The Museum as a Thinking Protocol: The Formation of the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation

Clive Kellner
Joaquín Torres-García, Gravado 57. Nuestro Norte es el Sur. (Etching 57. Our North is South) (1943). Illustrated on the cover of Escuela del Sur, Publicación N1, Taller Torres García, Montevideo, 1959. Image courtesy Joaquín Torres-García Archive. © Alejandra, Aurelio and Claudio Torres

I remember visiting the Johannesburg Art Gallery as a young boy. I was enthralled by the architecture of the cavernous building and its magnificent spaces containing artworks of varying periods, styles and mediums. Just over 20 years later, I returned as the newly appointed Head and Chief Curator of the museum. It was during this period that I organised Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent curated by Simon Njami. The exhibition had been travelling to museums in Europe, the UK and Asia but was not destined to be shown in Africa. The impetus to bring Africa Remix to Johannesburg was founded on the continued marginalisation experienced by the, then so-called, “periphery” (located outside of the centres of Europe, the US and the UK).

The centre/periphery debates were formative in the establishment of the first Johannesburg Biennale (1995) in which I was selected for the first Trainee Curator programme. As part of the programme, I worked with French curator Jean-Hubert Martin, who had curated the important and controversial exhibition Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) in 1989 that ushered in significant debates around multiculturalism. After a stint at the Curatorial Programme at De Appel in Amsterdam, I worked with Okwui Enwezor on the second Johannesburg Biennale, Trade Routes: History & Geography (1997), which turned out to be a watershed exhibition that didn’t so much speak about multiculturalism as it did embody it, and proved a forerunner to the epoch of globalisation we know today. Enwezor is “often credited for turning the global attention to the rich and expansive art of the Global South, he battled fiercely against the deeply embedded and reductive nature of the Euro- and Western-centric art world.”1 The idea of decentring is at the heart of the work that JCAF is doing. Before elaborating further on JCAF and its institutional modalities, however, it is important at this point to provide some background to the idea of the South.

In 1935 Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García published The School of the South Manifesto in which he articulated his ideas about Latin American art. Torres-García was primarily concerned with how Latin American art had been positioned in relation to the United States and Europe. Through his manifesto and workshops he encouraged students to seek inspiration locally rather than following international art trends. As Maya Jiménez points out, “Torres-García upended traditional hierarchical structures by defining the art of South America on its own terms, rather than in relation to that of the North (i.e. the United States and Europe) as it had been in the past.”2 In 1943, Torres-García produced an ink drawing titled América Invertida (Inverted America) in which the artist, through a single conceptual turn, inverts the map of the Americas, placing Latin America at the top and the United States below the equator. Through this seemingly simple yet profound gesture, Torres-García repositions the South at the new North.

JCAF is located in a former electrical tram shed and substation that formed part of a network of trams that operated in Johannesburg between 1906 and 1961. The building is a local heritage site and an important example of the Modern Movement, and in 2022 received the Herbert Prins Colosseum Trophy and Heritage Award from the Gauteng Institute for Architecture.

The “South”, also referred to as the Global South, suggests an economic, social, political and cultural identification amongst postcolonial subjects who express common ideals from a variety of heterogeneous contexts identified with, but not necessarily geographically located in, the South. Therefore, the Global South is a construct and not a geographic location. Central to this construct is the idea of shared identities that affirm themselves in contrast to Western or Northern forms of hegemony thereby countering imbalances in order to produce new forms of economic, cultural, social and political emancipation. JCAF views its operational locale as strategically located within the South. The South suggests a reorientation away from concepts shaped in the North to those formulated in the South. As such, JCAF, as an active participant, imagines a critical role in producing and disseminating artistic and cultural knowledge in and from the South, what may be referred to as Southern epistemologies.

“The idea of decentring is at the heart of the work that JCAF is doing.”

