Collapsing Binaries: Curating and Artistic Practices as One

Tšhego Mabaso. 2020
Tšhego Mabaso. 2020

Representing likeness. My dad and my grandad really loved sketching, they would just sketch faces on pieces of paper and on the back of receipts. My dad taught me how to draw a face. He had an approach to do side profiles, starting with a triangle for the eye. It was the first time that I was thinking about representing likeness or trying to draw beyond the scribbles that I was doing. I always loved inscribing things and using my hands, making necklaces out of beads and safety pins…

Curating as a collaborative space. I’ve always seen my practice as an artistic practice, even in my curatorial work. What brought me to curating is that I was really interested in how we use and move through space, and how we experience visual art in particular contexts. I moved from doing site-specific installation-based work to trying to extend that way of thinking to a broader context, including collaboration. When I left university I started a research collective called Rera Letsema with artist Tatenda Magaisa, which became a process of documenting the experiences of artists around us, mainly in Johannesburg. Curatorial practice seemed like a space where I could work with other artists and we could merge various ideas and think through how the audience would interact with them.

Curating as a link. I haven’t produced my own art in some years. I think I embedded my artistic ideas into my curatorial practice. When I was working in installation, creating text-based installations, I had a deep interest in archiving stories, in particular family narratives. I enjoyed the idea of putting together an assemblage of works, and curating it, as an extension of working with text. I was also interested in quasi-anthropological studies that overturn the way knowledge and academia was organised. For instance, I was interested in praise songs (or “Direto” in Sepedi), and I would create books from my family’s praise songs that I would hand-bind—translating songs into text. I would use both Tsonga (from my paternal side) and Sepedi (from my maternal side) languages. There is often that idea that your lineage is rooted in your paternal side, but I was interested in questioning that and exploring connections to my maternal lineage. I have always been interested in the idea of mother tongue and lineage. For me curating is an ongoing translating process. I see it as a link.

Collapsing Definitions. I am really interested in the collapsing or blurring of the binaries that have cornered how we approach modes of artistic production. In particular in Africa, a lot of our local production wasn’t considered high art through a kind of western euro-centric canon. I am invested in the collapse of those ideas. At Iziko, my official title is Curator of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, though I wouldn’t say that painting and sculpture are my areas of expertise, so I am constantly in conversation and contestation with this position. Recently, I worked on an exhibition where works were mostly installation-based, difficult to label, using sound, drawing, and performative gestures. I am interested in destabilising these very strict ideas of what is art.

Tšhegofatšo Mabaso
Tšhegofatšo Mabaso and Julia Taonga Kaseka, “- and counting”, at Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Courtesy !Kauru Contemporary Art From Africa 2019

Introducing fluidity in a public art institution. Before my MA, when I was still doing my undergrad, I started volunteering to give tours at the Wits Art Musuem. It was very interesting for me to think about how heritage is preserved. But I was also an artist and thinking about the work I was doing at the time. It made me question what parts of the work are valuable, and the idea of longevity. When the opportunity came with Iziko, I really wanted to immerse myself in a space where I could think about questions of cultural preservation and knowledge, but also disrupt the ways that heritage has been archived historically, which can often be a singular story or a nationalistic project. Our lived experiences are not fixed and organised like in a museum, we are moving through space and geography all the time. In the museum, I am interested to think about how we preserve knowledge, think about queerness, about nationality, and how categories can interact between each other. I was really excited to be in a public art institution. That is really important for me.

The way I blend my own values and the mission of the museum is an ongoing dance. I have a lot of contention with the museum as an institution, so the way I engage in this dance is by centring on the audience and the artists. It’s a way to open a space for conversation and move through structural limitations. Last year during the start of the lockdown there was this push towards digital mediums. It brought challenging questions—there are still a lot of people who have no access to the internet—I resisted. But one thing I really enjoyed was partnering with Wikimedia South Africa to organise Edit Your Pride, a virtual Wikipedia edit-a-thon where we collectively wrote and edited articles of queer artists and organisations, such as GALA Queer Archive, who shared material from their archives. We were able to create Wikimedia articles that were accessible to many people from different places, and we did that in four hours in our living rooms, on zoom.

Museum in a garden. Iziko has 11 museums, the South African National Gallery (ISANG), where I work, is situated in the Company’s Garden, a public garden in the centre of the city and the oldest garden in South Africa. It was established by the Dutch East India Company as a refreshment site and carries a very potent and loaded history. I often sit and eat my lunch outside on the grass. The museum itself is rather small, and I love the relationship between the inside and the outside where you have a combination of tourists, locals, vendors, artist and various other people using and passing through the garden.

