The Burning Museum is an arts collective based in Cape Town, South Africa. This interview the result of a three-part Skype conversation between Justin Davy of the Burning Museum and Nancy Dantas, an independent curator and researcher with an interest in recovering the neglected and overlooked exhibition histories and practices of the south.
Nancy Dantas: Perhaps we should start from the beginning, with the genesis of the Burning Museum. When did the idea start to take shape and was it a reaction, or a response, if you like, to something you felt was happening around you?
Justin Day: The Burning Museum came together as a collective in February of 2013. We had all been involved or connected to Greatmore Studios in some way, and had been getting to know each other over a period of about six months prior to our formation as a collective. At one point, when someone decided to call a meeting with the five of us, we decided to do something collaboratively. I think what was common between us, why we were attracted to each other, or the thread that brought us together, was our experience of the art world in Cape Town and South Africa. Broadly speaking, that experience was often linked to feelings of exclusion, and this was voiced in that first meeting very, very prominently.
ND: You work as a collective. Does the Burning Museum have a fixed number of collaborators—you mentioned five—or is it a more flexible structure, one that is open to collaboration?
JD: It is five people at the moment. After the first few meetings, we were weary of bringing other people in because we had formed a very close-knit unit. To bring anyone else in after that initial sort of bonding phase turned out to be a bit problematic. So in a way we formed a unit fairly quickly. I think those bonds are still in place.
ND: Could you describe your modus operandi? How do your interventions in the fabric of life, so to speak, come about? Do you operate in broad daylight with the consent of the people around you, or is your activity clandestine?
JD: We consider ourselves to be quite independent in that we don’t ask permission from people to do our work. We identify very strongly with the images we use. We see ourselves in them. So when we put up images, we are in essence putting up a piece of ourselves, or that’s how we feel about it. The issue of authorization is related to the fact that we are often transgressing bylaws of the public space.
ND: I have two terms I would like you to consider: ephemeral and performative. What is the role of ephemerality and performance in the work you do? Are these terms useful in understanding your work?
JD: We don’t set out to work with labels or any kind of formulated feelings that need to be felt by anybody. In a technical sense, we are working with wheat pasting, which is a specific medium with a history of its own. It is a way of executing. Wheat pasting does have a sense of performativity in a literal sense. To respond to your question, we are performing ourselves on the streets. We are performing identities. We are also interacting at a scale with authority and with power in the transgressive nature of our work. So that is how I guess I would relate performativity to our work.
ND: Correct me if I’m mistaken, but there seems to be a thread that connects your work: the piercing or burning gaze of the Other that interpolates the bystander, the pedestrian, the neighbour or family in the passing car.
JD: We have encountered similar descriptions. I think we tend to agree with the idea, especially of a piercing gaze.
ND: Where do you source your images?
JD: Our engagement with images as a group really started with the Van Kalker archive housed at the District Six Museum. Briefly speaking, the archive is an extensive visual source, mainly in the form of portrait photography of ‘50s to ‘70s Cape Town. This period, of course, saw the enforcement of the infamous Group Areas Act, which is an entrenchment of general dispossession and displacement of land belonging to or historically occupied by black people in South Africa. In some of our early work we deal with another such law, namely The Natives Land Act of 1913. We have subsequently added other image sources, such as personal family archives, found photo albums, newspapers, and magazines.
ND: Are you looking into archives, into repositories of the past? Is your practice to some degree a performance of the archive, originally designed, and employed historically as a tool to discipline and to thus domesticate, silence, or suppress?
JD: We are looking into archives, but it’s more than that. We are also laying bare archives and creating them. I guess we are reading against the grain of a certain archive, to use a more academic description. The images, of course, can be read as texts, they have a specific period, there is fashion, there are gazes, there are different clues. These are different visual texts that can be read. Indeed, we are also attempting to subvert the archive, appropriating it to speak against the issues of displacement we see happening in and around Cape Town. What has become clear to us is that the atmosphere of forced removals and racial segregation in which the archive of portraits we are engaging were taken forms a continuum with and is an earlier instalment of the economic displacement and gentrification currently taking place in areas such as Woodstock, where many of our works have been put up. In other words, the archive is still relevant, and the issues haven’t really changed.
