Five minutes with Pretoria Art Museum Curator

The Pretoria Art Museum has hosted the finalists of Sasol New Signatures since the mid 1990’s and is gearing up to welcome this year’s finalists in August. We chatted to the curator Hannelie du Plessis:

In your view what role does Sasol New Signatures play in terms of developing and identifying local talent?

Sasol New Signatures gives upcoming artists the necessary exposure they would otherwise not easily get. A dedicated team works throughout the year making sure these selected artists get publicity through advertisements, articles, social media and the sought after catalogue. Apart from the prize money, the solo exhibition which has been added to the prize shows Sasol’s commitment in developing these artists. An added bonus is the feedback sessions by the chairperson, Pieter Binsbergen, which is of great value to artists whose work has not been selected.

You have curated the Sasol New Signatures finalists exhibition for a number of years - which new South African artists have come to your attention via this competition/platform and has the Pretoria Art Museum been able to acquire any of these works?

I have been dealing with the Sasol New Signatures exhibition since 2004 and have seen many artists using this competition as a platform to advance their career in the arts. I’m thinking of artists such as Minette Vari (1990, 1991 merit award), Mohau Modisakeng (winner 2011) and Elizabeth Balcomb (winner 2014). We do have some of the Sasol New Signatures artists’ artworks, but unfortunately in recent years we have seen tremendous budget cuts which makes it impossible to acquire artworks.

If you had no limits - which artists/works would be on your wish list?

Definitely to replace the excellent piece by Gerard Sekoto which was stolen in an armed robbery in 2012. Being the curator overseeing textiles, I would acquire the exquisite mixed media and textile work of Marion Boehm and Hannalie Taute’s rubber and thread artworks. My wish list is very long…

As curator of the Pretoria Arts Museum, select your top three favourite works from the collection and tell us why these resonate with you.

David Brown’s Voyage II (1987) is a large sculptural artwork which stands in the art museum’s foyer. It is a solid and bold artwork, and although a depressing theme, it has perfect proportions and so much presence. David Brown was one of South Africa’s foremost sculptors who sadly passed away whilst surfing at Muizenberg in 2016. The photographic artwork Right Now! by Mary Sibande. Another strong artwork in our collection which demands your attention. In this artwork the purple figure becomes Mary’s alter ego with layered meanings, such as taking charge and resisting authority. I also have an affinity towards the Rorke’s Drift tapestries – large scale tapestries woven by the women in Kwazulu-Natal. Although weaving is an intricate process, these every day scenes of life and other religious ceremonies are so honest and pure. Their hard labour and souls are captured in these wonderful tapestries.

The Pretoria Arts Museum has a long history - it was officially inaugurated in 1964 - and is home to works by South African masters such as Irma Stern, JH Pierneef and Gerard Sekoto.  How have you been able to develop the collection to be more representative and to include traditional arts and contemporary works such as new media?

In earlier years The Pretoria Art Museum had collected a wide variety of artists, including some previously disadvantaged artists such as Feni Dumile, Julian Motau, Lucky Sibiya and Azaria Mbata, to name a few. In 2003 we received a valuable donation from the Australian diplomat Di Johnstone. She befriended and supported mainly ’township’ artists from 1973 to 1975. In 2003 she decided to donate her collection to the Pretoria Art Museum. Unfortunately today we do not receive any funding to build the collection to make it even more representative. We are however privileged to house the Corobrik Ceramic Collection (at the entrance of the museum), which is growing every year and which focuses on contemporary as well as rural artists’ ceramic artwork.

Which work of art is your all-time favourite? Local and international? And why?

This is always a difficult question to answer – there are just too many artworks to choose from. At times we need calm and tranquility, like a Monet or an intimate interior scene of Andries Gouws; at other times we need to be confronted with challenging subjects on socio political issues like the artwork by Vusi Beauchamp, or the strong and vibrant artworks of Mary Sibande.

Sasol has one of the most prestigious corporate art collections in South Africa - share your favourite pieces from that omnibus?

