Lines from Berlin

Katrin von Maltzahn: Lines from Berlin. In: Beyond the Line Johannesburg: Wits School of Arts, Johannesburg Art Gallery, the Goethe-Institut Südafrika. Johannesburg: Wits School of Arts / University of the Witwatersrand  2009. p. 10-15

In May 2006, Natasha Christopher, an artist friend from Johannesburg, visited me in Berlin. At the time I was teaching at the University for Fine Art in Braunschweig (Brunswick). It was peak time for Beyond the Line, a pedagogical drawing project I was conducting at the school, together with an artist colleague. Natasha, who works at the Wits School of Arts (University of the Witwatersrand) in Johannesburg, became very interested and took the initiative to invite me to come to Wits University to realize a workshop version of the project. 

Beyond the Line focuses on contemporary art practice in relation to drawing. In Brunswick, the project was undertaken in collaboration with the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum and made use of the museum’s significant collection of historical drawings and prints. Art students from different levels and areas of specialization dealt with contemporary and historical dimensions of drawing, and investigated what potentially represents the ’medium of drawing’ today.

The project consisted of a seminar series, a lecture series, an exhibition and a catalogue. The works produced throughout the project were made in dialogue with historical pieces selected from the museum’s drawing and print collection, and were finally exhibited juxtaposed with the historical works.

From 25 February to 14 March 2008, Natasha, Karel Nel and myself realized the second version of Beyond the Line with students from the Wits School of Arts. Johannesburg Art Gallery and the Goethe-Institut Südafrika were project partners.

Curators from Johannesburg Art Gallery and the gallery registrar, Jeannine Howse, in conversation with Natasha and Karel, made a selection of works from the Gallery’s permanent collection and put together an exhibition for us containing more than 40 artworks. The selection aimed to reflect drawing practices ‘beyond the line’. Among the chosen works were historical drawings and prints by Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Francisco de Goya, Vincent van Gogh and John Everett Millais, traditional African objects and contemporary works in different media by South African and European artists such as Penny Siopis, Lisa Brice, Robin Rhode, Sandile Zulu, William Kentridge, Gilbert & George and David Hockney.

The art students worked in the museum’s gallery and in their studios. Their assignment was to develop new art works in dialogue with the displayed museum pieces. Most students started sketching from the original. Some of them immediately found connections and inspiration, while others worked in several approaches. The final works were realized in a wide range of media. We only had three weeks together but most participants achieved astonishing results — an impressive feat as they had several other demanding classes to manage during the same period of time.

I had feared that the time to produce works was just too short. I was indeed happy to be proved wrong. A very good and interesting working process led to two great exhibitions – one took place at the Goethe-Institut and the other at the Substation Gallery at Wits University. Each of the participants approached the project quite differently and many used the concept of ‘beyond the line’ to develop and push their artistic language. Behind a lot of works lay strong experiences of life — life in Johannesburg. Many works contained political notions; others related to narratives developed from one of the museum’s pieces. Some students used a work from the collection as a starting point for something completely new. Several works were made of meaningful everyday material processed in an experimental manner. We had various interesting discussions – about contemporary and traditional art, history, politics, culture and life in South Africa.

In parallel to the workshop, a public lecture series was organised at the Museum and at the Goethe-Institut. Museum curator, Nessa Leibhammer spoke about traditional African art and Khwezi Gule, the curator of contemporary exhibitions at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, discussed contemporary drawing. Jeannine Howse introduced us to the museum’s archive. Three Johannesburg artists talked about their current work. William Kentridge and his team gave us an insight into their new production The Nose, an interpretation of Shostakovich's Gogol opera, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera House in New York for 2010. Maja Marx spoke about her large scale, text-based interventions executed in the landscape. Gerhard Marx showed his drawing work based on cutting up and reassembling already existing images and structures.

As usual, in a different country, one reflects upon differences and similarities with one’s known milieu. The workings of the school and the museum felt familiar, but the immediate surroundings were quite a contrast.

The organizational part of the project seemed much less bureaucratic than in Germany. Only a few months before my arrival, Johannesburg Art Gallery was asked to join the project. It is one of South Africa’s biggest art institutions, but the director, Clive Kellner, spontaneously agreed and then put together* an impressive exhibition filled with treasures from the museum’s archive (* in the JAG print room and adjacent gallery).

Peter Anders and Kaja Kopkow from Goethe-Institut Johannesburg supported us immensely. They generously hosted the artist lectures and one part of the final exhibition. They introduced me to Johannesburg’s vivid cultural life and took care of my daily needs in the very best way.

It was an extraordinary pleasure and unique experience to work together with Natasha and Karel. Natasha spent most of the three weeks together with me. We worked many long days. Karel taught me a great deal about traditional African art and passed a part of his obsession for it over to me.

After my return to Berlin, I immediately wanted to process my rich cultural experiences from South Africa into new works. This turned out to be quite difficult. It was only six months later, in Sweden, that I made a series of 9 watercolours on paper, entitled "Afterglow (Johannesburg)".