About Conversing the Land

Executive Foreword

Jacqui O’Sullivan

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Conversing the Land marks the fifth collaborative public exhibition programme in partnership with the MTN SA Foundation and The University of Johannesburg Art Gallery since 2008. The central theme for this exhibition is landscape and its’ myriad of guises.

The tradition of portraying landscapes in the South African context is intimately connected to colonial policies and attitudes of land discovery devoid of any traces of indigenous influence upon it. The land depicted as empty, adheres to ideals of the picturesque, where the artistic depiction becomes a product of the mind rather than the representation of real events experienced at a specific geographical location at a particular period in time.

Sub categories accompany the main theme and highlight significant periods of concern pivotal to the lands’ history, these are: Discovering the Land, The Land in Conflict and The Land Worked

Aligned to the MTN SA Foundations’ strategic focus on youth development; young emerging visual artists were invited to work with the theme of landscape guided by the sub themes expressed above. This opportunity affords the emerging artists a public platform to showcase their artworks alongside more established artists. Furthermore, three Fine Arts students from the University of Johannesburg are mentored on curatorial processes, project and exhibition logistics and educational outputs inherent in the partnership.

An educational booklet designed through the mentorship programme encompasses activities aligned to workshops and exhibition tours to educate primary school groups on basic visual literacy relating to the theme of the exhibition.

Conversing the Land allows for the art collections of the UJ Art Gallery and MTN to converse once more on themes related to our nation’s history and the role our youth plays in that narrative. We have always been proud of our association with the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery and regard ourselves as most fortunate to be working once more with Annali Cabano-Dempsey and her dynamic team to ensure the success of our arts and culture endeavours.

We trust you will enjoy the experience and immerse yourselves in this thought provoking and engaging exhibition.

Collections in Conversation

Ashraf Johaardien

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The critical role played by universities in acquiring and preserving works of national interest for future generations of art makers and art lovers is often underestimated. The same applies to the private sector. Whilst museums in South Africa care for an unknown number of important and valuable collections, and are supplemented and supported by commercial galleries promoting South African artists in the global arena, the substantial contribution by academic and corporate institutions housing collections highlights these bodies as potentially powerful contributors to the cultural milieu of the country, and the important national, continental and global conversations in which we need to be engaged.

In 2017, the partnership between MTN and the University of Johannesburg (UJ) was showcased at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown (now the National Arts Festival, Makhanda), when the first iteration of the conversation between their two substantive collections was featured on the Festival’s Main Programme, in the form of Shifting Conversations.

As Executive Producer of the Festival at the time I, together with my Artistic Committee, sent out a call for proposals under the theme of ‘disruption’, which centered on the relationship between art and disruption: art as a disruptor of mainstream ways of thinking, and art in response to disruptions to the status quo. Through this process, we considered proposals for compelling, innovative and high-quality works that could serve as catalysts for debate and transformation. In short, we wanted to examine how the arts challenge mainstream ways of thinking.

What you have to do is negotiate where we are. We have mentioned ideology as a focus in the exhibition, but there is also class and race that become evident, and also gender and sexual orientation – all those manifestations of belief systems of ideology I hope come into play too. It’s sort of a snapshot of where we think conversations are shifting and where they might be shifting.

– Johan Myburg

Curated by Johan Myburg and Melissa Goba from the MTN and UJ Art Collections, Shifting Conversations was selected for the Festival’s Main Visual Arts programme, because it explored conversations in response to binaries such as ‘colonised’ and ‘coloniser’ prevalent within the collections of the two institutions. The stated aim of the two guest curators was “to present an open-ended discourse that might invite new or different ways of experiencing art,” which was a perfect fit in terms of the Festival’s theme for that year. In a release about the exhibition, Myburg explained that he and Goba wanted to open a conversation on how one might consider the remnants of the past without obliterating history.

Since the MTN Art Collection’s inception in November 1998, it was dedicated to making a contribution towards arts and culture educational development in South Africa. The approximately 1 400-piece art collection, which is housed at MTN’s head offices on 14th Avenue in Fairlands, Johannesburg, consists of original prints, paintings, drawings, sculpture, classical African Art and contemporary art from across the continent by artists from the colonial to post-apartheid and postmodern eras. As part of our mandate to utilise MTN’s Art Collection for educational and social development, the MTN Foundation decided to partner with museums and university galleries to initiate programmes that will not only avail such opportunities, but also develop provenance and investment value for both institution’s art collections.