The place of JCAF’s making is Johannesburg, a city notoriously framed as crime-ridden, with failing infrastructure, and often referred to as looking more and more “African” (sic). Although these challenges exist, the reality is that Johannesburg is the site of continuous re-invention and imagination. It is a thriving metropolis described by Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe as follows:

Johannesburg is the premier African metropolis, the symbol par excellence of the “African modern”. It has been, over the last hundred years, along with São Paulo, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Seoul and Sydney, one of the critical nodes of Southern Hemispheric capitalism and globalization. The African modern is a specific way of being in the world. As elsewhere in the global South, it has been shaped in the crucible of colonialism and by the labour of race. Worldliness, in this context, has had to do not only with the capacity to generate one’s own cultural forms, institutions and lifeways, but also with the ability to foreground, translate, fragment and disrupt realities and imaginaries originating elsewhere and in the process place these forms and processes in the service of one’s own making. This is why modernity and worldliness, here, have been so intrinsically connected to various forms of circulation – of people, capital, finance, and images – and to overlapping spaces and times.3

There is a sense that cities like Johannesburg and others in the South (New Delhi, São Paulo, Mexico City) are dynamic spaces for new forms of cultural expression that both straddle a decolonial moment and signal emerging signs of identity formation. Whilst they don’t necessarily compare to the cultural infrastructure of cities in the North, they offer new possibilities for re-imagining museums in ways that differ from that of the North. As Enwezor states, “We cannot take for granted that museums remain very important sites of judgement, the power of the Western idea of beauty and of aesthetics accomplishment has already been written.”4 And so the 18th- and 19th-century model of the museum as an institution of elite culture predicated on the “collecting of other cultures” through a dominant Western worldview has been replaced in the 20th century with a museum model espousing what purports to be a global view of the world in spectacular architectural temples, whose values are increasingly aligned to the art market, commodity culture, leisure and entertainment. As Claire Bishop points out, “Today however, a more radical model of the museum is taking shape; more experimental, less architecturally determined, and offering a more political engagement with the historical moment.”5 Could some of these museums (institutions) be emerging in the South as sites of dialectical engagement, embracing political modalities whist embedded in the temporal realities of time and place? Eduard Glissant imagined the museum as an archipelago – a place that is responsive to its cultural context and capable of embracing new spaces and temporalities, what Glissant referred to as “globality”, “a form of worldwide exchange that recognises and furthers diversity and creolisation.”6 Glissant’s museum was inspired by the Antilles, a group of islands in the Caribbean that formed the crucible of his ideas and writings. He formulated the idea of the museum as resisting the homogenising effects of modernity.

“The history of the South and its artists is still being written by the West in the West for Western consumption.”

How might JCAF feature in this narrative? Whilst recognising the important contribution that the North has made to cultural institutions and museums, JCAF’s aim is to bring the periphery back to the centre, both in terms of the material (the physical institution) and the immaterial (its discourse) in the spirit of Glissant’s Les Périphériques vous parlent (the Periphery is speaking to you).7 This is analogous to Torres-García’s conceptual turn of the map of the Americas – once you invert the North with the South, shifting centuries of colonialism and Western hegemonic influence to a new subaltern reality, you call into question who decides, who gets to author history, who curates and narrates our stories, how meaning is determined institutionally in global semantic terms infers a very important question, who writes our histories.

We have to research what constitutes our art history. It didn’t start with colonisation; it started much earlier. We have to write this history. Because in Morocco, we do not have a book about our history. And Africa is not a country, it is not homogeneous; West Africa is not the same as South Africa and North Africa. We come from different realities. It is very important that we know where we are coming from, because we have a rich culture. It is our duty to archive, to write and rewrite this history.8

The above statement by Meriem Berrada, Artistic Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) in Morocco, expresses a significant issue around representation – as to who has the right to represent our artists, our artistic histories and cultural narratives. Who is telling our stories? Numerous exhibitions by artists in the South regularly take place in art institutions and museums in the North (the US and Europe) as part of a larger circuit of solo and group exhibitions alongside commercial galleries and art fairs. The curating of Southern artists is typically orchestrated by curators from Northern institutions who also produce the accompanying curatorial texts that elaborate on the artist, their practice and often engage with the context or place in which the artist operates in the South. Moreover, the institution presenting the exhibition is typically framed within a Western, white-cube-type experience, that more often than not contrasts with the artworks on display and the socio-cultural context in which they were produced. The experience of the artwork by an audience in such institutions is mediated through an accompanying education programme, guided tours and publications that in turn become the archive and institutional memory of that artist and their work. The history of the South and its artists is still being written by the West in the West for Western consumption. This means that audiences in the South are usually not part of the conversation.