The winning photographic artwork Qhatha I & II ( 2011) of Mohau Modisakeng, the sculptures by Elizabeth Balcomb from The weighed and measured series (2014 I am you and Survival and the woodcut artwork of Sthenjwa Hopewell Luthuli (Runner up in Sasol New Signatures 2017) Umbango (Conflict).

Entries for Sasol New Signatures 2018 are open - what are you anticipating in terms of genre and narrative?

In a country with a political climate such as ours there are always artworks commenting on socio political issues. Gender issues are also usually quite prevalent. There is a noticeable shift towards digital media and the quality of the digital entries have also improved over the last couple of years.


In late August Pretoria Art Mueeum will host the finalists of the Sasol New Signatures but what’s on show at the Museum at the moment - and what can we look forward to before the end of the year?

  • In the public domain: shifting boundaries between the private and the public is an exhibition by lecturers of the University of Pretoria. The participating artists are: Natalie Fossey, Johan Thom, Nicola Grobler, Avi Sooful, Sakie Seoka, Raimi Gbadamosi, Vusi Beauchamp, Allen Laing, Diane Victor, Frikkie Eksteen, Berco Wilsenach, Sarel Petrus, Guy du Toit, Carl Jeppe, Shenaz Mahomed, Danielle Malherbe, Ariana van Heerden, Carla Crafford, Lelani Nicolaisen and Magdel van Rooyen.  Until 24 June 2018 | North Gallery with a walkabout and intervention on Saturday 23 June 2018 at 11:00.

  • Resistance Art of the 1960s until the 1980s is a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday anniversary and concentrates on the South African Resistance Art movement. During the 1960s, South Africa saw the emergence of a new type of art, which was particularly influenced by the political climate of the time. As the repressiveness of the apartheid state increased in the 1970s and 1980s, many artists produced works that reflected the harsh realities of South African life, sometimes obliquely, sometimes head-on. In June 1976, the children of Soweto decided to resist their oppression, but their peaceful protest was met with police gunfire. Riots and unrest in the townships started all over the country. Artists were trapped in a world of violence. The South African Resistance Art movement was born. Artists took up paint and brushes as weapons against the oppressor. There was a growing realisation amongst anti-apartheid forces that cultural resistance was a tool of immense power. The sustained pressure of the armed struggle and the escalation of unrest led to the eventual release of Nelson Mandela from jail in 1990. This event paved the way for the first-ever democratic election in April 1994. To celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday anniversary, the Pretoria Art Museum is hosting an exhibition of Resistance Art of the 1960s until the 1980s. Until November 2018 | Henry Preiss Hall/South Gallery.

  • Genesis II’Xhibition features work by the education assistants of the Pretoria Art Museum. The education assistants are responsible for conducting guided tours and occasionally facilitate art-making workshops as part of the museum’s education and development programme and the educational assistants internships at the museum. The participating artists are Mbhoni Khosa, Lerato Lodi, Isaac Nyokong, Kutlwano Monyai, Lesedi Ledwaba, Tebogo Setsiba, Bruce Bowale and Asma Rahman. Until 1 July | East Gallery.

  • Art from Generation X and Ceramics from the Corobrik Collection.​ The Pretoria Art Museum’s Collection includes works of artists that were born in the 1960s and these are on display. Some of these artists are trained professionally and others are self-taught, but all of them are artists in their own right today. Together with the Generation X artists we are exhibiting some ceramic artworks from the Corobrik Collection. Until July/August 2018 | South Gallery. 

  • A Story of South African Art​. This selection of artworks from the permanent collection of the Pretoria Art Museum briefly reviews South African art. It includes works by early 20th century painters, the Resistance artists of the 1980s and artists of the 21st century. The exhibition is based on the secondary school syllabus, and the artworks are rotated regularly.Ongoing | Albert Werth Hall.

Through various programmes and gallery tours at The Pretoria Art Museum learners are exposed to art. How can we encourage basic artistic literacy in our youth and how important is that?

Visiting museums and art galleries, and especially exciting exhibitions such as the Sasol New Signatures, inspires the younger crowd and creates a need for more platforms. This exposure creates a balance in our youth.

Our museum offers guided tours, which can be arranged through our Education Officer, Mmutle Kgokong at 012- 358 6752/50.