– Niel Nortjé

In 2018, the MTN Foundation and UJ partnered once again to host the second exhibition in the ‘Conversations’ trilogy of shows. Annali Dempsey from the UJ Art Gallery and Niel Nortjé from the MTN Foundation curated the exhibition, this time with a focus on portraiture and concepts of power: the juxtaposition of power and powerlessness, identity and body politics, perceptions of the ‘other’ and the exotic, memory, and the masks we wear. Included were works by artists such as Gerard Bhengu, Reshada Crouse, Wilma Cruise, PhillemonHlungwani, Maggie Laubser, Judith Mason, George Pemba, Cecil Skotnes, Irma Stern and Edoardo Villa.

This land is my land, this land is your land

From the great Limpopo to Robben Island …(1)

‘Who owns the land,’ is a search term that generates 226 000 000 results on Google in approximately 0.49 seconds. Google’s predictive search algorithm also suggests the following questions: Who owns the land? Is all land owned by someone? How do I find the owner of a piece of land? What percentage of land does the government own? These questions have provoked and inspired artists from all walks of life, working in all genres right across the globe. From American arena rock star, Bruce Springsteen, to Swedish musician, Mikael Wiehe,and Turkish folk singer, Nuri Sesigüzel, the folk anthem This Land is Your Land (by Woody Guthrie), has been covered by major international artists with variations now documented in Catalan, Irish, Scottish, Mexican and Welsh, to name but a few. A version performed by the iconic South African arts couple Des and Dawn Lindberg includes a live recording of the song, in which the key landmarks referred to in the song are localised, notably with sites like Robben Island – a daring interpretation given that apartheid was at its height at the time they recorded the song, and Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were still incarcerated on the Island at the time they performed the song for a paying audience. (2)

The world is currently in the midst of the largest refugee crisis since World War II. From Honduras to Bangladesh, millions of people have been uprooted by conflict and poverty. An unprecedented 70.8 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide, and 37000 people are forced to flee their homes every day due to conflict or persecution.
 Médecins du Monde

At the intersection of the global refugee crisis, Des and Dawn Lindberg’s local take on a famous folk song, and the complexities of the current land reformpolicy in South Africa, the selection of works comprising Conversing the Land both documents and interrogates the many ways in which visual artists have grappled with the land in an attempt to understand who we are, where we come from, what we had and what we have lost. Curated by Katlego Lefine from MTN, and Annali Dempsey from UJ, the 2091 exhibition marks the third installment in a trilogy of shows that has seen two important South African art collections in conversation with one another over the past three years.

Juxtaposed with ten new works selected from a public call for entries into the exhibition (under the banner of the Emerging Artists Development Programme), core selections of key works from the MTN Art Collection and University of Johannesburg’s permanent collection, sharply pulls into focus the changing South African landscape and its varied depictions by artists grappling with land in issues in various ways over time. The varied and vast visual landscapes brushed, etched, carved and moulded into being, throw into sharp relief the notion of identity against one’s cultural background, which is so often and so largely informed by the very earth one calls home. The landscape in which one exists, in turn becomes politicised, and the art residing within this topography becomes both the exposer of inequity, and the exposed – a sharp, acrid reminder of our continual quest to belong and to be empowered.

South Africa’s history is steeped in waves of different groups attempting to find new possibilities and means to thrive, with these self-same attempts invariably upending, dislodging and absorbing the previous inhabitants. It is within this conversation that curatorship of artwork, and the concept of proprietorship by benevolent institutions with seemingly well-intentioned motives, becomes a microcosm of the greater debate around ownership and staking one’s claim. In the same way that South Africa’s history – and the history of the African continent as a whole – derives almost entirely from unrelenting conflict over land and its attendant power, so do the conversations catalysed by these three exhibitions (over the past three years). They press forward the diametrical arguments of possession and the right to possession.

Venezuelan spoken word artist and techno futurist Jason Silva says that creativity and insight almost always involve an experience of acute pattern recognition: “the eureka moment in which we perceive the interconnection between disparate concepts or ideas to reveal something new …” From Business and Arts South Africa to MTN and UJ, congratulations on your partnership across these three exhibitions. The catalytic effect of putting your respective collections in curated conversations with one another, with history, with current affairs and concerns, and indeed with South Africa at large, has been your combined and sustained eureka moment – and it powerfully demonstrates the tangible value of the arts and business partnerships.

Ashraf Johaardien

CEO: Business and Arts South Africa




  1. Des Lindberg and Dawn Silver, Folk on Trek, 1967
  2. Ironically the album, Folk on Trek, on which the live recording of the song features, was banned, not because of that particular song but rather “on the grounds of obscenity” because of dubious lyrics to the nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb, and the Negro Spiritual, Dese Bones Gonna Rise Again”.

Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above

Robyn Sassen: Independent arts critic

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In Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic 1943 story book, The Little Prince, there is a character who is a businessman. Living on a planet a little bigger than himself, this businessman in his jacket and tie is unlike anyone the little Prince has ever met. All day long, the businessman sits and counts the stars, making long sums of numbers and declaring himself the owner of them all, describing what he does as “matters of consequence”.

