Gabi Ngcobo: A curator’s journey

Gabi Article

Gabi Ngcobo has been engaged in collaborative, artistic, curatorial, and educational projects in South Africa and internationally for over 20 years. She has done curatorial work for institutions such as the KwaZulu-Natal Society of the Arts and the Johannesburg Art Gallery. She was part of the curatorial team for the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo. In the education space, she was a visual arts lecturer at the Wits School of Arts between 2011 and 2020. 

Ngcobo is a founding member of the Center for Historical Re-enactments (2010 to 2014), and of a collaborative platform called the NGO – Nothing Gets Organised, since 2016. The art world and museum industry may know her as the Curatorial Director at Javett-UP, but Ngcobo has been appointed as the Director of Kunstinstituut Melly in Rotterdam, Netherlands, starting January 2024. 

For the IQOQO Sessions that were held in August 2023, Gabi Ngcobo shared her experiences in the heritage and visual arts sectors, especially having started her career at a time that looked far different from today. 

Gabi Ngcobo: Over the years, my interest has been in artistic, educational, self-organised and collaborative cultures. Including how they can challenge institutions to apply decolonial practices in their day-to-day operations and programmes. 

How I got to where I am today is a long story full of twists and turns. I cannot claim that everything was planned. I did make some very hard decisions early on, that I have had to stubbornly stand by and see through. I have placed myself in difficult situations in an industry that was more discriminatory than it is now, and fought alongside other young Black artists and art students that were coming up. 

Very early in my career, I began to understand the power of standing on each other’s shoulders, and very much took on a collaborative approach from the start. For me, making it means that I can sit in a room full of Black people positively contributing to create a healthier art sector – one that is open, supportive, mainstream, and inclusive. 

Ngcobo’s journey into the art world began at a time when art was not a subject readily found in Black schools – Ngcobo’s high school was one of only two KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) township schools that offered it. She studied Fine Arts at the University of KZN (then the University of Westville), a previously Indian-only University in Durban, and later attended the Bard College’s Centre for Curatorial Studies in New York. Residencies played an important role early on in her career.

Gabi Ngcobo: My first residency was a result of an invitation from the late ntate David Koloane to the Bag Factory. I had met ntate David when he was invited by my university to be an external examiner in my final year. After the Bag Factory, I was invited for a residency at Greatmore Studios in Cape Town where I spent four months. Whilst I was in Cape Town, I became aware of the Pro Helvetia Arts Council of Switzerland and I was invited to apply for a residency that took me to Basel, Switzerland for four months. Basel was followed by a short residency at Rocktone Studios in Lusaka, Zambia. 

All these opportunities were the result of building networks that led to long-lasting collaborative friendships. 

My struggles early on were access, double standards, and gatekeeping in the art world. I was able to overcome these struggles by self-initiation, working collaboratively and practising deep listening. 

Ngcobo recalibrated the way she thinks and works, to disrupt the cultural scene and create opportunities for herself and other Black creatives. 

Gabi Ngcobo: In Durban, for example, we were able to come together with other artists of different generations – musicians and poets including Khwezi Gule, Thando Mama, Zamani Makhanya, Sfiso ka-Mkame, Sazi Dlamini, Madala Kunene and others – to form a collective we called Third Eye Vision. 

Later on, I worked closely with Donna Kukama and Kemang Wa-Lehulere as part of a collaborative experimental platform that I co-founded, known as the Center for Historical Reenactments – CHR for short. 

Founded in 2010, CHR soon gained attention both locally and internationally beginning with a collaboration with Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism convened by Wiser at Wits University. 

Gabi Ngcobo: We practised out of August House before its current formation and used the area in Doorfontein as our canvas – meaning we did not allow ourselves to be contained by the space. 

Na ku Randza, a project that we initiated in 2011, for example, took place on the street corners near August House and helped us to understand the histories of the area and employ speculative strategies in interpreting the histories artistically. 

In 2011, we were invited to take part in the 11th Lyon Biennale in France. We went on to collaborate with the New Museum in New York, Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm, and Alf Kumalo Museum in Diepkloof, Soweto. We were featured as part of Okwui Enwenzor’s curatorial project The Rise and Fall of Apartheid and the Goethe Institute Joburg’s Uber(W)unden: Art in Troubled Times.

We produced texts, workshops and commissioned works by artists such as Nothando Mkhize, Zanele Muholi, Mbali Khoza, Murray Kruger, Sanele Manqele, Breeze Yoko and invited as part of our projects local and international artists and curators including Tony Cokes, Jakub Ferri, Sohrab Mohebbi, Ryan Inouye, Eungie Joo, Hlonipha Mokoena, Karen Cytter, Wu Tsang, Tracey Rose, Keleketla Library and Magan Mace, among others. 

In December 2012, we decided to end the project with a 12-hour-long event that we titled We Are Absolutely Ending This. We continued to operate by developing what we referred to as a haunting strategy. Haunting obsolete systems that no longer had a place in today’s world here in South Africa, and elsewhere. 

