JAG: 100 years of art

Yellow Houses – A street in Sophiatown
Yellow Houses – A street in Sophiatown

“We wanted so badly for the restoration to be finished by November 10 for the centenary, but it’s very, very close to being done,” Antoinette Murdoch, the curator of the gallery, told City Press.

White Lobster Telephone

The building, designed by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (who was also responsible for the iconic War Memorial at the Johannesburg Zoo), has had a lot of issues affecting its structural integrity.

The first things that were fixed were the leaking roofs and a broken air conditioner in the basement.

“My personal point of view is that if we don’t fix the building from all the leaking everywhere, then we’re not going to preserve the collection, which is ultimately the tool to draw audiences and educate people,” Murdoch said.

She faced opposition from some outspoken members of the arts community when she announced that she would be renovating the building. Many argued that she should have used the funds for public programming instead of building renovations.

“A lot of people criticised me and said that audience development should come first, but audience development didn’t slow down. Now that the renovations are done, we’re really going to get down to our public programme.”

The building has been there since the birth of Johannesburg, Murdoch said. “If you look at some of the photographs of the time, Johannesburg was basically empty. The museum was sitting here in the middle of nothing.”

Now, the building is in the centre of one of the busiest areas of Johannesburg – it’s flanked by the Hillbrow Taxi Rank on one side and Joubert Park on the other. Inside the gallery, the ruby-red and pale-green walls have been painted white to make space for new works.

Between all the old masters is a work by Sekoto, the first black artist bought into the collection.

“There is no artwork by a black artist until 1940 – a work by Gerard Sekoto, the first black artist purchased by the gallery. After that, as you know, the National Party came into power and then, until 1971, this is how the gallery worked.”

It finally purchased a work by Vincent Saoli and as the government began to change, so did the collections policy. The gallery started collecting to specifically include the gaps in the collection for those many years it hadn’t bought work representative of the country.

The new exhibitions will include George Pemba, Ernest Mancoba, Alexis Preller, Cecil Skotnes, Gladys Mgudlandlu, William Kentridge and Mohau Modisakeng.

“For the longest time, no one paid attention to the Johannesburg Art Gallery but, through a lot of begging and pleading, people seem to have actually woken up and are beginning to fix what is broken,” Murdoch said.