Bettina Malcomess

Luggage Limits: Us and 23 Kilograms

I propose to discuss two exhibitions I have curated. The one is the exhibition Us, which I co-curated with Simon Njami at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2009 and then at the South African National Gallery in 2010. The exhibition was conceptualised as a response to the xenophobic violence of May 2008, and attempted to bring together a younger generation of South African artists to think through and question notions of group identity and belonging. The show was not a critical success, but made visible the work of several younger artists in the museum space, and also began a series of further collaborations between myself and these artists. The second version of the show formed part of the larger exhibition 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective, curated by Riason Naidoo.

23 Kilograms (2013) is a much smaller exhibition that I curated at a gallery called West in the Hague, Netherlands. The gallerist had been interested in doing an exhibition of “South African artists”. I had titled the project 23 Kilograms, presenting less an exhibition than a situation in which four artists – Zen Marie, Donna Kukama, Francis Burger and Siemon Allen – would produce new work in response to the luggage limit allowed for international travel.

In this presentation I will look at how the curatorial premise for Us and 23 Kilograms attempt to refuse a simple reading of group identity as a space of ‘representation’, and yet both get read as exhibitions that are (or should be) ‘representative’ of South Africa. I look at the critical framing of these exhibitions as ‘educational’ exhibitions, and my own attempts as curator to both play the role of educator and to refuse it. I reflect on the complexities of the role of the curator in relation to the museum within South Africa, and the position of the South African curator working in the Western, European context. In both cases, I ask the question: To what extent is the exhibition expected to ‘allegorise’ contemporary South African-ness, making the curator’s role a multiple one: collector, anthropologist, travel lecturer?

imageBettina Malcomess works across disciplines as a writer, lecturer, curator and artist. Her practice is defined by inter-disciplinarity and collaboration. She is a member of the collective, Doing it for Daddy, selected as one of the winners of the Spier Contemporary Art Award (2007). She co-curated the group show Us with Simon Njami at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (2009) and then at South African National Gallery (2010), as part of the retrospective exhibition 1910-2010: from Pierneef to Gugulective. She has done several collaborative projects in inner city Johannesburg, including setting up the Keleketla! library project at the Drill Hall. Malcomess works in performance under the name Anne Historical. Her work engages with public space and site-specificity, both within and outside of art structures. Since 2010 Malcomess has been producing the Millennium Bar, a temporary structure consisting of modular units re-configured at different sites, and consisting of fragments collected from demolition sites and scrap yards. She has most recently published Not No Place – Johannesburg, Fragments of Spaces and Times, a book on Johannesburg in collaboration with Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, with whom Malcomess also works collaboratively under the name deadheat.

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