25th May 2016

Dear Editor
I write in response to Bongani Mahlangu’s letter to Lwandile Fikeni. Some of these points I
raised with Lwandile Fikile in a telephone conversation in which he offered a right of reply
to Dr Mdluli’s statements. He did not use most of my response in his article, but I sincerely
hope that this letter will be published, so that a few pertinent facts may be available to your
I largely agree with Lwandile Fikeni’s, Same Mdluli’s and Bongani Mahlangu’s assessments
of the unequal ways in which the art world is structured in South Africa in general. I do,
however take issue with the way in which their attack has been personalized, and mounted
against me in particular.
This exhibition had been long in planning. It is an area on which I have been conducting
research for many years particularly related to a conference to which I return below. We
had no budget to enable us to borrow works for this exhibition, so works were sourced
exclusively from WAM’s extensive holdings. Omissions include several important artists such
as Ernest Mancoba. Both Dr Mdluli and Mr Mahlangu were very recent staff recruits to
WAM, in contract positions as Museum Research Associates funded by an outside agency.
Both agreed to assist with the curating of the exhibition and made valuable contributions, in
selecting works, writing biographies and helping to mount the works. At no time did they
express the wish to dissociate themselves from the show. In the process of curating the
exhibition neither raised any of the issues with me that they have now raised in the press.
I first wish to address one troubling claim made by Mr Mahlangu. He suggests that I
withdrew an image by Gerard Sekoto from the Black Modernisms exhibition at WAM
because it represented a white man. On display in the show are three works by Gerard
Sekoto. One is a very early watercolor of Ndebele boys milking goats. The other two are
portrait drawings of individuals. One portrait is of the (white) wife of Louis Maurice a white
sculptor with whom Sekoto exhibited in Cape Town. The second is of George Manuel, the
journalist son of the ‘coloured family’ (Sekoto’s own words) in whose District Six home
Sekoto was a lodger from 1942 to 1944. A third portrait, of the aforementioned Louis
Maurice, from this same set was initially selected but not put on the exhibition. Although
this image of a white man by Sekoto was not displayed, it was withdrawn because it was the
least impactful of the three. The idea that it was withdrawn because it was of a white
person makes little sense given the continued presence on display of Sekoto’s portrait of a
white woman. (Doesn’t all of this sound disturbingly like something out of an Apartheid
manual for race classification?)
The second issue needing some clarification arises from Dr Mdluli’s mentioning that I am
organizing a conference on Modernisms. I am a member of a small international research
group called Multiple Modernisms which aims to overturn western centred notions of what
constituted ‘modernism’ as an art historical category. In June we are hosting, at Wits, a
gathering of scholars to talk about gender, modernisms and craft. The vast majority of the
speakers are not “white” scholars, but scholars from indigenous communities in New
Zealand, Australia, Canada, India, Nigeria and South Africa. This exhibition was mounted to

culminate in the colloquium which will explore many of the issues that dog our
understanding of white patriarchy in the arts across the globe.
Finally, Mr Mahlangu suggests that I have contributed nothing to the transformation of
conversations in the South African art scene. However this may be judged by history, I offer
a small synopsis of my work for consideration. I have been researching and teaching aspects
of historical African art since 1973, and teaching both that and contemporary African art at
Wits since 1977. These were the first and only courses on African art taught at any South
African university for the next ten years. I actively continued to work to transform the
History of Art syllabus at Wits, and from there the secondary school syllabi, from being
completely dominated by European art to having a large component of African Art. From
the 1970s through to the 1990s I ran workshops at the Open School (SAIRR), conducted
classes at the Africa Centre in Newtown, seminars at FUBA, workshops at Funda, lectures at
the Johannesburg Art Foundation among others. These were all on a voluntary basis, by
invitation/command from mostly black hosts, and with no payment. I have supervised more
than thirty candidates from different ‘race’ groups (some from elsewhere in Africa) at both
MA and PHD level, most of them on African topics. One of these was Dr Mdluli who
graduated this year with her PHD. I was a supervisor of her MA. I was also instrumental in
initiating and sustaining the collection of African art at Wits that supported the African
component of the history of art syllabus.
It would have been interesting to have read a reasoned response to the exhibition itself, one
which included an actual critique of the ways in which the subject had been explored. Mr
Mahlangu’s argument for a new set of narratives is a powerful one, and one with which I am
in complete agreement. But, in order to understand whether the narrative one tells is in fact
new, one has to know what the old one said. That is why what I wish to work towards are
well-informed contemporary indigenous histories – narratives are too slippery.
Anitra Nettleton
Professor Emeritus
Wits Art Museum, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.