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Stairways and Ruins 

By Andrew Lamprecht 

Stairways and Ruins,’ presented by the NWU’s ViNCO (Visual Narratives and Creative Outputs through Interdisciplinary and Practice-Led Research) in association with Iziko Museums of South Africa opened at North-West University’s Art Gallery on 17 July 2023. ViNCO is a research niche at NWU that contributes to current discourse on South African and African visual narratives and the histories and visions that shape them.  

The exhibition, guest curated by Andrew Lamprecht, Curator: Historical Paintings and Sculpture at the Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG) and features more than 50 works by 25 artist including installations, painting, sculpture, print, photography, video-based art and performance. 

Visitors at the exhibition opening event. Image supplied ©NWU.  

Artists were asked to produce a visual artwork inspired by the idea of stairways and ruins. A theme prompted by quotations from Bessie Head and Sol Plaatje. “I am building a stairway to the stars. I have the authority to take the whole of humanity with me. That is why I write” – Bessie Head. 
“There is always a return to the ruins, only to the womb we cannot return” – Sol Plaatje. 

Artists were briefed on thematic and conceptual possibilities of this notion, including archival matters, memorialisation, myth, auto-ethnography, and (re-)imagined pasts and futures. The exhibition forms part of a large-scale, three-year collaborative practice-led research project by the same name. The project comprises three phases: a launch together with an open call to artists to participate (in 2022); the exhibition in 2023, and finally, a reflection on the project with peer-reviewed scholarly articles during 2024. “Creative possibilities sparked by the topic of the project relate to stairways that invite notions of dreaming, transporting, transcending, and creating, as well as ruins that suggest a consideration of the past, of destruction and of wreckage,” noted Dr Annemi-Conradie-Chetty, Research Director of ViNCO. 

Many of the works in the exhibition emerged from the chaotic and tragic reality of Covid-19 and lockdown. Additionally, the looming climatic crisis that engulfs us every day, not to mention a possibility of global war we have not witnessed since the late 1980s, were also reflected upon in several works. This moment, one seared into the hearts of all of us, provided a moment of pause of reflection and of introspection. Artist have been at the forehand of helping us understand how we live now and how we have become changed – irrevocably. 

Neo Diseko performance: Waiting to Exhale. Image supplied © NWU.  

The works on exhibition was deeply reflective and utilised techniques that are often labour intensive, technically challenging, and pushed the boundaries of various media. Junk, the throw-away and the carefully preserved over generations, all jostle for space in what becomes an archive of the past and one that seeks to preserve for the future. 

The title refers to the possibility of transcendence, in the wake of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. We all seek to elevate ourselves from the ruins of the past, but as so many works here show, sometimes this history is so painfully rich and deeply enmeshed in South Africa’s complex and fraught history that we cannot fully ascend the stairways – mythical, metaphorical or real – that keep us tied to the surface of our current existence. The existence that – at times – is a mire that seems to trap us and force us downwards. 

Fighting on the battlefields of paint, print, sculptures, installations and new media, the paths of the artist of Stairways and Ruins often leads us away from our everyday existence. They are transcendent and offer us new ways to negotiate what promises to be an even rockier future than that which we have just experienced and continue to experience. Whilst much of the work on the exhibition seems to emanate from ruins; that past is part of the staircases we must ascend. 

Lesego Motsiri: Earthly Remembrance. Image supplied © NWU.  

In his opening address, Prof. Dumi Moyo, Dean of NWU’s Faculty of Humanities noted: “The works on display […] ask of us viewers to imagine the future, and to reflect on the past with the artists. The artists have not shied away from engaging with difficult and universal themes of human suffering, loss, hope, and faith, and they challenge us to not look away from the immanent issues that confront our world and humanity.” 

Exhibition installation panoramic. Screengrab  

The exhibition runs until 31 August and a virtual 3D representation of the exhibition can be explored online at: https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=EGvU8eUS3qc 

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