David Koloane is arguably one of South Africa’s foremost cultural practitioners. A founding member of the Fordsburg Artists Studios (commonly known as ‘The Bag Factory’*) in Johannesburg, he is an internationally renowned artist, curator and critic. Currently Koloane is involved with the German South African Symposium, a body whose main aim is the furthering of cultural cooperation and exchange between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of South Africa. Recently Koloane and various representatives from the South African National Gallery, the Northern Flagship Institution, the Pretoria Art Museum, the German Foreign Office and the Bochum Museum in Germany, met in Stellenbosch in order to select two promising, young South Africans to co-curate with German counterparts, a travelling international exhibition. In brief, the city of Bochum is the cultural capital of Europe in 2010 and wish to celebrate through a series of events including a traveling German/South African art exhibition beginning at the Bochum Museum, and later moving to various venues in South Africa. Quite fortuitously this coincides with the hosting of the Soccer World cup in South Africa in 2010. After much debate it was decided that Nontombeko Ntombela and Rachel Montshiwa will represent South Africa in this venture. In what follows David Koloane answers some questions regarding the selection process, its criteria and the projects’ outcomes.
JT: Firstly, for those of us who are not familiar with it, could you elaborate a little on the origins and the goals of the German South African Symposium?
DK: The German South African Symposium was conceived in 2005 by Dr Ralph Seippel and Bodo Schaff (the then German Cultural Attaché who has since unfortunately been deployed in Latin America). Dr Ralph Seippel is the German gallerist who initiated the Daimler Chrysler Awards and recently opened up a branch of the Seippel Gallery in Johannesburg. The connection with the Bochum Museum in Germany was inspired by the ‘New Identities’ exhibition, a major survey of South African art and culture that was hosted there in 2004 and later that same year at the Pretoria Art Museum. Broadly speaking the The German South African Symposium seeks to develop and expand upon cultural co-operation between South Africa and Germany
JT: I think the selection of South African representatives Nontombeko Ntombela and Rachel Montshiwa quite interesting. Both individuals hail from so-called ‘marginalised’ areas in terms of the dynamics of the contemporary South African art world (Durban and Pretoria respectively). Does this reflect anything particular to the goals of the Symposium or the projects’ selection criteria?
DK: It was for me an interesting choice as nobody on the panel had the faintest idea as to what the selection process would yield. You will also notice that the various representatives came from different geographical areas in the country and provided names from which a consensus was eventually reached. So no, it does not reflect anything particular to the project, except where it concerns our focus on finding the best possible candidates.
JT: What specific traits were the selection panel looking for in selecting possible candidates?
DK: The criteria, which was unanimously accepted by all the delegation members, was that potential candidates had to display passion, self-initiative, hunger for curatorial experience and a fair amount of self-acquired knowledge of the contemporary art scene both locally and abroad. The candidates’ aspirations and vitality had to be sustainable, not short-lived or opportunistic. Writing skills were also essential to enable candidates to elucidate exhibition concepts and artists profiles with ease.
JT: It is always a mammoth task to curate a travelling international exhibition. Is part of the plan to throw these young curators into the ‘deep-end’ or is the project geared towards developing skills within a professional, practical environment? If so, what support structures are in place in order to help facilitate the process?
DK: The exhibition will not be a large-scale event in the order of a biennale for example, but rather of manageable scale – maximising the possibility for curatorial exploration and growth. There will be proficient support structures in place in both Germany and South Africa. However, it is important to caution against the support structures not ultimately compromising the candidates’ potential and innovative ability at any level of the process.
Throwing candidates unto the ‘deep-end’ might work in certain instances or emergencies but its not always an appropriate method of nurturing potential. With instructive and constructive guidance from the National Gallery in Cape Town, the Bag Factory in Johannesburg with its variety of artists from different countries, the Luthuli Museum in Kwazulu Natal and finally the Pretoria Art Museum and the National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria at a local level, the candidates will not be at a loss for support.
JT: How will the project develop from here? For example, when is the German South African Symposium due to meet again?
DK: As you mentioned earlier, the city of Bochum is the cultural capital of Europe in 2010. The launch of this exhibition will coincide with this event before travelling to South Africa. The exhibition preparations should therefore be finalized by 2009 (before which candidates will travel to all the host venues, participate in a variety of activities such as studio & museum visits and ultimately select participating artists).
The next symposium workshop will be convened in South Africa in March 2008. At this point there will be progress reports form the South African and German components as well as additional institutions that have pledged support for the project.
JT: On a more personal note, you are often called upon to select young curators, writers and artists for inclusion in a variety of art-related projects. Apart from being a full time practicing artist, how do you view your role in the contemporary South African art world?
DK: I feel honoured to have been bestowed with various forms of responsibility within the visual arts over the years. Looking back at my few years of teaching I would like to reiterate how dire the situation was during the FUBA era for black South African artists. So it comes naturally for me to extend a helping hand to younger, emerging artists today. I was assisted by a variety of people in the creative sphere (including Bill Ainslee, Louis Maqhubela & Fikile Magodlela), so I have to do likewise.
*This interview first published by in Bag Factory Newsletter, October 2007.