Shifting the boundary: Interview with Nthabiseng Rachel Montshiwa

The NEO Emergence Art Exhibition Curator

This text represent a typed version of a recording documenting Nthabiseng Rachel Montshiwa’s thoughts around the recent NEO Emergence Art Exhibition which she has curated and is on show at the Pretoria Art Museum until 29 October. Great care has been taken to translate the recording verbatim from audio to text. Herein the reader will gather Mme Montshiwa’s journey from being an art student to curator, her philosophy as to what being a curator means, her thoughts on what South African art should focus on as far as content and context are concerned. It is also hoped that the reader will come to appreciate the fact that the writing tries to center around the interviewee; so the questions were constructed with economy to provoke undiluted calculated responses. Lastly the text is inclusive of verbal interruptions and drop ins of Se-Sotho words to retain verbal nuances and moods as the interaction develops and moves.      

–          Mmutle Arthur Kgokong: Today we live in a situation where you having this idea of contemporary art in South Africa or cutting edge and I am wondering what’s your idea in terms of contemporary art, and in terms of cutting edge as far as young artists are concerned in South Africa, um briefly you know, your own opinion, what you think?

–          Nthatbiseng Rachel Montshiwa: I think South African contemporary Art should always mark the social politics there should not be a compromise by the author on what kind of subject matter you focus on and also your technicality must not be compromised because you are looking into new media you should always base your media or medium into what kind of financial background you have and also do not apologize for what you are doing technologically extravagant focus on South African social politics in current issues there shouldn’t  be a compromised on in terms of the artists media or technicalities base you media into what financial background you have.  And also Do not apologize for wanting to be technologically extravagant, I think art is a history tool, it is a historical tool and in this case one should always focus on what’s current what’s affecting us in terms visual language, because an aesthetic is not technicality. An artwork is a message not necessarily a good aesthetic where people should always be enjoying your work but also the reference to it is more important than what you see in a gallery but also taking into consideration that however materials you choose you should always think about presentation because that also puts a space into sort of international market irrespective of what you use you should always have a formal presentation.

–          MAK: So the presentation is very important in terms yah the visual art object in an art exhibition and how the artworks are presented?

–          NRM: So material and technicality aspect is never really an issue because you can always take a rumble and make sense out of it whereas it’s still looks like a rumble. What I like behind each artwork which I present in most cases is the story behind, I don’t like focusing on technicalities or the genres or focusing too much into the historical content of or categories you want to fall in, because we are busy moving forward art is a progress and it’s process, so that kind growth should always be taken into consideration and not necessarily the academical issues because we have also artists from the townships which are not academically awarded so you have these issues white cubes and also presentations of artists who coming from the townships and then you have the privilege already you have a barrier in between that because the way you approach an artwork will never be the same irrespective of where you are coming from artists coming from the townships and artists coming from, so that is why I like the stories because the stories puts everything so clear in the social context rather than looking at the material which an artists use.

–          MAK: Now the recent exhibition the neo emergence art exhibition which is on at the Pretoria Art Museum at the moment. What is the vision behind this exhibition, more especially as far as the future is concerned? What is this exhibition addressing? We know today we have lots of exhibition taking place, why is this exhibition important?

–          NRM: First all Neo Emergence means new or neo in terms of a gift, and also we are not a competition and we are in competitor with any of the other exhibitions that are taking place, either around the museum or in galleries. What we are trying to do is I am a young curator I am trying to be an agent to young emerging artists who have not been staged professionally by any of the art institutions even if they have been shown but not actually under a contract of some sort with any gallery and in this sense it means we are developing the business sense to it where an artists can always approach the business side of it which is Dikaletsa for a website to present their works free of charge and also to get recognized easily because nowadays everybody uses a lot of technology so in this sense in stead of the artist sourcing a representing gallery which is very hard to tap into Dikaletsa is that stage a free floating space where artists can actually market themselves also under my mentorship ‘cause that is my role that is my responsibility to make sure that that these artists are marketed well and also are recognized well whilst they are still young you know. It is like you should recognize a fresh thing before it rots, um so that is what we are doing and in future what we are trying to do we wanna grow as a mentorship space where artists can actually suggest different kinds of art projects either educative or in terms of exhibitions whereby I can always formularise a concept behind an artist’s work and have an exhibition dedicated to that and free of competition or free of too many contracts you know so it should be use friendly to any of the artists that come and approach us to have an exhibition for and we are focusing on um self taught artists, young artists, we are focusing on craftsman we are focusing on emerging artists in a sense that you have been in production for the past three years or four years of your life but have not had any formal exhibitions in your life so that’s where we are coming in and source either funding or source spaces , source the right marketing tool this is where the data base also comes in because a database is the market which will follow an artist you know so as long as you get recognize within this kind of formality where we are a brand then people can easily recognize us by any of the projects that we have because we will be having a logo on top of that so that logo will be a brand in future for other projects.