A second element of this problem exists in the form of collections and the collecting ethos by major museums in the North. Ostensibly, large museums have established a system of committees based on geographic territories – so, an Africa committee, a Latin America committee, etc. – whose function is to support (through financial means) the purchasing of artworks by Southern artists from those geographic locations. The members of these committees are most often collectors and philanthropists (from these locations) who, for the privilege of being associated with the said museum, donate works by Southern artists to the museum’s collection. Effectively the patrons from the South are subsidising wealthy Western museums through this patronage system. And whilst the exposure in these museums of a handful of artists from the South is important, one wonders if it wouldn’t make better sense for the same resources to be used to support local artists and institutions in the South, thereby strengthening the local art context.

A third aspect of the North–South museum conundrum is related to loans. To illustrate this point I will use an example from JCAF pertaining to the artist Frida Kahlo. In October 2022, JCAF presented a three-women exhibition, Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities from the Global South. The process to secure a loan of an artwork by Frida Kahlo took four years. As curator of the exhibition I undertook extensive research and travelled to six museums in the US to explain and motivate for the unprecedented loan of a work by Kahlo to an institution in Johannesburg. This would be the first time that a work by Kahlo would be exhibited on the African continent, more especially alongside the Indian modernist Amrita Sher-Gil and the South African modernist Irma Stern. Five of the six museums declined to loan (the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Austin, Texas agreed to a loan), and further requests were denied, including by MOMA and the Centre Pompidou. It is understandable that a loan is not always possible, but regular “blockbuster” exhibitions by Kahlo occur in museums in the US, the UK and Europe amongst a network of closely affiliated museums that present themselves as global. They do this through the diversity of their exhibition programming and their collections, curating a mix of Western artists alongside Southern artists to present a globalised representation of themselves, similar to the art world in general. What becomes apparent, however, is that when it comes to North–South institutional relations, globalisation works only in one direction – toward the North.

To establish a more sustainable and truly globalised art world requires institutions (museums, foundations, biennales, NPOs, artist-run spaces, collections, art centres) to be established in the South. Their purpose is to promote Southern artists (alongside international artists); to develop the local art context; to educate local audiences; to produce local knowledge (curated exhibitions, texts, publications etc.) and to archive these activities for future generations. If institutions in the North are genuinely wanting to support a globalised view of the art world then it is incumbent upon them to change the existing modus operandi to a more equitable exchange which recognises that knowledge exists in the South.

“What becomes apparent, however, is that when it comes to North–South institutional relations, globalisation works only in one direction – toward the North.”

Recently there has been exponential growth in private- and government-supported museums in the South, particularly in China and the Middle East. Instead of following the traditional model of the Western museum being perpetuated in these regions, there is ample opportunity to redefine museum and institutional models in the South. Instead, several iconic architects have built “spectacular” architectural statements and select Western major museums have extended their “brands” and expertise to these regions at great cost, resulting in instant cultural manifestations. What is needed is an alternative model of museums and cultural institutions to be developed to counter the hegemonic influence of Western cultural imperialism toward a version that recognises the local conditions, thereby taking on a vernacular embodiment that fuses the local and global into new hybrid entities.

What could these new entities look like? There are several existing examples within the South that address concerns of local knowledge such as MASP in São Paulo, which uses the curatorial to address local and indigenous knowledge through their research, exhibitions and programmes. Similarly, the Zinsou Foundation in Benin has rethought the traditional museum model from an African perspective, while the Sharjah Art Foundation has developed an ambitious programme that intersects the local and global, and the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh has put forward a model that emphasises engagement over that of the white cube. Institutions in the South need to think differently and stop modelling themselves on the typical Western museum model, one that increasingly is predicated on consumerism, the decontextualisation of artworks and ultimately promotes Western ideas and motives.