ND: Is preservation of concern to you, and what is it that you wish to preserve?
JD: Preservation is of concern, but not in the sense of the conventional museum and the way a museum would conserve its artefacts or their displays. We are interested in the taxonomy of museums and the way things are preserved. Let’s say the overarching ideological systems that underpin museums and the other systems of control that have led to a negative impact on people and society. I am being a bit vague now, but what I am referring to is the colonial project and how museums are inherently part of this, the idea of colonialism as a system of control, of controlling the Other or controlling the Unknown. So the museum is a manifestation of this, but then of course local knowledges and local populations are appropriating these systems, or adapting them and merging them with their own systems of knowledge and control. For example, the way that a sitting room of a black household in Cape Town can often resemble a museum with display cabinets and champagne glasses and photos of family members. We are interested in playing with different taxonomies. We’d like to elevate the domestic taxonomy to the same level as the museum taxonomy or equate them and see what happens.
The Native Land Act, site-specific wheatpaste, Briar Road, Salt River, Cape Town.
ND: Does the location have a bearing on your choice of images?
JD: Yes. In relation to the archive or the archives that we are busy unravelling. The space where we are pasting is directly related to the space in which the archive was created, the Van Kalker studios having been once housed in Woodstock. So the Woodstock/District Six/Salt River area is of clear significance and importance to the archive. Additionally, these areas are experiencing a wave of gentrification, which we see as having a direct link to the history of displacement embedded in the local landscape/architecture.
ND: I noticed that you recently did something in the Northern Suburbs. What is the bond between image and space here?
JD: Maybe I should explain the process of how this happened and the circumstances around how the collective formed. What I failed to mention is most of us come from so-called peripheral areas of Cape Town, outside places known as the Cape Flats or the Northern Suburbs, which are not necessarily part of the art dynamic or the Cape Town art world. Many of us still commute every day from these areas, in and out of the city. So the archive we have been dealing with, although relevant to a certain part of the central city, relates to these outside areas, all the more because of this thing called the Group Areas Act. I think we are starting to move outside of the borders of the so-called central city to where the people in these pictures, for example, might have been moved to and where we live. This is why we identify so strongly with the images, because they encapsulate the whole journey in and out, the daily commute. What feels like a permanent displacement that has happened through Apartheid. So we have started pasting in these peripheral areas. These are our hometowns, basically.
ND: Do you only intervene in the public arena or are you open to other platforms? Does this change the nature of your work?
JD: We are open to other platforms. We put together an exhibition in mid-2013, which took place at a gallery in the University of Cape Town. This was a challenge for us in terms of the meaning of our work. We found that the images accrued another reading because of this space and place. Moving to a gallery space, the so-called white cube, challenged us to rethink or reimagine how we play with the meaning of our work and how we could open it up to other things and other possibilities. Presenting our work in CAS Gallery gave us the opportunity to play with the archival. It gave us a bit more freedom, a blank canvas, literally, to kind of mix and match. There was a dialogue between images but also between audience members. There were more people who could see the work together at the same time. This obviously creates a different energy. It creates a different feeling around the work. I mean, not a completely different feeling; the meaning of the work changes slightly, not drastically. Things happen when you view things as a so-called community of spectators versus on your own or driving in a car. There is something different that happens. I think that has enriched our work. It was a very big learning experience for us. It just allows you different ways of hanging things, different ways of installing the work, which was a great exercise.
The Boys, site-specific wheat paste under M5 Highway, Maitland, Cape Town.
ND: Do you know of any other artists in Cape Town working in a similar vein?
JD: There are other collectives in Cape Town who are engaging with public art or so-called street art, not necessarily through wheat paste and also not necessarily saying the things that we are saying. There is Tokolos Stencil and the Xcollektiv. Then there is the Core Crew, who are slightly more traditional graffiti artists. Of course, one cannot forget Faith47.
ND: What is the Xcollektiv? What do they do?
JD: They create socio-political commentary in the form of Facebook memes, but they have also done some work on the street. They take very familiar and popular images and add captions that are ironic or sarcastic. I have seen some of their posters at art book fairs and book launches, so they do have a more physical, tactile presence.
ND: Is paste and the black and white image how you are recognized?
JD: I think we are recognized more by the aesthetic, the portraiture. I think it has become fairly synonymous with what we are doing.