–          MAK: Now today,… in your own opinion, what do you think the role of the curator is?

–          NRM: I think…

–          MAK: having done the rehearsal exhibitions having participated in the For Sale Exhibitions and now with the Neo Emergence exhibitions and having had the opportunity to go abroad and come back specifically in south Africa, I know in the beginning you alluded to the fact of creating opportunities to artists…I am not sure whether that’s part of the answer; what is the role, what do you think is the role of the curator in South Africa

–          NRM: I think, first of all I think a curator might be a wrong word currently for my opinion I think we should look into another beautiful word for a curator for it creates a lot of expectations and we are currently  changing a lot of approaches in terms of how we present artists therefore I think a curator should be a good administrator of artists, irrespective of the background and should be a good manager of artists, should take care of them as if they’re your own babies  and shouldn’t compromised on talent just because an artist is not being able to produce something or come up with a product  you should always leave some sort of a loop, a space for the artists to come back and prove themselves that’s why I am saying you should be a good administrator because whatever projects you have had you should always return back to them and I’ve always told my self that it is hard to be a curator because south Africa does not have any a schools for curotorial studies but since I have done the For Sale Project Exhibition as an  artists and as a co-curator and I’ve done the Rehearsal Exhibition where we were rehearsing our presentations and formalities as artists and also coming to Neo Emergence Exhibition which is now like the matured product I’ve realized that it is not necessary, it is not very necessary to go to school to acquire some sort of a paper or a certificate to be a curator you should just manipulate your way through in terms of how you do your administration and how also do you do your management in everything in a project. I think that answers it.

–          MAK: …In a way you are alluding to the fact that besides the arts administrator’s responsibility to the exhibition slash curator should, you know eh, work towards a hands on experience…that’s what you mean?

–          NRM: It is more like when you do an experiment even as an as an artist starting off with your career you’re still finding your self, you’re still finding elements which work in your canvas, so eventually it goes with maturity because you cannot make it in the first few years of your life, it needs to be a process and it does not have to be a habit it’s a career because what ever you do, what ever you dream about it goes must be another project and you must get better every time you know, so it is more like polishing each of the projects every time you do it, do it better,  you know, so that’s how you grow as a curator, so you don’t have to have anybody with a different background to influence you too much because every body has a personal taste in how they want to do administration in how they want to do, you know, logistics. It is actually an art making process in its own self because it’s a creative mode where you are thinking about  the kind of artwork you want of have in the space, the kind of artist, the respect that they have towards their artworks, that’s also you know, sort of things you need to look into for any of the projects, so you might not go too well with any of the projects that you doing currently but it will,…in the other…in the next project then you grow better, then you know who to look into, you know who is focused enough to produce enough artworks for each of the projects. And Also how you source funding plays a major role because who acquire funding from, because sometimes, it is more like patronizing who when that somebody, funding you, is not entirely buying into your idea but is more in it for a personal …whereas they’re not part of the project; its more like giving the money, but becoming better it means who do you want to become a patron for your projects, you need people who will follow you up in terms of financial support or any of the logistical support to any of the projects that you are doing, so that’s also part of the growth into curatorial functions.

–          MAK: .. in the present exhibition the Neo Emergence Exhibition…what informed the selection of the artists that are shown in the exhibition?

–          NRM: That’s a very long one… already via smaller exhibition..we, as a curator, I already had a number of artists that I have grown into from the previous exhibitions and also from the Tshwane University which have been a part of its recognizable talent already there artists which were in a stable in a stable to actually select from but also you were looking into the efforts that they have put in any of the previous exhibitions. And then we realize that the funding that we were going to acquire from the SANAVA and the Lottery were actually for a foreign exhibition , we realize that that we should be having a number  certain number of foreign artists to be able to acquire funding, that’s when I also looked into  my network and databases  to say I have dealt with artists from professional institutions so in this case we do not have to focus any more into Pretoria as I have done it before so I’ve also contacted the bag factory in Johannesburg, personally with the artists, and also I’ve gone to the Artists Proof Studio to source whether it was not validated to actually have prints as one of the aspect as art making process in South Africa and then I went to the Market Photo Workshop because we realize that we needed photographers because it is also very well supported medium of art making in South Africa currently and then I’ve also combined different in Africa so it was Nigeria, Kenya  and then, South Africa,  it was Johannesburg and Pretoria we can even go to Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga for currently Gauteng is more like a cultural hub where people come from different spaces and look for opportunities. It was easier to source artists from Gauteng Province because then you can have different artists representing all the localities in South Africa. I also had to look into a personalized invitation to each of the eight artists presented in Neo Emergence but is was very informal just to source how they work what’s their medium whether it will be suitable to be part of the exhibition so each one of them has also shown a capability of production. So they were chosen under the basis that they had artworks readily available which have not been shown in any of the previous exhibitions. Ke bua thata kelebetse le gore ne ke reng.

