Posted on September 1, 2010

Gallery Director Defends Decision to Swap Gainsborough for African Works

David Smith, Guardian (London), September 1, 2010

Riason Naidoo knows how to ruffle feathers. His decision to remove paintings by the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds that had hung in South Africa’s National Gallery for 63 years provoked a fierce backlash, with one magazine fuming that the museum’s reputation had been “trashed” .

Now, in his first major interview since the row erupted, Naidoo, the first non-white director of the collection in its 139-year history, has responded to critics he regards as being part of a “largely white” art establishment in Cape Town.

Naidoo, who grew up in a township and is of Indian descent, believes the hostile reaction to the five-month show, an overview of a century of South African art, could in part be racially motivated. “The art world in South Africa has been largely white,” he said. “Cape Town is known to be quite colonial. So apart from being a new director, I’m also the first black director in a museum where there have never been black curators.

“There is definitely resistance to change. There are a number of firsts in putting this exhibition on and there is bound to be reaction from certain conservative quarters to change.”

Naidoo, who was appointed last year, endured a withering review in the influential Art Times. He added: “The Art Times has a specific agenda, whatever that is. But I did get feedback from many elderly white women from affluent areas who come to the gallery regularly and congratulated us on the show.”

Controversy centred on the Sir Abe Bailey bequest, one of the biggest collections of British sporting art. Bailey, a British-educated South African mining magnate and politician, donated more than 400 works to the gallery, where they went on display in 1947, on condition that some were always on show. About 80 were hanging in two rooms, including many images of horses and hunting in 19th-century Britain, when Naidoo got permission from the Sir Abe Bailey Trust to take them down. “I think they saw the light,” he said.

“For the first time I thought it wasn’t really appropriate because it’s a kind of colonial English collection and there are many of those around the world in the English colonies. It wasn’t really showcasing any aspect of South African culture that was unique to the history of this period. It was a conscious decision to show contemporary work in those spaces.”

Naidoo replaced them with contemporary works such as the photographer Mikhael Subotzky’s images of the Ponte City building in Johannesburg and Mary Sibande’s striking piece Conversation with Madam CJ Walker, a life-size model with synthetic hair.

But he insisted he was not trying to deny the influence of British painters on South Africa and would draw on the Bailey bequest for an exhibition opening next month. “We all acknowledge that there has been colonialism. The National Gallery is a product of this colonial past as many other museums around the country are. It’s not to deny this history at all, but so has there been Dutch history, a bit of French history as well.

“The question is what percentage of space do we allocate this history and how are all the other histories represented at the same time.

“South Africa has 11 official languages; how do their stories compare with these stories that have been shown for this amount of time? Has there been equal attention given to indigenous cultures, for example, or new black artists working in western style?”

There is frustration at the slow pace of racial transformation in art 16 years after apartheid. Naidoo, 40, believes there are signs of change in Johannesburg and evidence of more black students studying art at major universities.

“But it is still very elite,” he added. “I think it’s got to do with the problem of art education at schools. It was horrible during apartheid. Art was not offered in township schools so you had hardly anyone being trained in art from a young age, and that hasn’t changed much post-apartheid. So you have generations of broadly black people who’ve never entered an art museum. I think that’s the root of the problem in that it has kept the art world an exclusively white domain.”

Naidoo, who helped create a museum for the celebrated Timbuktu manuscripts in Mali, has been invited to discuss the current exhibition, 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective, at a workshop for curators at Tate Modern in London next month.

But his critics are implacable. Gabriel Clark-Brown, the editor of Art Times, said: “The National Gallery has an obligation for excellence: one puts on a good job or not at all. He rushed this show and compromised the curatorial professionalism the National Gallery is known for. It doesn’t hang together as a show. He’s Wal-Marting South African art without context, which I’m angry about.”

He condemned Naidoo’s decision to remove the Bailey bequest. “The manner in which they came down was a bit distasteful and there were more subtle ways of doing it. He regards them as colonial but they are part of the nation’s heritage and evolution. I find them valuable in terms of keying into the value of art to the nation. They paid homage to the great English masters.”

He acknowledged that a recent survey found South Africa’s art market was still 80-90% white but said he opposed the politicisation of art. “As soon as you introduce quotas, it’s going to be a political tool and Stalinise the industry.”

He added: ” I believe Riason Naidoo was a political appointment rather than on merit. That inevitably leads to certain things. When he starts with his, ‘I’m here to politicise art,’ people do get a bit iffy.”