One book that still haunts me is Kindered by Octavia Butler, that includes time travel and slave narratives. I never considered myself as someone who enjoyed science fiction but I realised this was because I was reading mostly cis-heterosexual white male science fiction, or encountering it through that lens. Once a friend shared Octavia Butler’s work I enjoyed it very much. There is also, Lilith’s Brood, a trilogy by her, that I like very much too. Another book I really like is Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity by Cuban-American scholar José Esteban Muñoz, on queer futurity. I identify as a queer black woman, and in his book he uses the idea of queerness as a propellent into the future. That is really exciting for me, how it takes you through a historical and philosophical journey on queerness.

Tšhegofatšo Mabaso, "Territories Between Us" at Iziko South Africa National Gallery 2021
“Territories Between Us” at Iziko South Africa National Gallery 2021

For fun I love hiking. I didn’t grow up in Cape Town, I moved here in 2019, and there is quite a big hiking culture here. The sun is magnificent, you can feel it on your spirit. I also spend a lot of time with my kid, picnicking. My partner and I would go to the park, like the Kistenbosch Botanical Gardens, or the beach, now that the lockdown restrictions let us do it again. The scents of all the fauna and flora are so rich here. I have a friend who tells me whenever you see a butterfly to ask yourself “What have you learnt in this moment?”.

A great future invention would be something that would allow us to see and access memories. I am interested in how memories are stored, it’s an archive that has its own way of working. I would be interested in something that would allow us to access it in different ways.

If I were a collector I would collect things that challenge the idea of longevity and preservation, to end up with no collection at all. Ephemeral, non-objects, residues, traces, I think that is what I would collect.

I never curate a show without talking to at least one artist, whether they are in the show or not. Even if it was a collection-based show where all the artists were deceased, I would still need to talk to one artist as a way to read the work.

I enjoy live music and film quite a lot. Covid has done a number on us with that. A month ago I went to see a live show by Zoe Modiga and it was the first time in months that I got to listen to music not on speakers in my home. It was exhilarating.

Hardship and thinking through installation issues, trouble-shooting, and problem-solving, are probably the best ways to get to know an artist. There is an exhibition up at the gallery at the moment, Territories Between Us, and one work remains incomplete because it involves a fax line. Getting a fax line in 2021 had everyone looking at the artist, Simnikiwe Buhlungu, and me like we were strange. Something else that allows you to know artists is unfinished/ongoing works. It may be that we do a project and apply for funding, and that doesn’t happen several times, and years later we end up doing something together, and it feels like we were at it for a long time. This is the case with Teresa Firmino and Helena Uambembe. We studied our undergrad together and there were many projects we talked about, we did a video recording of studio visits, applied for funding, and talked about creating performances. Now I finally have their work in the exhibition and it feels quite amazing.

I am very detail oriented and sometimes it can be frustrating as I loose sight of the vision, but I try not to fixate on the final exhibition or opening, and rather make sure that each moment is as resolved as it can be. The process is made of these moments. I also accept that there is no documentation about it, and that moments can be lost—and that’s ok.

If I wasn’t curating I would be farming and growing food.

Tšhegofatšo Mabaso

Curator of Contemporary Art at the Iziko South African National Gallery

Cape Town, South Africa


Tšhegofatšo Mabaso is an artist, curator, and researcher based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Iziko South African National Gallery.
In her practice, she is interested in experimental approaches to knowledge production, exploring new curatorial methods and imagining new forms, whether for exhibitions, collections or institutions. Collaboration influences her thinking, drawing on the wealth of knowledge and approaches collectives have offered us historically. Her current research looks to what queerness as a mode of being in the world offers and incites a critical and generative space for knowledge production and possibilities of radical futures. Notable recent projects include The Art of Lithography: A Collaborative Expression of LL Editions (2018) Wits Art Museum; Minding Our Business (2018/2019) in collaboration with VANSA; – and counting (2019) Johannesburg Art Gallery; Edit Your Pride Virtual edit-a-thon (2020); Territories Between Us (2021) Iziko South African National Gallery. 
At the South African National Gallery, she undertakes research relating to contemporary artistic practices and oversees the collection of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture. 
Research Areas:
Mabaso’s work draws extensively on ideas of collaboration evident in the practices of artist collectives historically. Her Master’s thesis The Curatorial:  An analysis of Xenoglossia, a research project (2011), and Featuring Simplicity as an Irrational Fear (2010), interrogates the conditions under which curatorial practices have developed in South Africa in the early 2000s and the impact of collaborative creative methodologies on these practices. 
She is currently exploring the practice of experimental collaborative ways of working in institutional contexts and as a framework through which to work with collections.

Art critic and writer.

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