–          MAK: No don’t worry we are on track, so artists production and their activeness was a major point in selection or the invitation of the artists to participate in the exhibition?

–          NRM: Yes, it can suicidal to source people due to their personality, being in their studios personally also made me realize that these people are also hard workers and people who tend to enjoy their labour in art making for me it made them professional artists irrespective of whether they have shown in professional galleries or not.

–          MAK: Thank you. Now after practicing as an artist you’re self during your fine arts studies what compelled you to go into curatorship?

NRM: (laughs) eh that’s a tough one,..

MAK: What compelled you…?

Nthabiseng Rachel Montshiwa: What happened is let say from my first year as an art student it was not easy  studying to be an artist because of financial reasons, and then in the long run you get commission because of the efforts you put into your own school work, you know, and then eventually you get to the communication class, and then you get this  fun cheerful lecture like Abrie Fourie  who at one gave us an assignment, I think it was in second or third year, that he gave us an assignment that said ‘go and find out what a curator does’ his constant motivation, now I remember very clearly, was you have to recognize your self as an artist who will be showing in galleries you know so you have to visit art galleries and see how they do presentations so that sort of changed my mind a bit to say that now if I make artworks I have to think about presentations and then I visited the Pretoria Art Museum to do my assignment on the curator and then I spoke to Mrs. Dirkie Offringa and then she gave me a huge file of curatorial functions more like what the curator needs to fill up before they get a job done and it was like a hundred something page long document and at that time I thought maybe this is a difficult work but it sounded interesting because the way she explained it is that you just have to look  into what interests you more into the documents. And then it starts talking about a museum worker who displays artworks and then the thinking process into how you put artworks from artists it is different than just hanging them in a easy curio shop.

And from then on I started….well because it was an assignment it only ended me making a good  report on the assignment because of the documentation that I got from the Pretoria Art Museum, but none the less because I was also a volunteer, I was an Education Assistants at the Pretoria Art Museum, it also enticed me into curotorial studies, well it was a study because it is a thinking process and then we did exhibitions ko Centurion Art Gallery where did For Sale which was a lot of fun to see everybody put up their own artworks from different kinds of subject matter but also that presentation of measuring a wall, the relationship on how a viewer will walk in, you know, and see the artworks from different angles and not hiding anything behind any walls, I thought it was a beautiful thing to do, and then in the later year you still do the same thing which is the For Sale and then you get better at it, you know, although I was not there for the second For Sale, I was already in Germany for the Germany South Africa Bilateral Exchange Project, it already became a big shoe for me because I had not had any, what I will call a formal practice like when you are in a museum where you follow up or you are being shadowed by a curator; it was nothing like that, so I took the opportunity because I have already done space curating but not knowing that it actually falls under curotorial studies, so the German trip, the two month stay in Germany also alarmed me a lot, a lot, where you get into a foreign country you realize that fellow curators recognize you as a curator from Africa and then there is an expectation that you should know certain elements (chuckles) and that every topic in a coffee shop or in any meeting its about at and the you get very frustrated because you haven’t done any of the practices before, you know, so if they talk about storage, yes you understand storage but you do not understand restoration, you don’t understand paper, you don’t understand handling of artworks, you don’t understand when artworks sits in the gallery on the floor you have to start putting them on the wall or thinking where everything should be and then that’s when we did a show from south Africa when we were in a museum in Bochum, in Germany, it was called Reality Check, it was South African photography showing the progress of South Africa in 2007