The Little Prince may be an essay of whimsy, but it is also one of metaphorical depth. What this businessman, who resents any form of interruption in his work, offers the world is an insight into the messy business of ownership of property which is not only immovable, but universal, too. It’s a story that infiltrates all of our lives as we live on this planet.

Traditionally, when the ideology underpinning the genre of landscape art is taught in western universities, the painting which Thomas Gainsborough painted in 1750, entitled Mr and Mrs Andrews is used as a device to cast the whole untidy issue of land ownership into clarity. It presents a formally dressed white man and his wife in the foreground. The trajectory of their wealth, in the form of their land and other properties on that land, is in the background. And in the teaching, it thus becomes a starting point into the complex issues of colonialism, capitalism, slavery and sexism and a loose understanding of who belongs where and why.

Of course, living on a continent that has been criss-crossed and scarred hither and yon over many centuries by a lust for land, power and an understanding of ownership, we in Africa may believe we have a unique grasp on the problems it engenders. And perhaps we do. In contemporary times in South Africa, the land issue remains a complex and bloody one which is offered as a red flag to political parties such as Black First Land First – an unregistered, black consciousness, pan-Africanist, revolutionary, socialist party founded by Andile Mngxitama in 2015, which has brought land into its very name – as it underlines articulated xenophobic practices which violently aim to push people from other African countries out of their South African lives.

Land grabs: a potted history

The first people to have inhabited this part of the African continent were the San. Unsophisticated in western land-ownership protocols, and unskilled in a warmongering sense, they were hunter-gatherers, peaceful and powerless against people armed with guns, tactics and bibles. Their blood, spilled by invaders from the north and others who arrived from the sea in big ships, seeped into the land. The conquerors were conquered by others, and they were conquered by others. A different community of people came to redraw boundaries and settle on this verdant, complex continent, articulating a will to fight for their right to be there. And when further boundaries were redrawn by Europeans in the notorious pre First World War Scramble for Africa and those people living on the contested terrain were shunted to different parts and named by different tribe names and taught different languages, it was dreadful and it was difficult, but it was part of the narrative. The argument is an old one, but one not too tired to still be refreshed with new sheens of antagonism, in every generation.

The collection of artworks on show in this exhibition touches on the core of what it is to have a relationship with the land. It’s not always about ownership, and sometimes it is a direct comment on the sense of ‘unownership’. It’s about the impoverishment of some and the wealth of others as it is about how apartheid forced some people to the margins of society with their proverbial noses pushed against the glass of a country from which they had been excluded.

Shape-shifters in the landscape classroom

Along these lines, South African art history has roots thwarted by politics. Under apartheid, it was a discipline pursued by white scholars with a clear and unabashedly parochial focus. During the anti-apartheid struggle, academics were at pains to try and see both sides of the issue. In contemporary times – in a post-apartheid democracy that is now in its 25th year, everyone has a voice, and the love of the land through paint, ink, light-sensitive photographic paper or drawing implements is no less complicated or beautiful.

The usual suspect when it comes to South African landscape painting is Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957), a notorious Afrikaans-speaking Broederbonder who loved the land actively with his brush and easel, but famously erased all trace of humanity from his paintings, because he was an unapologetic racist. His body of paintings and hand-pulled prints remains amongst the highest yielding South African works in the auction circuit, abroad, to this day. Thankfully, the curators of this exhibition have elected to place one of his works in this exhibition – thankfully, not because of Pierneef’s ideological contribution to the mix, but because his voice remains a key one to an understanding of landscape in South Africa.

Katlego Lefine and Annali Dempsey, who have curated this exhibition, have stretched their proverbial loupes far and wide through the MTN Art archives and the UJ Art Collection, collected over several decades, to bring together diverse works that clash and concatenate with the values of being in South Africa and reflecting on the glorious land.

Broadly, the exhibition is divided into four streams of discourse: Inhabiting the Land; Capitalism, Colonialism etc; the Land Worked; and the Land in Conflict. Philosophically it embraces the wide diversity of perspectives possible in this melting pot of land positions called South Africa. But it’s a strange thing and categories can be both useful and limiting. Many of the works in this exhibition straddle the imposed categories. Works that may be about inhabiting the land also bring a colonialist edge to the turf or reflect how the land can and has been put to work, for instance.

And when you think of ‘Inhabiting the Land’ you may cast your mind to the lucid drawings in sepia ink by German-born Adolph Jentsch (1888-1977) of the Namibian landscape, as you may be drawn to associate the phrase with the delicate watercolours by Jabulani Albert Ntuli (1898-1988), made in the late 19th century, that was as much about inhabiting the land as it was about working it. But the works in question and the exhibition under discussion here cleaves to the works owned and loaned by the MTN collection and thus it serves a dual purpose, but one that shouldn’t trammel your appreciation of these gems.

