Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Voice-Overs: Wits Writings Exploring African Art Works Edited by A. Nettleton, F. Rankin-Smith and J. Charlton (University of the Witwatersrand Art Galleries, 2004)

Voice-Overs is a very handsome, in fact, completely captivating catalogue produced to commemorate the travelling Voice-Overs exhibition, which showcases works from the Standard Bank Collection of African Art housed at the University of the Witwatersrand. Together with the introductory essay by Anitra Nettleton, a number of short contributions, notably by the two other curators of the show, serve to explain the history behind this interesting project, which highlights the difficulties posed by attempting to identify art works of exceptional quality through a process of consensus.Drawing on the experience of earlier efforts to do so, the curators decided to approach 53 people connected to the University of the Witwatersrand in some way or another, either in the past or in the present, to select a treasure from the Standard Bank Collection of African Art and write a short accompanying text to explain their choice. Among the contributors are Jane Taylor, William Kentridge, Penny Siopis, David Bunn, Moleleki Frank Ledimo and Karel Nel. Although the curators made a pre-selection of items they regarded as special, in many cases the participants chose other works from the collection.”Some knew instantly what their choice would be, having long had strong feelings for specific artworks; others identified objects while exploring the range of possibilities contained in the collection,” reveal the curators. Many of those objects and artworks favoured by the curators themselves were not selected at all. Through this process they were consequently compelled to reassess works that had previously not been recognized as treasures at all.Patricia Davison, the external reader for the catalogue, explains the impact for her of reading the texts sent to her for comment. “My attention was drawn to the spaces between the chosen object and the subjective voice that gave it personal significance and the promise of unfolding new meanings,” writes Davison. “I imagined conversations taking place, inspired by the presence and power of the objects to evoke creative responses in the present.” As she rightly points out, these responsive voices by the 54 contributors are polyphonic, “at times poetic, at others descriptive and occasionally disquieting”.As a result, Voice-Overs is at once challenging and provocative. The reader is sometimes encouraged to look anew at seemingly minor artworks, while in others cases fascinating insights are provided into why and how particular items affected the contributor personally. In short, this is a beautifully produced catalogue that sustains one’s interest from beginning to end.

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