Wits Art History Department in the 1980s
Once upon a time a very long time ago, in a past life, I taught History of Art at Wits (for over 20 years). Traditionally art history courses in colonial institutions emphasized western art with some local subject matter included. However, the Art History Department at Wits was always innovative in its teaching and, in 1977, against the background of the exclusion of black visual culture from most histories of South African art, courses in African Art were introduced into the curriculum under Anitra Nettleton. This was a first for South Africa. And a year later Wits and the Standard Bank established the Standard Bank African Art Collection, a collection which is today housed at the Wits Art Museum and contains over 5000 objects from all over Africa.
Understanding history through the lens of the present
Several years later, in the mid 1980s, we continued to revise the Art History curriculum of the courses we taught on Western Art History. One of the favourite expressions of our then head of department, Liz Rankin, was “Do not throw the baby out with the bath water”. So we changed our teaching methodology rather than completely changing the content of the curriculum. We started with close analysis of local examples and once students had grappled with the visual and architectural language of building and images from their everyday environment, we examined these local examples in their historical, cultural and ideological context. Wits Great Hall was an ideal starting point to visit Greek and Roman Classical architecture as well as neo-classical revivals over the centuries and the values they communicate.
The Wits Catholic Church helped “concretize” Romanesque monastic church styles (although not scale!) as well as enabled active experience of the form and function of religious spaces (in this case Christian).
And getting students to critically engage with how they organized their own living spaces, enabled insights into how the structure and organization of space follows function, creates meaning and establishes hierarchies of value.
Some time ago I wrote about the Nizamiye Mosque in Midrand.
If only this mosque had been around when I was teaching in the History of Art overview course at Wits. A visit to this building would have made teaching Byzantine/Near Eastern architecture sooo much easier. Large-scale domes and semi-domes, clerestory lighting, pendentives and arches, a decorative inner skin – all are here – and offer a real bodily and visual experience rather than having to rely on imaginative reconstruction from a series of faded slides in a darkened lecture theatre. [Those were the days of slides (only slightly more up-to-date than the epidiascopes my teachers used at school)!] When I asked a student whether he had to keep falling asleep during lectures, he replied ‘No, it’s purely voluntary’. (Actually, that was Winston Churchill’s line, but it could have been a student line!)
The Voortekker Monument
The infamous monument to Afrikaner nationalism and racist ideology was a ‘perfect’ example of the role visual and architectural language can play in the construction of nationhood and the embodiment of ideology. And this was how I ended up flat on my back out cold on the marble floor of the Vootrekker Monument after racing a Wits colleague up the 130 steps from parking level to the entrance. We took a group of some 120 first year students for a “field trip” to the Monument and as we got out of the bus my colleague (10 years younger than me) said … “I’ll race you to the top”. There are some challenges I cannot resist. So off we set. Reaching the top (I am sure Rhoda won!), I attempted to recompose myself as the lecturer in charge of this group and the students only now beginning to embark on the steep climb up the stairs. Valiantly approaching the reception desk in that oppressive, overpowering space, taking large gulps of air to feed my burning throat and starved lungs, the next thing I remember is opening my eyes to see the oculus above, with Rhoda at my side saying “OMG I’ve killed her”! The first student to arrive inside took one look at me and said very drily “Well now. That’s appropriate: the first sacrifice at the monument’s altar should be a Wits lecturer”.
From this early foray into the role of architecture in the construction of identity and nationhood, I went on to research the Monument in greater depth some years later in the 1990s. But more of that in another post.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Wits Art History department was the leading department in the country along with the Fine Arts Department. Chris Barron in his obituary for Alan Crump, (appointed in 1980 as Head of Fine Arts, one of the youngest Professors and HODs at Wits) notes how Alan grew the department which, by the 1990s was regarded as “the best nursery for artistic talent in the country”. To augment the teaching talents of Robert Hodgins and Neels Coetzee more famous artists joined the Fine Arts Department: including Penny Siopis, Karel Nel, Clive Van Den Berg, Peter Schütz, Walter Oltmann, Colin Richards . That is a very impressive line-up. In addition to those mentioned above, art historians included Sandra Klopper, Michael Godby, Rory Doepel, Brenda Danilowitz, among other “sessional” lecturers.
Sadly, both departments, long subsumed into the Wits School of Arts, are no longer the beacons of academic excellence which they once were. The baby has now indeed been thrown out with the bathwater.