ND: I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on the museum as the preserve of cultural heritage. But also about new museology and the position that museums can offer a critical and reflexive voice with regards to certain pressing and even repressed issues of our time. Do you think museums are in tune with the urgencies of our time?
JD: That is a very big question, but I will try. I don’t think museums were designed to continue answering the questions of the contemporary time. Museums are usually founded on a certain principle or ideology, and they try to evolve over time, but I think it is a very difficult and stagnant process. If you look at the model of museums in South Africa, they are essentially colonial. They were established in colonial times. By and large, their collections and obviously the architecture and even the ethos are all still colonial.
ND: What about the new museums that are emerging?
JD: Like the Zeitz MoCAA?
ND: For instance.
JD: That is something that needs to be seen and examined. It is only opening in two years time, but you can tell a lot by the fact that the museum collection is based on a certain private collection of African art by a European, which is still very much in the mode of the colonial collection. I will make a fresh analysis when I see it.
ND: Do you think that museum culture in Cape Town is changing? Are we moving away from the idea of the museum as the patrician of an elite culture, and where, if we are moving, are we headed?
JD: I don’t think we are moving. I think there is friction. Before a boulder or a huge stone is moved, there is friction. There is an inertia before it actually moves one centimetre. I think we are still in that phase. We are deciding which way to pull this rock. We are also deciding who should have the burden/privilege of moving the rock. I don’t know if that metaphor makes sense.
ND: It does. What future do you see for museums, not only in Cape Town?
JD: I don’t see a future for museums, really. I describe how I see museums in Cape Town, and I am assuming that in the larger post-colonial world there are similar struggles and frictions. I am more excited about how people interact and redefine museums. I am a big fan of what Fred Wilson did in Baltimore in 1992. That single example has been a big inspiration to the way I understand and have interacted with museums of late. I am more excited about the artist or the curator or museum director. Of course, museums are the people that work in them in a sense. I am not necessarily interested in museums transforming, to use a post-1994 or “New South Africa” word. I think it is important to preserve certain aspects of colonial history but also the post-‘94, the contemporary trends in art and culture, which are rising. But the agency is in the people.
ND: How do you feel about the preservation of colonial collections?
JD: From a practical point of view, I don’t think they should be neglected or discarded or thrown aside. The critique needs to come not only from inside the museum, because that critique is going to become compromised at some point. It is just too close to home for you to be completely objective. This shouldn’t be the only voice. As a co-collaborator, that is how I see my work with the Burning Museum. Literally, in calling ourselves the “Burning Museum” we are trying, we are referencing this very directly. The idea of burning a museum is a very provocative one. In a metaphorical sense, we are trying to burn the idea, the perception around museums, but we are also dealing with museums that have been burnt. When I say museum, I mean culture, knowledge systems that have been degraded or decimated or thrown on the ash heap of history. We are also trying to build museums, not necessarily the same way as before. We are trying to create something new out of the ashes of museums that have been burnt. When I say I don’t mind the colonial structure and physical architecture, it is because I want to build new museums that stand in contrast, that contest and add to history. I want to build my own museum. I want to build a museum in the neighbourhood where I grew up. I want to build a gallery, I want to build a theatre, but I want to do it on my terms. We talked about the Zeitz MoCAA—I mean it’s a new museum. It has got this very fresh energy, order, and perception around it, but essentially, if you look at it, it is a European collection of African art. There is going to be a perpetuation, I mean structurally, of that hierarchy to which I am averse personally. I think going forward that it will be a great space for young African artists to express themselves, to have solo shows, et cetera, and that is great. I think that is perfect. But I’m not interested in that type of museum. I am interested in reconstituting museums, museums that have been burnt down.
ND: Are you saying that your museum is not necessarily an institution made of brick and mortar, a container, a sample of perennial architecture?
JD: No, I’m not necessarily saying that because there is a tangible, physical thing that you can touch in terms of the museum that I am describing. For instance, when I was talking about people’s living rooms, display cabinets and such. These are real things.
ND: But your posters wash away, your display is ephemeral.
JD: Yes, but I don’t see that as contradictory. Where do you see a contradiction?