Having forged an important path, Ngcobo acknowledges some important mentors and practitioners who she drew inspiration from along the way. 

Gabi Ngcobo: I have always been inspired by people who defied expectations and cultivated voices that highlight the imbalances in South African communities. One of the people I encountered very early in life, as I have noted, was ntate David Koloane. He made critical work, wrote, ran a gallery, curated exhibitions, and created opportunities for South African artists. 

I am inspired by Helen Mmakgabo Sebidi’s work: her storytelling and her approach to history and spirituality. 

I am inspired by young people who choose to work together experimenting with artistic practices that go beyond individuality. 

What excites me about the industry is that there are more alternative platforms and creative strategies that are not only reliant on government initiatives for resources. It excites me that there are more younger people choosing to work as curators alongside younger artists with fresh perspectives, accompanying each other’s journeys. 

I think what I found quite unexpected about the industry is that art writing is mostly solicited and rarely critical. 

I find it interesting that artist collectives usually have a short lifespan in South Africa, unlike in other places that I have been. I respect the resilience and engaged working pace of Keleketla Library, Chimurenga, and MADEYOULOOK. 

To young curators and artists, I’d advise them to stay true to themselves and avoid trends that do not speak to their own realities. 

What drove Ngcobo to pursue a career in the arts?

Gabi Ngcobo: It’s a funny story. What drove me to art was not really art. Art was introduced to my school as an alternative to maths. When I got to Grade 10, I could do art, biblical studies, or maths, so I chose art. 

I was learning a lot about artists in Paris, including [Gerard] Sekoto, so I wanted to be an artist and go live in Paris. When I did art, I didn’t know any artists and had no references. I then got my references from the book that I was reading. For the rest of the journey, nothing was really planned, but I did decide to go to university when I finished high school. 

Besides maths, I had really good grades, so I could have done anything, but I chose to get into the arts because I felt that I found the knowledge.

Straddling the visual arts and heritage sectors as she has, has enabled Ngcobo to bring new voices and perspectives to the field. 

Gabi Ngcobo: There is no one answer to the question of what curatorial work is. I have my answer because I have my approach to curatorial practice, and other people have other knowledge. It’s quite a vast field. 

The way that I look at the curatorial field is that it’s a way of being in the world, a way of existing, of thinking. It could be an attitude to history, or how I perceive history and how I have had conversations with different people, especially in classes, then finding fresh perspectives and positions on history. 

Sometimes exhibitions cannot carry everything we need to say. Sometimes what we need to say is in publications, sometimes it is in dancing in the streets. And I think all of that is part of engaging with the curatorial as an embodied practice. I think it’s a way of questioning the world, being part of the world and making space for other people’s voices. 

Looking at spaces like the Iziko South African National Art Gallery and the Javett Art Centre, how does Ngcobo differentiate a museum, an art gallery, and an art centre? 

Gabi Ngcobo: I think a gallery can be a museum. I worked at an art centre that operated as an art centre. At the same time, there were museum functions, and we did that because there were collections to take care of and to think about who the audience is. 

With commercial galleries, of course, art moves from the studio to a situation in which it goes public. Then, museums are the next step – it’s where you basically cannot touch the art anymore. 

Some people have argued that museums are where art goes to die. Of course, when you enter the museum, there are certain rules that are sometimes unwritten. 

I like the idea of an art centre because, as South Africans, we know the role that art centres played in the 1970s and ‘80s. Initiated by groups of artists that came out for us and started planting art centres in different parts of the townships, and they became home to people. I think museums should be that – places where people feel impacted, and I think that doesn’t happen very often. 

In the ’70s and ‘80s, there was an art centre called Mofolo, there was one in Katlehong, there was one completing art projects in Joburg, one in Cape Town. So they were quite vast. Including the Johannesburg Art Foundation that allowed a lot of Black artists to have some formal or informal training or spaces to be able to carry out and share ideas. 

No industry is indeed without any flaws. Although she can point out some of the holes in museums that need to be closed, Ngcobo acknowledges and respects the work that they do in a social sense and for history’s sake. 

Gabi Ngcobo: Preserving artefacts is preserving history. It’s almost like they are books. That is, museums are like libraries. If we go by Nina Simone saying that “an artist’s duty is to reflect the times”, then the work that artists do is a way of understanding history because, of course, we will leave all this behind. 

I’m aware of the histories of museums and how they came to this continent, as outcomes of the colonial project. At the same time, we can’t afford not to think about these places and preserving histories. And I think the word “preserving” is very loaded. There are people who preserve and there are people who preserve by interpreting, by studying and writing. 

Also, I think all these practices of preservation need to be sustainable. A lot of people who are conservationists are starting to realise that the chemicals that they use to keep things together are bad for us and the environment. A lot of artists are starting to realise, also, that the materials that they use in their studios are not sustainable. So, these are the things we need to think about. 

I still believe in institutions such as museums, but not as they are. I think we need to work to not necessarily change but to keep questioning them, to soften their walls so they become spaces that are more alive. 

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