Open letter to the director of the Tatham Art Gallery
Dear Thulisiwe Mseleku,
You have recently been given the extraordinary privilege and heavy responsibility of taking over the management of the Tatham Art Gallery, one of the most respected art galleries in this country. A jewel of excellence in the heart of our city.
Originally housed in the Town Hall, a collection of art collected by Ada Tatham from 1903, in 1990 it was moved across the road to the Old Court Heritage Building supreme, built in 1875 and brilliantly modified by local architect Gordon Small.
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An invaluable collection of world art – perhaps the best in South Africa – French Impressionists, Victorian art, South African art of caliber such as Walter Battiss, JHPierneef, Irma Stern, Maggie Laubser, Diamond Bozas, Andrew Verster, Aiden Walsh, Gerard Bhengu, Kobie Venter, John Muafangejo, Azaria Mbatha, Kudzanai Chiurai, Vulindlela Nyoni, the Magwaza family. The museum also houses excellent works of sculpture and ceramics.
This position requires huge shoes to follow in the footsteps of previous directors such as Lorraine Raab, Valerie Leigh, Lorna Ferguson and, since 1992, Brendan Bell, who retired in 2018.
At Brendan’s funeral in July, his staff paid tribute to his legacy: “His focus on professional museum practice and the development of the gallery‘s collection of artwork to reflect the society around us has placed the gallery among the best in the country.
Brendan’s intention was to create conversations between artworks across cultures, geography and time – constantly updated in order to navigate the choppy waters of a democratic society.
Artist Ian Calder said: “Brendan has brought his extraordinary aesthetic insight and visionary conviction to curating and presenting the works of contemporary artists and craftsmen in Pietermaritzburg and KZN for enjoyment, creative inspiration and cultural education of our local communities.”
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It was Brendan, most ably aided by senior museum officer Bryony Clark, who for nearly 30 years greatly expanded the scope of the gallery, regularly holding new exhibitions and openings – joyful and festive affairs, attracting crowds of eager attendees to join in the sharing of food. , wine and discussion around the art exhibition.
Other very popular events include the frequent Music Revival concerts hosted by Christopher Duigan, often featuring world-class musicians to enrich our cultural experience in Pietermaritzburg; the weekly Film Club hosted by Anton van der Hoven and Jill Arnott showcasing internationally acclaimed films.
Other interesting activities include the artists’ forum where artists come together to offer advice and constructive criticism on the work of their colleagues; young adult art classes and workshops in conjunction with the UKZN Visual Arts Centre.
And numerous illustrated lectures in the comfortable amphitheater introduced the public to a variety of topics related to the appreciation of the rich variety of the PMB community – social, cultural and religious.
“Each year, artwork from the Matric classroom is showcased, encouraging outstanding young talent to express their excitement and apprehension about the world they are entering, supported by many dedicated teachers.”
Such activities contribute to a sense of community; a safe place offering a space to experiment, learn from the experience of others and become familiar with the heritage of our region.
Renowned local artists and teachers such as Juliet Armstrong, Jinny Heath, Ian Calder, Louise Hall, Heather Gourley-Conynham, Sue and Henry Davies, Terence King, Clive Sithole, Siyabonga Sikosana, Hussein Salim, Juliette Leeb-du Toit, Thami Jali , Beauty Sekete, Tsholofelo Moche, Jaap and Shan Jacobs, Mary-Ann Hartley; voluntarily offered their support.
Each year, artwork from the Matric classroom is showcased, encouraging outstanding young talent to express their excitement and apprehension about the world they are entering, supported by many dedicated teachers.
My association with the Tatham stems primarily from my many years of membership in the Friends of Tatham Gallery (Fotag) – a group of volunteers and friends who support the gallery primarily through fundraising events.
And my involvement in one of the highlights of recent times – the annual year-end Fabulous Picture Show – where local artists donate works and crowds of eager bidders jostle to outbid each other on others ; the money flowing into the coffers helping with new purchases for the gallery.
The Craft Shop, renowned throughout the country, encouraged talented local artisans to offer high quality work for sale to an enthusiastic public. And Cafe Tatham provides another space for conversation and casual interaction while enjoying coffee and cake.
Today, the value of art museums around the world is seen as more relevant than ever – recognized as much more than just a building displaying a collection of paintings and sculpture; but having the power to transform the way we enjoy and reshape our lives and our societies.
Art, especially visual images, has the ability to shine a light on the weaknesses and wickedness of society, often shocking us into our complacency in ways that verbal depictions of our fellow sufferers are unable to do.
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Art can stimulate uncomfortable and provocative social commentary and dialogue about injustice and censorship, attempting to stifle creativity.
Art also records the history of humanity, endlessly enriching life, testifying to the creative and eternally restless human spirit in search of beauty, meaning and identity.
The National Art Gallery, London; the Museum of Modern Art in New York; The Louvre, Paris; the Archaeological Museum of Athens; The new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) in Cairo will open in November 2022 – all serving the invaluable function of preserving, exhibiting and educating us about our potential to elevate the mind above the material and the mundane; celebrating vitality, energy, creativity, the foundation of all the great civilizations of the world.
The recent Tatham exhibition “Insurrection-Resurrection” recalling the rampage of theft and destruction of July 2021, painfully records how in a very short period – in this case five days – the beauty and architecture of years can be destroyed. The flames licking dangerously close to this exquisite edifice and its priceless and irreplaceable treasures.
Reminders of the fragility of our precious heritage, and of our responsibility to preserve all that enriches our existence.
You have inherited the complex and controversial past of this city and this country, embodied in the huge companion portraits of Queen Victoria and King Cetshwayo that stare at you as you ascend and descend the main staircase every day – displayed together for suggest our ability to coexist in the future.
So, I wish you all the best as you stand in the footsteps of those inspiring role models who have gone before you, supported by your staff who have learned from them, on the threshold of your own great journey of discovery – jealously guarding and valuing this heritage belonging to all the citizens of this city.