Shaping and constructing national and global identities through disseminations of South African art

South Africa has a mixed history of multiple settler colonisations and a late decolonization from Apartheid, becoming the source of much early European imaginary of Africa and of both African Resistance and African Renaissance. This makes the country an interesting focus of research, as the postcolonial - often conflictual - rethinking of identities is still so present in the mind of many South Africans. The rethinking of identities is likely to have had a great impact on the ways museums and art galleries in South Africa disseminate art and ethnography. The museums and art galleries will therefore - through their interpretations and different narratives of the past and present - form an invaluable resource in understanding South Africa’s place in the world of today.

The research for this part of the Global Europe project will take place in South African and European museums and art galleries, using anthropological, historical and museological methods. It will focus on the influence of museums and art galleries in shaping and constructing national and global identities. The overall emphasis of the project will be on object classifications and thematic approaches to the dissemination of art and “ethnographica” in the leading museums and art galleries of South Africa. I seek to explore how these museums and art galleries engage with the public through educational and outreach programs. By doing so I hope to shed light on how South African museums and art galleries are working as tools of reconciliation by changing their agendas and exhibition strategies in order to reach broader audiences and create awareness of other aspects of South Africa than hitherto.

An important element of the project is further to explore how South Africa is interpreted and disseminated in European museums and art galleries. This research will take place in leading museums and art galleries in South Africa’s former colonial powers: The United Kingdom and The Netherlands. In understanding classification and exhibition practices in South Africa today I find it crucial to understand the contexts South African art and ethnography are part of and have been part of in European collections. This understanding will add to the part of my research dealing with the overlapping concepts of art and ethnography - a distinction, which to some degree has been discussed since the very foundation of many ethnographic museums.