ND: I am not saying there is a contradiction. I see them as different ideals. Your museum is a roving space, somewhat like a mobile library that travels from one town to the next. Or a portable cinema. I see your museum as light and transferrable.
JD: Yes, but how is that different from the images I’ve given?
ND: The way I understand it, it is not bounded, it is not fixed. A living room is a closed, private space that you can only access when someone is home. Your images belong to a museum without walls. Your museum is not cumbersome, it does not require management, it isn’t a “burden” to the nation—a white elephant—in the sense that you have this collection and you are obliged to keep it.
JD: I get what you are saying. The key word here is we are striving, we are still reconstituting. The form is still a mystery. Actually it is not a mystery; it’s a work in progress. We are using whatever understanding of museums we can. We are elevating. Maybe I am conflating something and using a lot of metaphors, which might be confusing, especially museum metaphors about what the museum is, but I think we are trying to elevate systems of knowledge, control, and understanding of the world, which haven’t been deemed important or do not have a prominence in the society in which we live. This elevation can be described as a museum. I think the crux of what I am saying is there is still space for imaging this museum. I think the living room museum can also be seen as fleeting and ephemeral, especially in the context of forced removals/displacement, where homes and by extension the archives housed within them are razed to the ground or the custodians of that archive, a family for example, were removed from it. This type of museum, this repository of personal artefact and memory is the biggest elephant (in the room). It is an absolute burden to the nation, a ‘collection’ that nobody wants to own and that the nation tends to forget.
ND: Why are the stories/histories of these images relevant today? How is their significance communicated?
JD: They are relevant because they haven’t been told. History and culture are closely linked and so the images that we put up, there is a history embedded in them. We are not explicit about it. There isn’t a lot of final write-up about the work next to our prints.
ND: I may be playing the devil’s advocate, but by using image alone, are you doing that history justice?
JD: I think we work the way we work, and it is an evolving process. I think we see ourselves as playing a role; we are working on a certain front. There are other people who are on different fronts, writing papers and theses about similar things that we are doing. I think we are approaching it from our own unique independent perspective. The medium being a very visual one. I feel we complement other conversations that are happening. And so I don’t feel we need to explain what we are saying. If you have questions, we are willing to answer them. We share our blog with an email address. If you have questions about our work, if you don’t get the work the first time, that’s fine. You’ll get it the third or forth time. We are open to engaging people about our work, but we don’t feel it necessary to explain it with an accompanying text. It is an image; it will do different things to different people. For us, we feel like we are part of a larger discourse, and we are one front. One frontline. At least we’d like to think we’re on the frontline. And we are contributing to that metaphorical struggle. No one has written anything about our work, so I don’t know what that means or what it says about our work, but we are quite happy. We have gotten responses. We have had engagements. When we put the work up, people come up to us, and we are very content with that.
ND: Have you had instances of people identifying the images?
JD: There is always something familiar for people. But no one has actually identified someone they know in the images yet.
ND: Would you say there is something uncanny about them?
JD: The same way we see ourselves, I think people see themselves, too. We have had some responses to this effect. We are moving towards another sort of theme we are dealing with, and that is of representation and how people of colour in this city and in this country are represented and represent themselves. I don’t know how else to articulate this.
ND: Can you mention names or is anonymity important to you? I ask this because namelessness or effacement could be regarded and adopted by the collective as a means of skirting commodification.
JD: Tazneem Wentzel, Jarret Erasmus, Grant Jurius, Scott Williams, Justin Davy.
The Burning Museum (BM) is a collaborative interdisciplinary collective rooted in Cape Town, South Africa. Its members Tazneem Wentzel, Grant Jurius, Scott Williams, Jarret Erasmus, and Justin Davy move fluidly between the stations of artist, historian, and cultural activist. Whilst their work is primarily street-based, they have also exhibited in white-cube spaces, both locally and internationally. Most recently, their work was exhibited in the solo exhibition Cover Version at Gallery MOMO in Cape Town and in Boundary Objects at Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo, Madrid.
Nancy Dantas completed her MA in Contemporary Art, Theory and Criticism at the University of Essex. She has worked as a curator, independent collections manager, freelance writer, translator, and educator. In 2008, she co-founded MARZ Galeria in Lisbon with partner Carlos Marzia. She is currently based at Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, South Africa.