaritzburg citizens were encouraged to select and donate a work from this exhibition.

“It’s interesting that she felt Maritzburg needed a collection which could be added for enjoyment and largely for education purposes,” said Brendan Bell.

“That is something that has always stuck with me, coming from an education background.

“It was very important that she had similar ideas; that is why we have stuck with the policy ever since, making only minor adjustments,” he said.

brendan bell

The artworks pictured are three of the first acquisitions made to the gallery’s permanent collection in 1992 under Bell’s directorship.

Artwork 1: One of the threads in our inclusive acquisitions policy has been how artists from different cultures view the ‘other’. This etching by Willem Hermanus Coetzer is a case in point. The tondo format and mother-and-child subject was often used by Italian Renaissance artists. In this depiction Coetzer’s mother and child are African, set in a ‘classical’ rural South African setting.

Artwork 2: The autobiographical sculpture by Samson Mudzunga represents a shift in the gallery’s acquisitions policy, echoing a postmodernist reaction to the theory and practice of modernism. Postmodernism refuses to recognise the authority of a single style or definition of what art should be. Mudzunga’s Wheelbarrow challenges us to reflect on our perceptions of art in society.

Artwork 3: SA artist Frank Graham Bell was a founder member of the London-based Euston Road group, which promoted a move away from avant-garde styles to a ‘realism’ derived from the work of Cézanne. In many ways, Bell’s painting of Lyttleton Airfield suggests developments in European Modernism reflected in the gallery’s core collection.


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