Ask the Curator: Storm Janse van Rensburg
Born in 1972, Storm Janse van Rensburg is head curator of exhibitions at SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, USA, since 2015, with responsibilities to oversee the art exhibitions programme for the university. Before relocating to the USA, Janse van Rensburg lived in Berlin, Germany (2012 – 2015) working as an independent curator with institutions such as Nolan Judin, Berlin; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; Johannesburg Art Gallery, South Africa; Savannah College of Art and Design, USA; SAVVY Contemporary; National Arts Festival, South Africa and the Neuer Berlin Kunstverein, Berlin. He was a research fellow of the Academy for Advanced African Studies, University of Bayreuth, Germany from 2013 to 2015. Before relocating from South Africa he was senior curator at Goodman Gallery Cape Town (2007 – 2012) and curator of the KwaZulu Natal Society of Arts (KZNSA), Durban (2000 – 2006). He was a founding member of the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA). He has edited a number of exhibition catalogues and has written for African Arts Journal, Art South Africa, Metropolis M, Canvas and Contemporary And magazines amongst others. In this interview with Omenka he talks about his curatorial practice, his decision to return to institutional practice and future projects
You served as the senior curator at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town from 2007-12, worked as an independent curator from 2012-15, and are currently the head curator of exhibitions at SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, United States. What informed your decision to leave independent practice and return to institutional practice?
My career choices and opportunities have developed very organically, and is a direct result of a supportive network. When I was offered an opportunity to work at SCAD, I was initially determined to maintain my independent career, but after a three-month period of living in the city and understanding the possibilities and opportunities that the institution offered under the guidance of SCAD president and founder Paula Wallace, I committed to stay. I have been lucky to work in a broad international context, spanning three continents, and in almost every conceivable kind of art institution, ranging from independent, nonprofit spaces, the commercial world to the museum and academic environment. It has been an incredibly rewarding time – where our work as a curatorial team impacts directly on student’s curriculum. We have numerous top ranked art degree programs here at SCAD and to have the ability to provide our students and alumni, as well as local communities the opportunity to regularly interact with leading international artists is something our entire exhibitions team takes pride in. The university’s art programming allows direct engagements with ideas important for our context and time. We prioritize working with artists on new commissions that give opportunity to reflect not only on our particular history, but also contributing to new lexicons and discourse with contemporary art as the central axis.
What are some of the marked contrasts you’ve noticed between both practices?
I realized that I work better within an institutional framework – I need structure and support. Besides the impact this has on maintaining a livelihood, SCAD Museum of Art allows a nimble way of working, and an opportunity to test curatorial approaches and methodologies, and have provided a platform for artists that I think is almost unparalleled within university museum environments.
What other differences besides the commercial have you observed between working in a university environment like the SCAD Museum and your previous work at Goodman Gallery?
My experience in the commercial world has provided an opportunity to really understand the machinations of the art world, in an intimate way. The market drives much of contemporary art, and this has been incredibly insightful to see and engage in. I am glad that I got to experience a different pace that the commercial world works in – it’s fast and quick, and it has been useful in applying this knowledge and experience in different ways.
You are a founding member of the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA). How would you evaluate its success in achieving its objectives so far?
VANSA grew out of a need for a new model for artists’ representation in South Africa, and the founding made a profound impact – it currently operates with a dynamic group of voices and a new generation of art workers that has really maintained its presence in South Africa. The initial groundwork we laid was intense, and it is incredibly rewarding to see, albeit from a distance, that it is going strong as an organization. Artist’s rights are fundamental, and wonderful work continues to be done in this regard by the organization.
You have also curated several group and solo exhibitions both independently and for galleries you’ve worked with. What informs your selection of artists?
Curatorial practice is essentially about relationships and networks. I strongly believe that context is important, but it is a matrix of considerations. I am drawn to artists and works that are critically engaged with issues of our time, and I have been in conversation with many artists over an extended period of time before a project materializes.
How do you explore issues of inclusion and diversity in curating shows at the SCAD Museum?
As mentioned above, our programming takes into consideration a number of pointers. Firstly we offer an international program at SCAD Museum of Art, that is a reflection of our student body, that represents not only the United States but also Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe. We also maintain a finger on the pulse of the art world, so often present first museum exhibitions for emerging artists, in dialogue with projects with established voices.
Since the inception of the museum in its current incarnation and premises in 2011, the Walter O. Evans Centre for African American Studies has fostered discourse, dialogue and engagement with African American and African Diaspora artists and thinkers on art, history and culture through exhibitions and lectures.
With regard to research, education and exhibitions, in what ways has the SCAD museum contributed to contemporary art in Africa and her related diaspora?
SCAD Museum of Art maintains important and significant links with contemporary art from Africa and her related diasporas, and we consider it an embedded part of the discourse and practices of global contemporary art. The Walter O. Evans Centre, as mentioned above, provides a dedicated space for dialogue. We also hosted the groundbreaking “’The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists’ curated by Simon Njami in 2014 and co-hosted its North American tour in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum for African Art in Washington D.C.
Our research exhibition Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence in 2017, amongst other inquiries, considered the revered American painter’s practice within a larger pan-African context, bringing attention to the time he spent during the tumultuous mid-1960s in Nigeria. The exhibition also included recent work by contemporary artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, as well as a new commission by Meleko Mokgosi. Our book on the project is about to be published!
During the last decade the institution has hosted major new commissioned works and exhibitions by among others, Odili Donald Odita and Jane Aelxander in 2012, Yinka Shonibare MBE and Siemon Allen in 2013, Serge Alain Nitegeka in 2015 and Robin Rhode in 2016. Currently, in our Pamela Elaine Poetter Gallery, we have a site-specific exhibition by Nicholas Hlobo, as part of our annual deFINE ART program, which celebrated its 10th edition this year.
There has been rapidly growing interest in art from the African continent and her diaspora with more Africans featuring in international exhibitions, biennials and fairs. What do you think the future holds for art and artists from Africa?
We are at a significant point – and indeed, new appointments internationally and a slew of new institutions being established for the research and collection of art of Africa on the continent is contributing to an important moment. It is significant however to consider that much of the discourse and market around contemporary African Art remains in Europe and in the United States, and it would be important to see how the conversations are driven and supported and nurtured on home soil. The repatriation of African Art looted during colonial times offers a significant tipping point – a historical moment for African institutions to take back ownership (also metaphorically speaking) of its cultural, historical and intellectual contribution to world culture, and for new institutions to develop.
Is there any new project you would like to share?
We are currently working on an exciting project on Frederick Douglass, and the papers, photographs and documents of this extraordinary historical figure and his family, in the collection of Dr. Walter O. Evans. We are working with contemporary artists on a series of new commissions, based on these papers, which will open at SCAD Museum of Art in the fall of this year.
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