At this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale led by Artistic Director Lesly Lokko, one of the video works by artist Ursula Biemann presented a project to develop a university (based on local Indigenous knowledge systems) in the Amazon. In the video, one of the local Inga people who is being interviewed, expresses his view of the proposed university. It is not a building or university campus located in the Amazon but instead, as he poignantly suggests, “the Amazon [itself] is the university”.9 This idea that knowledge stems from the local is intrinsic to the DNA of JCAF.

The site was converted into a museum-standard exhibition space for JCAF by StudioMAS Architects, preserving the modernist functionalism of the architecture while incorporating new, bespoke design elements. The architects’ intention was to conserve the original character of the building in such a way as to “touch the building lightly” by making sure all additions were subtly separated from the old and defined as new.

JCAF was founded as a philanthropic initiative whose mission is to foreground knowledge about and from the South. It functions with an epistemological framework that places research at the centre of its exhibitions and technology. It curates its exhibitions internally within the organisation according to a theme that runs for a period of three years. Our first theme, Female Identities in the Global South, focused exclusively on women artists, architects and academics. This established a pedagogic methodology linking ideas to research to practice as a feedback loop culminating in our primary research output, the JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South. JCAF is an institution that may be best described as “a museum as a thinking protocol”, a term coined by the Colombian educator and artist Beatriz Gonzalez10 who emphasised the relationship between a viewer and an artwork as a “great mystery”. This ethos is a value system that JCAF employs in our exhibitions, emphasising an encounter between a visitor and the artworks on display that might lead to what is best described as an “epiphany”. We do this by producing only one museum-quality exhibition per year. For each exhibition we have removed all wall texts and labels, replacing these with a three-fold methodology, incorporating (i) the viewer, who is encouraged to look and “see” the artworks as primarily visual rather than reading textually about the artworks; (ii) guides who are trained to encourage dialogue with viewers and to engage in discussion about specific artworks and the issue the exhibition presents; (iii) a digital app, for visitors who require a different experience, that works with beacon location technology to push contextual information about the exhibition and artworks to a visitor’s device, allowing for interactive engagement. Our visitor analytics indicate that our audience members spend, on average, more than an hour in each exhibition with much deeper levels of engagement.

“JCAF was founded as a philanthropic initiative whose mission is to foreground knowledge about and from the South. It functions with an epistemological framework that places research at the centre of its exhibitions and technology.”

JCAF launched in February 2020 with a Lecture from the Global South presented by Arjun Appadurai (included in this edition of the journal). Under the auspices of the School of the South, JCAF presents lectures related to our exhibitions by scholars in the South. All the content is available on the JCAF website and our interactive touchscreen. We developed a “digital universe”, establishing a user journey that includes online booking, our website, Instagram, virtual tours of all exhibitions, our interactive touchscreen and exhibition app. Here the emphasis is on digital technology supporting the art-viewing experience for visitors. Our visitors are personally met by JCAF staff when they come to visit the exhibitions, which facilitates a more bespoke experience with the longer-term aim of developing a “knowledge community” of visitors who will become more closely associated with JCAF, creating relationships and interactions that deepen over time through our various offerings. In developing the model of JCAF we have endeavoured to reflect on issues that are culturally and socially relevant, while maintaining the highest quality artistic programming as a critical space for ideas and debate. Our values promote a cosmopolitan view within the South, advocating for knowledge as an instrument for building and shaping society in an ethical and sustainable model that places art at the heart of all we do.


Clive Kellner is the Executive Director of the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF). He was Chief Curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG, 2004–2009), coordinator of the second Johannesburg Biennale (1997), co-founder of the pan African platform Camouflage and Editor in Chief of Coartnews (1999–2002). His curated exhibitions include Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South (JCAF, 2022); Liminal Identities in the Global South (JCAF, 2021); Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South (JCAF, 2020); Yinka Shonibare (Camouflage, 2001); and Videobrasil: Mostra Africana De Arte Contemporanea (2000). He also organised Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent (JAG, 2007).


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How to cite this article:
Clive Kellner (2024), "The Museum as a Thinking Protocol: The Formation of the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. Accessed 24 April 2024.