Inhabiting the land

When you see the work of Simon Mnguni, there is a resonance with the simple sense of complex beauty he evokes. Gladys Mgudlandlu, who imbibed the wildness of a brushmark made doable by the German Expressionist movement in the early 20th century, takes on the lushness and grit of the land. Her birds are bold, her use of greenery flagrant. But her voice, as a black woman artist is not allowed to be isolated. While there’s a tonal and linear give and take between her approach and Maggie Laubser’s, there’s another conversation at play. There is a ceramic vessel by Mma Thabethe, made in the Zulu beer pot tradition, also being shown in this section. It’s obviously not a painting in the traditional Western sense, but rather, it demonstrates the rhythm and ethos of the land in the way in which the pot is decorated.

But there is another voice in this section. Tossed and shifted indiscriminately between ‘owners’ the land is also a deeply Afrikaans thing. Amid controversy and bigoted values, Afrikaans-speakers and farmers whose ancestors arrived on South African soil in the mid 1600s planted roots here, and works such as Tammy MacKay’s gentle etching of farming tools speaks volumes, as it sets up a dialogue with a very silent piece by Pierneef, the simple but politicised line of Erich Mayer and the rustic energy of John Meyer’s work.

Ideologies and discontent

And as you stand back and look at each piece selected in the name of habitation, the capitalist or colonialist echoes are not crudely invisible. The curators’ second section in this exhibition is focused on these ideologies, in work which is more current, perhaps more discursive and even to an extent, both more playful and more sinister in its approaches. Capitalism/Colonialism and other ideologies are represented by the work of Christine Dixie, Louise Linder and Pippa Skotnes. In this small selection of pieces the pristine and complicated colonial-style building is overwhelmingly present. They’re works which represent white people as, with Skotnes’s etching entitled Sounds from the Thinking Strings offer a sense of mysticism which skirts nostalgia for the San aesthetic.

As the focus evolves, the idea of working the land comes into focus, and this is where the more pragmatic focus on farming – or mining – is patent. Again, there is a schism: is it not the farmers who wear the colonialist badge? Not the miners who are the capitalists? In presenting these kinds of question, with work by A Canhill, Nico van Rensburg, Obed Mbele, Godfrey Majadibou, Hale, Jeanette Unite, Jacquiline Crewe-Brown and Carl Jeppe, the curators pose questions, tease discourse out and develop tension. Horses and carts vie with the iconic Johannesburg image of a mine’s headgear, as the landscape looks raw and bleeding from van Rensburg’s palette.

Which brings us to the final section of this exhibition, mooted ‘The Land in Conflict’, this section comprises six subsections exploring the kinds of conflict that have the capacity to up-end land in philosophical, pragmatic and metaphorical ways. This is the exhibition’s central and largest section, and the pieces chosen here more directly irritate the fabric of complacency that the idea of a landscape promotes.

Here there is the work of renowned photographer John Brett Cohen, as there is are pieces by printmakers Erica Hibbert, Nhlanhla Xaba and Stephen Inggs. As you can see the in the work of Christine Dixie also selected in this section, the land represented is no longer about trees and sky, but it flows through the conceptual fabric of text and photographs. This section of the exhibition is about displacement and urbanisation, the birth of mega cities and the pondering approach toward contradiction, and time restraints or chronology are not a consideration: juxtaposing Skotnes’s shaped etching and aquatint plates dealing with ‘white wagons’, with an etching by 19th century artist WH Coetzer reveals similar issues being teased open by artists from different perspectives.

Alan Crump’s bold watercolour painting entitled Earthworks sums up the potency involved in plummeting the land for personal gain, and Sandile Goje’s linocut of a tree signifying the traditional iconic understanding of how democracy as a concern is embraced, stand out as works that are well known, yet remain fresh in the message they convey.

Don’t fence me in

Similarly, Jo Ractliffe’s triptych Nadir offers an understanding of a work in the process of irrevocably slipping into a vortex of dystopia, which opens an intellectual door to works which contemplate a corrosion of traditional practices, believes and values.

Effectively, even in the face of the most extreme of political discourse, the land is immutable. Living in the 21st century with a heightened understanding of imminent environmental seizure, not by one group of people or another, but by the planet itself, in distress, we should not allow ourselves the luxury to imagine that if this happens, the world will end. Indeed, it may end for sustainable life for the human species, but as for the planet itself? It will recover once we’re gone. It may take some time, but it will outlast us all. This is an important exhibition, not only because it presents a significant insight into the art collecting energies of the MTN establishment and the art collecting ethos of the University of Johannesburg over the years, but also because it enables questions around what land means. It’s never just a plot of ground or a handful of soil.