Iziko’s response to Our Lady petition

  • Posted: Jan 13, 2017


Dear Candice and the signatories of the letter dated 9 January 2017

This letter serves as acknowledgement of receipt of your letter dated 9 January 2017 and your subsequent petition.  Iziko Museums of South Africa thanks you all for your proactive engagement and contribution seeking to build on the ground-breaking discussions that took place at the Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG) on 15 December 2016.

We are cognisant of the suggestions made on the day of the Our Lady discussion. The curators at ISANG undertook to deliberate on what was said and to find a way forward that would reflect the suggestions of the multitude of voices that participated in this discussion to date. Part of this undertaking was to review and to create an inclusive and sensitive solution in the New Year.

Your demands for further immediate action are however rather premature given the internal processes and procedures that must be followed in order to render any action viable within a multifaceted institution such as Iziko. We sincerely acknowledge the urgency and momentum you expressed, but also request your tolerance of the processes and protocols required of institutions of our size and nature. The stipulated time frames specified in the communique received are operationally unfeasible.

As expressed in the media statement of 21 December 2016, ISANG remains committed to continuing the conversations around the Our Lady exhibition with several constituencies and publics. Amongst others, this includes a range of views.

Ways of seeing, ways of hearing

Many views have been expressed in response and in protest to the Our Lady exhibition. Some of these were presented at the public discussion at ISANG. Iziko has also been approached by various constituencies offering their views and reflections on these developments. Furthermore, we have also been observing and engaging directly with a range of visitors to ISANG.

There are some who feel that the empty spaces and remnants in the exhibition area are inadequate in their current state. There are others who feel that the empty wall spaces offer a space of reflection and imagination. Others feel that the exhibition area, as it is, reflects the messiness of this exhibition process and the lessons that are still unfolding. Yet others feel that the exhibition is sufficiently reconfigured and clearly reflects the disruptions that have occurred, while also disrupting standard exhibition design and practice within ISANG.

Iziko, as a public institution, is cognisant of these many views from various publics and ‘general’ visitors. It is crucial to keep this in mind – that there are even more ways of seeing and hearing out there.

The voices of activists must be heard

We agree that the issues of representation and visibility of marginalised people need to be addressed within the museum spaces and in our sector and country – not just in relation to what remains of the Our Lady exhibition.

While we support the aims of SWEAT and SISONKE, and are in the process of building long-term working relationships with them around other projects on gender-based violence and patriarchy, ISANG cannot be seen as a lobby group for a particular group or institution. Our mandate is to represent all layers of our society. We also strongly believe that SWEAT and SISONKE are fully capable of speaking for themselves and that any programmes we engage in jointly should be led and guided by these organisations, instead of being mediated by others.

We regret that ISANG is continued to be portrayed as very unsympathetic to Nokuphila Kumalo and about gender violence against women, when it is very far from the case. We have been extremely willing to engage with the public and SWEAT about the issues around the Our Lady exhibition, because we are mindful of how pervasive gender violence is in our society, and if we can play a role in highlighting those issues, we will do so.

ISANG is in favour of screening the recording of the public dialogue. However, as the host and recorder, we do have several issues to consider about the screening. While several people may have spoken openly at the dialogue, this does not automatically mean that they lose their rights to privacy or even their rights to object to the screening. As you are aware, there were also minors present at the public debate. The demand to screen the video without further delay has legal ramifications but we are in the process of trying to realise this request. We ask that you respect due process in this regard.

The voices of the protesting artists must be heard

Prior to the debate of 15 December 2016, ISANG received direct and individual requests from some of the artists represented on the Our Lady exhibition to have their works removed. We honoured these requests. We also offered the artists an opportunity to voice their individual protest by replacing their artwork or make visible their views around the issues emanating from the exhibition by including their emails or by other means.  All of these artists declined the offer to continue the protest in some other form – they just wanted their works to be removed.

During the public debate, a collective letter signed by the artists who had demanded that their works be removed was read. This joint statement was printed and placed in one of the empty spaces where a work used to hang in the exhibition. The statement clearly reflects the names of all the artists who signed the statement, thus there is no need to print individual statements in each space.  In addition to this, some artists with whom we engaged with individually requested that if a statement were to be placed in the space of their work, that this would require focused thought on their part to write and to submit for inclusion. We are mindful of these requests also.

The other statement by Iziko, clarifying the developments of the Our Lady exhibition up to the public dialogue – including the protest by SWEAT and SISONKE and the resultant sparse walls - is on a different wall. We do not agree that we have conflated the two statements at all.

The specific instructions about the manner of implementing future engagements undermine the processes and structures, as well as the views and abilities of those who work within Iziko. Iziko’s current means of stakeholder engagement is to develop, with suggestions from a range of publics, alternatives that reflect the diversity of perspectives.

Are we compelled to implement all the suggestions you (and the signatories) make? If so, are we compelled to implement all suggestions made by all publics or are there exceptions? The tone of your engagements with Iziko and ISANG has raised more questions, not unrelated to some of the issues highlighted by SWEAT and SISONKE about visibility and access. Who has access to Iziko, and who has the resources to make their voices heard?

With public space, comes public accountability

The partnership between Iziko and The New Church Museum no longer exists. The agreement was rendered null and void on the morning of 15 December 2016 when The New Church Museum withdrew their artworks (including the work by Zwelethu Mthethwa) from the exhibition space for various reasons. We are not in a position to speak on their behalf and request that future questions related to The New Church Museum’s withdrawal of their artworks be sent to them directly.

We are still actively working on the scale and extent of the reconfiguration of the exhibition, including which (other) publics to invite, the form their input will/can take and the duration of the exhibition. While all these considerations will seek to address some of the issues about visibility and representation that have been highlighted in the debate, they also have a bearing on our staffing issues, budgets and other programmes at ISANG.

For many of us who have been drawn into this debate, we agree that Our Lady, in its current form, is now altogether another exhibition. How it will be reconfigured remains a discussion internally and externally at this stage. Many of the issues that have been brought to the fore are indeed deep and structural in every facet of our society and cannot be dealt with as swiftly as demanded or through only one institution (ISANG).

We reserve the right to consider the very many opinions expressed thus far and to reconfigure the exhibition in due course, in a way we see fit, incorporating the various views of our constituencies. We again request that you trust the process and respect the curatorial team to continue these conversations and deliberations.

What ISANG ultimately decides about the Our Lady exhibition will most likely not please everyone, or be what everyone hoped and wished for. However, we trust that the critical debates raised through this exhibition - about gender-based violence, the invisibility of marginalised people, the role of museums and their curatorial practice, as well as the role of artists and activists (and their conducts) amongst many others - will continue within and without the Gallery walls beyond this project, centering the challenges of the marginalised - in their own voices – in South Africa.

Yours faithfully
Rooksana Omar
Chief Executive Officer
Iziko Museums of South Africa





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