…we were stunned, my companion Nontobeko because the artworks were delivered in the space and this other guy from the museum tells us can we start. We did not know how to start, we did not know what he meant, you know and then we tried to see where everything will fit which was almost enjoyable but uncomfortable      because you don’t know what the other person wants or what are they looking for…  And then we found out on the following Monday that all the artworks were reshuffled (chuckles), it was…we could not put anything the way, and then we started visiting Documenta, we started doing all these other trips to different galleries and then as walked into this kind of process you realize that Documenta is not a fair in terms of market fair like in a vegetable fair, but curation, everybody talks about curation, wherever you get criticism its about the curator having made a mistake about presenting something, so and so and then you realize that the seminar which actually encompasses the whole project…helps the curator to grow and get better from their project; where do you fix things and then we started talking with my companion that maybe this is worth considering also to see the Munster Sculpture Park because it’s a sculptural thing and I also studied sculpture which was even more…

I was keen to visit the sculptures in public space which was something that I haven’t experienced before any wherein the world. Then we started looking into things on how artworks are presented, what is the suitable way; the whole formation – if you have a map   how things are placed and that’s why now I am more obsessed about presentation because without a good presentation you’re not a good curator. You may have crappy artworks but its up to you to make it work, because you’re the middleman between the viewer and the artist, and also you speak for the artists at that time because then the artist might not be available but you should be able to defend the show on a good basis, …looking back today the experience in Germany was a wakeup call to say you either have to make a decision to be an artist or a curator. And I chose to be a curator because I found my joy in resenting artists. And then that’s I started also…when I came back we decided to do a show in order to demonstrate what I had gleaned from the experience abroad. That when we did the Rehearsal Art Exhibition, which was a good show, well attended,  well recognized, its not very easy to get good buyers on a first chance you get in terms of presenting artists, that’s when Dr. Ralf Seippel ga a ne a reka spane sa Danelle Janse van Rensburg and Wayne Vivier which was good because it shows that you put effort into it and was working and also in the meantime because they had seen that show, it was a test, because that’s how I got the job yak o Nairox Foundation to be a young curator there…(silence)…so it means if I done a crappy job ka Rehearsal Art Exhibition they would’ve said that maybe it was not a good idea to suggest this girl, she’s crappier than we thought (laughs)….

Mmutle Arthur Kgokong: Thank you Nthabiseng, that’s it. That’s the end of our interview.


 Opening New Pathways

The German South Africa bilateral programme was formed with the aim to support upcoming artists as well as to develop new curators both in South Africa and Germany through an exchange programme. Its board members first met in Cape Town, Kleinbosch in 2006 to deliberate on the challenges that the arts are facing in terms of new curators coming into the fore specifically as private practitioners as well as opportunities for new emerging artists.  The emergence of new curators, it was seen, would be ideal in stimulating the contemporary art scene by discovering new artists as well as have candidates who would be ideal for positions in art galleries should positions be available in the future thus curbing out the problem of institutions having to employ curators who are not properly trained practically.

The intention of the assembled board was to propose a solution to these challenges. At the end of the first symposium:


–          The board members decided to nominate candidates who will be suitable to be part of the exchange programme in 2007.

In 2007 Nthabiseng R. Montshiwa was selected together with Nontobeko Ntombela to participate in the exchange programme as part of the South African pair. Christian Ganzenberg and Matthias Schamp represented Germany. The South African pair had the opportunity to visit Germany to be expose to the art scene in Munster, Kassel (Documenta), Cologne as well as Berlin. The German pair in turn were expose to South African art through visiting Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. The trainee curators later met in Germany to begin to conceptualize an exhibition which will showcase contemporary art of South African and German artists which was to be schedule to tour both countries in 2010 to coincide with the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Unfortunately in 2009 due to logistical problems the Bilateral Programme flopped before it could reach its maturity which will have seen an impressive exhibition of contemporary art of both South Africa and Germany at a time when the world’s attention was focus on South Africa.

The Pretoria Art Museum is proud that the return of Nthabiseng R. Montshiwa from the encounters of the exchange programme saw her take strides in developing as a curator. This is evident in the Rehearsal Art Exhibitions that she curated both in 2008 and 2009 at the Centurion Art Gallery, these exhibitions focused on art students studying fine arts at Unisa, TUT and University of South Africa as well as self taught practitioners. Nthabiseng has since moved on to be a curator at Nirox Foundation located at the Cradle of Mankind.

With the support of the Pretoria Art Museum’s Education and Development Programme she has now brought together diverse artists into a group exhibition entitled Neo Emergence Art Exhibition which focuses on professional practicing artists based in Gauteng.

21 September

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2010

N.B. This article first made its appearance in posthighdef’21.vol.3 on 8 October 2010